Jeremy Clyman Psy.D.

Reel Therapy

Mr. Sunshine: Narcissism? Not Exactly

Why Mr. Sunshine isn't sunny may surprise you

Posted Mar 06, 2011

Meet Ben Donavon. He is a self-involved manager of a second-rate San Diego sports arena. He is also the protagonist on ABC's recently-released "Mr. Sunshine." In the first episode Ben hits his 40th birthday and starts to exhibit mild signs of a mid-life crisis. Since the show revolves around his newfound process of introspection and self-improvement, much can be said about the complexities of psychological assessment.

Exhibit A: The most recent episode - Hostile Workplace - we learn more about Ben through a series of social hiccups.

The first social hiccup is subtle. Ben is approached by the arena mascot. Although the mascot asks for a raise (which is promptly denied) the heart of the communication take place on an emotional level. Money is not really what the mascot wants so much as a sense of appreciation. After making a few jokes about how a raise is SO not going to happen, Ben obliviously walks away. Although this is the last we see of the mascot, the stage is set. Something socially ineffective is going on.

The next problem quickly arises. The air conditioner is broken. The building is intolerably hot. When Ben requests help from the janitorial staff, the problem again involves issues of appreciation. Ben confuses each person's names and ultimately decides to call everyone, "Steve." In response, the staff feels all the more slighted and refuses to fix the air conditioning.

At this point the show begins to frame Ben's problem as a matter of social skills. The idea here is that Ben is creating interpersonal conflicts because he doesn't know how to engage with people in appropriate ways. He visits with his boss, Alice, who unintentionally engages in a little social skills training. She models appropriate behavior - "Ben, if you want people to like you, you have to do the basics: say hello, smile, learn their names, say thank you on occasion..." Throughout the episode she guides him toward implementing a social skills building agenda (learn their names, throw an ice cream party, etc.).

So Ben tries this on for size. He teaches himself the names of all of his employees. Then he bounds back into the janitorial staff room and gives an interpersonally-repairing speech. He references names with accuracy and gusto. Moreover, he makes steady eye contact, speaks in a warm, clear tone, demonstrates inviting body posture, frames communications in socially appropriate ways (i.e. ‘can I have everyone's attention, please...'), and even asks for things in an effective manner (i.e. he requests rather than demands that the staff fix the heat). His gestures, decisions and general frame of mind are consistent with a socially skillful individual.

Thus, Ben does not have a social skills problem. He's been incorrectly diagnosed by Alice and others. As eventually becomes clear, Ben's problem has more to do with empathy. Ben is not effectively taking the perspective of others and then using that understanding as a social guide. Let's review some of the key scenes to observe the empathy problem at work. The mascot walks away from Ben with his needs still unmet because Ben fails to exert enough focus on the conversation to read between the lines (something that is perfectly within his capabilities). And when Ben goes about the business of memorizing employee names by pairing initials with distinct physical attributes, he doesn't think through the fact that selecting exclusively negative criteria (i.e. Doug Miller...initials DM...Disgusting Moles) will be perceived as insulting and upsetting.

Now that Ben's problem has been more suitably reframed from a social skills issue to an empathy issue, the final task remains - identifying its source.

People can struggle to exhibit empathy, to take the perspective of others for all sorts of reasons. One common path toward empathy deficits is narcissism, and the show runs with this idea. During a later scene that involves an affinity circle Ben receives some social feedback and is labeled a narcissist. Alice calls him self-centered, and another colleague notes Ben's tendency to check his hair in the colleague's sun glasses. Plus, earlier in the episode, we can recall that Ben erroneously believed that others saw him as an "unbridled delight."

There's a degree of self-absorption and grandiosity emanating from Ben that indeed seems a lot like narcissism. This is often the easy answer. When someone who has the requisite social skills to effectively take the perspective of another and yet doesn't, we assume he just doesn't care.

But in the episode's final moments, an alternative explanation for Ben's social problems emerges. Ironically, this explanation is hardly ever cited and yet is much more likely to be the best-fit explanation - Ben is insecure. In the final scene Ben confesses his fears that getting to know someone is too difficult, that he won't be able to do it. He may be self-involved and, at times, that may be a problem but Ben's introspective journey has now spotlighted some intertwining insecurity and anxiety.

It's not that Ben cares so much about himself that he can't care about others; it's that he is worried he will fail at connecting. Thus, his encounters with others aren't marked by selfishness so much as avoidance. He wants to get in and out of social encounters before people see what he is afraid they'll see - his inadequacies (the outcome of his insecure self-talk).

A lesson from Mr. Sunshine is not just that people may be more complicated than they initially seem, but also that we should be careful to consider more sympathetic and common explanations (Ben ignored people because he was nervous) before jumping to more pathological conclusions (Ben ignored people because he was narcissistic).

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