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Mad Men, Season 5, Ep. 12 – “Commissions and Fees”

I.

One of the great things about the episode “Commissions and Fees” is that it explores the different ways toxic shame manifests itself in different people. Don Draper and Lane Pryce are two men who are very shame-driven, but they cope with the shame very differently. In past posts I’ve discussed the three faulty coping strategies of neurotics: overcompensation, surrender, and avoidance. Don Draper primarily uses overcompensation. Lane Pryce primarily uses surrender and avoidance. On the surface this makes them seem like polar opposites, but they’re more alike than they seem at first glance.

People often use the terms “shame” and “guilt” interchangeably, but they’re very different concepts. Guilt is a problem with something y0u’ve done, whereas shame is a problem with something you are. Guilt has to do with your actions, but shame has to do with your very identity. That’s why toxic shame is a much deeper problem than toxic guilt, since changing who you are is far more difficult than changing your actions.

John Bradshaw in the book Healing the Shame that Binds You elaborates on shame:

A person with internalized shame believes he is inherently flawed, inferior and defective, Such a feeling is so painful that defending scripts (or strategies) are developed to cover it up…

Toxically shamed people tend to become more and more stagnant as life goes on. They live in a guarded, secretive and defensive way. They try to be more than human (perfect and controlling) or less than human (losing interest in life or stagnated in some addictive behavior)…

The escape from self is accomplished by creating a false self. The false self is always more or less than human. The false self may be a perfectionist or a slob, a family Hero or a family Scapegoat. As the false self is formed, the authentic self goes into hiding. Years later the layers of defense and pretense are so intense that one loses all conscious awareness of who one really is…

It is crucial to see that the false self may be as polar opposite as a super-achieving perfectionist or an addict in an alley. Both are driven to cover up their deep sense of self-rupture, the hole in their soul. They may cover up in ways that look polar opposite, but each is still driven by neurotic shame. In fact, the most paradoxical aspect of neurotic shame is that it is the core motivator of the superachieved and the underachieved, the star and the scapegoat, the righteous and the wretched, the powerful and the pathetic.

Healthy levels of guilt are what we call a conscience. Healthy levels of shame are what we call humility. Both guilt and shame are bad when taken to toxic extremes, but of the two toxic shame is worse because with toxic guilt all you believe you have to do is change your actions. With toxic shame, the person believes he whole identity needs changing, which is far more difficult because many of us feel on some level that our identity is unchangeable.

When you are driven by shame, you tend to use your feelings, actions, and appearance as well as markers of external validation to define your identity. For example, let’s say you are a basketball player who has been a solid contributor all season long. In one of the big playoff games, you take a crucial shot and miss, and your team loses as a result. If you’re not shame-driven, you might say to yourself “I’m a good player who happened to screw up a shot.” If you are shame-driven, though, you would say to yourself, “I am a screw up.” You won’t just feel the shot was worthless, you’l believe you are worthless. If you were to make the crucial shot and your team won as a result, the same dynamics would be at play but in the opposite direction. If you were shame-driven, instead of saying to yourself “I’m a good player who happened to take an awesome shot,” you would say “I’m awesome! I’m the best ever!”

Similarly, if someone who isn’t shame-driven hits on a girl and gets rejected, he may tell himself “I’m a decent guy who  just happened to get rejected. Maybe I made a mistake in my approach. I feel bad.” A shame-driven person in the same scenario tells himself “I am a reject. I am a mistake. I am bad.”  If that shame-driven person succeeds, he tells himself “I’m awesome. I am loved. I am a player with tight game.”

Both Don Draper and Lane Pryce are shame-based people, with self-loathing issues and low self-esteem. However Don’s preferred coping mechanisms are overcompensation and avoidance. He’s a narcissist. He’s the shame-based person who chooses the more than human route. Lane’s preferred coping mechanisms are surrender and avoidance. He’s a codependent. He’s the shame-based person who chooses the less than human route.

Narcissists are better at hiding their self-loathing and low self-esteem, not just from others but from themselves. They have far more layers of defense mechanisms, and they wear them almost like an impenetrable armor made of perfectionism, grandiosity and self-delusion. They lack empathy, not only for others but for themselves. They will do whatever it takes, be it rationalization, suppression, or any other defense mechanism, to avoid accessing the negative emotions they feel toward themselves.

Codependents on the other hand, they wear their self-loathing and low self-esteem closer to the surface. They may sometimes  try to build character armors like the narcissist does, but they can’t maintain them as well and usually return to their less than human state because they can’t maintain it. They end up surrendering to those feelings again.

Again, shame-based people, like Bradshaw says, create false selves that are always oscillating between either more than human or less than human behavior. Even though Don is usually overcompensating and in more than human mode, we’ve seen him occasionally lapse into surrender mode. Take, for example, after his divorce from Betty when he went into a downward spiral of self-pity and self-flagellation, where he was even hiring prostitutes to debase and punch him. Also look at Lane, who let himself be a doormat and taken advantage of for so long, but at one point switched into overcompensation mode and beat Pete up in the conference room. This is a common theme with codependents. They constantly swallow their pride and push down their anger to the point that when they do finally express it it explodes in an over the top, inappropriate manner. The most important thing to note in both cases though is that with shame-based people there’s rarely a middle ground. When Don isn’t Mr. Perfect, he’s the other extreme of a scared, cowed child. And when Lane isn’t being self-sacrificing and meek, he’s going the opposite extreme of punching people and making bold passes at Joan.

