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  • Writer's pictureQuique Autrey

Don Draper on The Couch: The Mad Man in Us All

Updated: Aug 30, 2022

A white man sits on a chair with legs crossed and smoking a cigarette

Mad Men is one of my favorite television shows of all time. You can watch the series at two levels. The first level is the surface beauty of the show. It's a 1960s period drama with an engaging plot, superb writing, and a breathtaking set (with all the wonderful cars and three piece suits your heart desires). I've watched the series four times, more than any other television program. I have found the more I watch it, the more the second level of the show peers through.

The second level of Mad Men is a deep psychological and existential exploration of the human condition. The show invites one to wrestle with profound issues that I believe most men struggle with. The scope of this blog entry does not allow me to address the myriad realities Mad Men introduces to the audience. For the sake of my target audience, I'll explore some of the psychological and existential issues raised by the main character, Don Draper.

If you're interested in a deep analysis of the show, I recommend Dr. Stephanie Newman's, Mad Men on The Couch: Analyzing the Minds of the Men and Women of the Hit TV Show. Dr. Newman is a psychoanalytic psychologist in New York. In the next few months I hope to discuss the book with her on my podcast, Therapy For Guys.

Who Is Don Draper? Who Are You?

White man in brown suit and brown fedora looks into the camera
Frank Ockenfels / Today

If we stick to the surface level, Don is a tall, handsome ad executive in Manhattan. Don is a creative genius and a financial success. He is a father and a husband. He is a boss, a friend and a son. If we descend into the deeper layer of the show, we come to see that Don is living a lie. As Dr. James Godley mentioned in an episode of Therapy For Guys, Don is the archetypal imposter. Don cannot remain faithful to his partner. His secret affairs are a dominant feature of the entire series. The deeper lie is that Don is not really Don Draper. His real name is Dick Whitman.

Don steals the identity of a fellow solider after a war accident. We come to discover that Don is a son of a prostitute who dies at childbirth. His father is emotionally absent and dies when Don is 10 years old. Don is then taken in by his step-mother and her new man "Uncle" Mack. They move into a brothel where Don spends the remainder of his adolescence.

There is a steady decline for Don across the 7 seasons of the show. His infidelities catch up to him in Season 2. His wife, Betty, eventually discovers his indiscretions and this leads to a divorce in season 3. In season 4, Don appears rudderless. He turns to call girls and suffers from creative stagnation. In season 5, he marries his beautiful secretary and tries to find his compass. He seems to have turned a corner until he falls into the same old patterns in season 6. In the final season, Don ends up in California. Some see it as a spiritual path that leads to his enlightenment. Others interpret it as a descent into existential hell with a final return to the god of capitalism exemplified in the Coca-Cola commercial.

Who is Don Draper? It's not very clear, not even to himself. I would bet most of us would struggle to answer the same question in any definitive sense. I think there are important ways in which we men are very similar to Don. We may not be as handsome or successful or even struggle with the same vices. But many of us have demons that we have not dealt with. Don Draper is the icon of modern masculinity in the sense that we, like him, have not adequately brought our unconscious mind into conscious awareness.

Don's (and Our) Resistance To The Couch

man sits on a bar and looks in a state of distress
Justina Mintz/AMC

Unlike Tony Soprano, Don never sits on the therapeutic couch. In fact, he is vocal about his distrust and disdain for mental health professionals. Don is haunted by his past. His way of dealing with it is to keep it locked up through denial and distraction. For a man that gets so close to the naked bodies of beautiful women, he remains ostracized by his pain and incapable of establishing an intimate connection with anyone.

While Don may be a caricature of masculinity, it is not far off from the existential reality of men I work with. Like Don, many men today are capable of great financial success. What most of us struggle with is understanding our emotional world and how that impacts our relationships. Like Don, men are often governed by an unconscious reality that has not been brought into conscious light.

A big part of our resistance to the couch stems from our exposure to versions of masculinity that discourage vulnerability and encourage armored displays of "strength". As men we are taught that we are not supposed to have big, difficult emotions. And if we somehow do, we sure as hell better not talk about them! Men are often mortified at the prospect of speaking to a therapist about their problems.

We Act Out What We Don't Talk About

White man and woman stand next to each other in an elevator
Jordin Althius/AMC

If we're not allowed to have an inner life, we can't help but act out some of these emotional realities in our external relationships. Don struggles with this across the arc of Mad Men. He turns to alcohol, illicit sex, and strategies of disconnection to cope with the cauldron bubbling beneath the surface. Carl Jung once said that, 'until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate."

Another way of saying this is that your unidentified and unprocessed emotional baggage will control your life. Don Draper may have taken things to the extreme, but I think most of us can identify with some of his patterns:

  • Sex: This is a big one for guys. A lot of men try to work out their emotional turmoil through sexual activity. Sometimes we are like Don and venture out of a relationship into an affair. Chasing a sexual other can be a means of filling up our existential void. Addiction to pornography or misogynist attitudes can fall into this category as well. I recommend reading Michael Bader's Male Sexuality: Why Women Don't Understand It- And Men Don't Either. Bader explains how men's sexual patterns are often a response to deeper psychological wounds.

