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Mad Men: Don Draper on the Couch

A relational approach to psychological trauma

By Max Belkin, Ph.D.

Many persistent difficulties with living a full, meaningful life stem from the aftermath of psychological trauma. Relational psychoanalysis fosters the emergence of fresh interpersonal strategies for managing the destabilizing effects of abuse and other traumatic experiences. Assisting a survivor reclaim the capacity to hope and to love requires the psychotherapist bear witness to the patient’s traumatic past, while at the same time nurturing the patient’s new emotional bonds in the present.

I would like to use the popular TV drama “Mad Men” as an example of what might have ensued if the protagonist had sought psychoanalytic treatment.

The double entendre of “Mad Men” points to the dire psychological predicament of the show’s protagonist, Don Draper. While the enigmatic, dapper, and charismatic Draper of season one seduces the audience with his self-confidence and charm, by the end of the sixth season, his philandering appears as compulsive as his smoking and drinking seem addictive and excessive.

Don is also losing his creative mojo. Don’s extraordinary success in advertising was due to his uncanny ability to understand and appeal to the desires and fantasies of the average Joe. However, his traumatic past and the accompanying fear, shame, and guilt haunt him, rendering him unable to tap into the experience of the “common American.” As a result, his copy writing becomes lifeless, flat, and occasionally morbid.

In the meantime, Don’s personal relationships turn into a wasteland. He betrays or alienates every woman who loves and cares for him, and his relationships with his children and friends are shallow and superficial.

No longer able to tolerate his erratic behavior, Don’s advertising agency forces him to take an indefinite leave of absence, while his second wife threatens to leave him. Let's imagine that Don's colleagues and family decide to give him one last chance if he agrees to undergo psychoanalysis.

Although the show’s creator, Matt Weiner, in a recent Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross attributed Don’s escalating womanizing to his existential and mid-life issues, as his psychoanalyst I might view his impulsive and self-destructive actions as linked to his struggle with the legacy of psychological trauma.

Born to a prostitute who died within hours of his birth, Don Draper grew up on a farm, where he witnessed the gruesome accident that killed his father. Later, his emotionally and physically abusive stepmother and her second husband, who referred to Don as “a whore’s son” and used to “beat the shit out of him,” raised the orphaned Don.

Don is frequently haunted by the flashbacks of his childhood abuse, as well as terrifying memories of his service in the Korean War. Like other survivors of trauma, he can neither forget nor articulate these horrible experiences.

As his therapist, I would caution Don that reliving painful past experiences in therapy can often feel retraumatizating and anxiety provoking. I would also alert him to the likelihood that accessing his memories of terror, loss, and guilt will be a deeply painful experience. Therefore, comforting Don and helping him develop reliable self-soothing strategies would be central to our work together.

Without a doubt, Don would make a very difficult patient. Developing a genuine, honest, and caring relationship with Don would be a challenge. As his therapist I might sometimes feel charmed and intrigued, while at other times, devalued and scorned.

Though flashbacks of childhood abuse and war-related trauma frequently flood Don, he works hard to keep his emotional needs and vulnerabilities under wraps. Whenever his shame-colored feelings threaten to break through into awareness, he tries to ignore or push them away.

However, instead of disappearing, Don's feelings of rejection, vulnerability, and insecurity manifest in his romantic shenanigans. While Don refuses to consciously claim these emotional experiences as his own, his selfish, inconsiderate behavior often leaves his wife and mistresses feeling insecure, vulnerable, and rejected—he treats others the way he, himself, has been treated.

I would expect Don to treat me with the same coldness and indifference he expresses towards others. Our interactions would likely stir up fears of inadequacy and shame within me. I would use these feelings to explore with Don the ways in which he engages with people. Our work together would aim to help Don accept and tolerate his own guilt and shame, rather than evoke these feelings in those around him.

Slowly, we would establish a trusting relationship in which all Don’s emotions--fear, rage, shame, humiliation, dependence, longing, and love--are welcome. We would attempt to make new meaning of his traumatic past, while at the same time fostering his capacity for emotional intimacy with other people, including me.

As Don’s therapist, I would strive to touch him emotionally by sharing my experience of being with him in spontaneous, authentic, and creative ways. For example, I would freely disclose my sadness and heartbreak about his lonely and abusive childhood. At the same time, I would help Don to understand his shame and guilt as linked to this early experience.

Optimally, Don would begin to view his anxiety about emotional intimacy as a consequence of childhood betrayal and abandonment; as desperate, ultimately self-defeating, attempts to protect him from getting emotionally hurt. Our collaboration would assist Don in giving voice to his terror and self-hatred, on one hand, as well as to his hope, on the other. As I bear witness to Don's past and present emotional pain, a fuller, more deeply felt trust in human relatedness would gradually re-emerge.

Max Belkin, Ph.D. is a Relational psychoanalyst and psychologist. He is a graduate of the William Alanson White Institute. He teaches graduate courses in couples counseling and individual psychotherapy at NYU. He works with individuals and couples in his private offices in Greenwich Village, New York City, and in Atlantic Highlands, NJ.

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