  • Alcohol: It's amazing how much alcohol is consumed throughout the 7 seasons of Mad Men! Don't get me wrong. I'm a big fan of enjoying alcohol. You can listen to my episode with Aaron Inkrott, the brewmaster at Saint Arnold Brewery. There we explore the many benefits of consuming alcohol. There is, however, an important distinction between consuming alcohol and being consumed by it. Don and so many of the men on the show use alcohol as a means of muting their psychological distress. Their consumption of alcohol goes beyond taking the edge off of things. It becomes a means of drowning their sorrow and avoiding their existential situation. This is an all too common pattern for many men today.

  • Disappearance: In a previous blog on men and trauma, I highlighted our tendency to run away from conflict. Time and time again, Don avoids the most difficult situations. When his half-brother Adam finds him and wants to reconnect, Don throws money at the situation, avoiding any significant contact. In both of his marriages, Don flees from the complexity of emotional intimacy, turning instead to the easy connection of a fresh affair. You may not disappear into the arms of a forbidden lover. That doesn't mean you haven't fallen into the same pattern as Don. How many men sneak away from their wife and kids, choosing instead to engage work or a hobby? We tend to escape the situations and relationships that call us into vulnerability and emotional intimacy.

Imagining Don on the Couch, Or The Benefits of Therapy

A white man in a cream waistcoat and dark jeans sits on a dark blue couch

Connecting The Dots

In season 6, you begin to understand how Don’s obsession with extramarital sex is linked to his adolescence in a brothel. At one level, Don is very away of the details of his past. At another level, Don is oblivious to the internal dynamics that govern his life. I don’t think he fully grasps how the death of his mother, his absent father, and his traumatic exposure to sexuality at a vulnerable age really did a number on his psyche.

Like Don, men usually have not connected the dots from their childhood and adolescence to their present, problematic behaviors. One of the greatest benefits of therapy is beginning to understand how rage, unfaithfulness, avoidance and so many other destructive patterns stem from early experiences.

Learning New Patterns

I fantasize about Don sitting on my couch sometimes. I wonder how things would be different for him if he were able to face the difficult emotions, instead of drinking or fucking them away. I imagine a version of Don that turns to Betty for support when he’s feeling down or insecure. I think about Don opening up to Megan when he’s feeling defeated, rather than chasing Sylvia (or any of the other 18 women).

Therapy is a process of unlearning patterns of behavior that haven’t served you and experimenting with those that will. Psychologist Louis Cozolino has a great book on the reasons therapy work. The heart of Cozolino's argument is that therapists are helping clients bring their unconscious patterns into conscious awareness, in the context of a non-judgemental, supportive relationship. He writes

“In listening to our clients, we reflexively analyze their narratives for inaccurate, destructive, and missing elements. We then attempt to edit their narratives in a manner we feel would better support their adaptation and wellbeing.”

Therapy could help Don understand how his patterns are connected to early traumas, it could help him reframe his life narrative in a hopeful light, and it could offer the relational affirmation and reinforcement that is necessary for behavioral change. Therapy can provide all of this for you too!

Finding Meaning in Life

You would think that Don would be happy with his corner office, shiny cars and beautiful women. The truth is that Don is miserable. The opening credits of the show, unchanged throughout the 7 seasons, symbolizes Don's existential situation. He is falling into the abyss of loneliness and disconnection. Relational Cultural-Theory teaches that disconnection is the deepest form of suffering. Don is disconnected from himself and others. With all his wealth, sex and power, he is actually poor, emotionally starved and disempowered.

Like Don, many of us struggle with what Dr. Stephen Bergmen calls male relational dread. This refers to the intense panic that ensues when a man is invited into relational intimacy and vulnerability. This dread is overpowering and results in many of the defensive patterns explored above. If vulnerable connection with others results in meaning and empowerment, most men live lives of meaninglessness and disempowerment.

Therapy can be beneficial in helping men discover the meaning and empowerment they've always longed for but rarely experience. It can do so by helping men to relate in vulnerable, authentic ways. Through building a relationship with the therapist, deconstructing unhealthy relational images and learning new relational patterns, men can reconnect with the important people in their life. It's not sex, alcohol or money that make a man happy. It's learning to thrive in mutual, growth-fostering relationships that lead to zest and empowerment. Healthy relationships are one important place men can find meaning in life.

White man in blue suit stands in front of white desk

Therapy For Men Can Help

Therapy for Men can help you as a guy understand your unhealthy patterns and learn how develop healthy patterns. One of the ways to help you bring your unconscious mind into conscious awareness is to sign up for therapy for men. A male therapist is someone you can trust and develop a relationship with.

A male therapist can also work with you to develop goals and healthy coping strategies. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy(CBT) is one of the most effective ways to work with men. CBT is a short-term, problem focused approach. CBT is effective at treating a variety of problems.

Start Your Therapy For Men Journey with Quique Autrey: Katy, Tx & Houston

You do not have to do this alone. If you don't know what to do next, please contact me and set up your first appointment. I am here to help. I can work with you to bring healing and hope. I'm just off of I-10 and 99. I am centrally located for those living in Katy and Houston. To start your therapy for men, follow these simple steps: 1. Contact Katy Teen & Family Counseling. 2. Schedule your first appointment with Quique Autrey. 3. Begin your therapy for men journey and start healing. You are not defined by your struggles. I want you to realize your true worth and potential. I want you to embrace a bright future. Imagine what life will look like for you free of struggles.​ The mission at Katy Teen & Family Counseling is to restore hope, happiness, and connected family relationships. I look forward to starting this process of hope and healing with you!

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