II.

One of the topics that comes up in cultural studies is the concept of shame cultures and guilt cultures. The psychologist blogger Dr. Sanity gives a good summary of this concept in the article “Shame, The Arab Psyche, and Islam”, and it’s important to note that everything that applies to the shame culture and guilt culture also applies to the shame-based individual and guilt-based individual (emphasis added by me):

In thinking about how the concepts of guilt and shame apply in a culture, it is helpful to refer to a seminal work that was originally published by Benedict in 1946, where she discussed the collectivist culture of Japan during WWII and distinguished it from American culture. Japan had a “shame culture”, while the U.S. and most of the West subscribe to a “guilt culture”. Each type of culture has its own set of rules with regard to wrong-doing and they are determined by the beliefs of the individual and other people regarding guilt, and summarized in the two matrix tables below:

In both cultures there is no problem if both parties believe that the individual is NOT GUILTY. If both parties believe that the individual is GUILTY, again there is agreement and in that case the guilt is punished.

The difference in the two societies lies in the other two boxes in the matrix (in red).

In a guilt culture, when an individual believes he is NOT GUILTY, he will defend his innocence aggressively despite the fact that others believe he is guilty. In this case, the individual self is strong and able to maintain an independent judgement even if every other person is convinced of his guilt. The self is able to stand alone and fight for truth, secure in the knowledge that the individual is innocent…

In contrast, a typical shame culture (e.g., Japan as discussed by Benedict; or the present focus of this discussion: Arab/Islamic culture) what other people believe has a far more powerful impact on behavior than even what the individual believes. As noted by Gutman in his writings, the desire to preserve honor and avoid shame to the exclusion of all else is one of the primary foundations of the culture. This desire has the side-effect of giving the individual carte blanche to engage in wrong-doing as long as no-one knows about it, or knows he is involved.

When seeing Don confront Lane about the check, you can see the dynamics Dr. Sanity describes above coming into play. Observe Lane’s various rationalizations and excuses: “How did you find out? [He's worried about how it got out and to what extent].” “It was a [only] a 13-day loan. [No one was going to find out, so it was no problem]” “Why suffer the humiliation for a 13 day loan? [saving face is more important than not committing the bad deed].” “I can’t go back to England, not like this. [Again, main concern is saving face]” “What will I tell my wife? What will I tell my son?” He could have probably gotten the loan legitimately if he just asked, but his toxic shame wouldn’t allow him to do so.

Now let’s look at all the hypocrisies Don, as a fellow shame-based person, engages in during this conversation with Lane. Like Lane, Don is a person that thinks doing bad things is okay so long as no one finds out. For proof, look at his long string of affairs and his ongoing identity theft. He threatens to sic professionals on Lane if he doesn’t fess up as to misdeed, but when the Defense Department was going to do a professional background check on him a few seasons back he was scared stiff. Every time he’s been discovered to be living a false identity, with Cooper, with the original Mrs. Draper, with Betty, with Faye, with Megan, he’s always been granted a reprieve. He brings up that Lane forged his signature as an unforgivable offense, but the irony is that the very signature Lane is accused of forging is itself a forgery. Forging the signature of Don Draper is a crime Dick Whitman commits almost every day of his life. ”Can you imagine what would happen if the client found out?” Gee Don, can you imagine what would happen if the client found out you’re a man who stole a dead war hero’s identity right off his freshly killed corpse and secretly lived a life under his name for over 15 years? ”I’ve started over a lot, Lane. This is the worst part.” Yes Don, but you’ve started over by not facing your shame, by not going home. You’re advising Lane to go back home and start over in his hometown and under his own name and with his family, but when you started over, you did it using the hobo code. You used a new name, a new identity, a new family, and a new place. And the moment you were faced with an element of your old home life, you drove it away, permanently.

I don’t think Don is deliberately being hypocritical, I think he’s just being a narcissist. Narcissists aren’t aware of their double standards or the fact that they’re not extending to others the same benefits they’ve been extended in life. It’s just an unfortunate, often unintentional side effect of their faulty empathy wiring.

By the way, note that when Lane was confronted, his reactions went through the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and the Acceptance.

III.

After being faced with Lane’s pathetic less than human display, Don seems troubled. Is it genuine empathy? Perhaps. But also, it could be that as a shame-based person, Don is uncomfortable with having to witness Lane’s display of vulnerability, because it reminds him of disowned parts of himself that occasionally come to the surface. He hates uncomfortable feelings that force him to confront his self-loathing head-on. His marriage to Megan, which was in its honeymoon period for most of this season, kept him from accessing his self-loathing for most of the season. Because he couldn’t feel his self-loathing as acutely, he was slacking off at work.

Don Draper, advertising monster, was a false, idealized self fueled by overcompensation against toxic shame, and without emotional contact to that toxic shame and its accompanying self-hatred, the overcompensation temporarily disappeared, along with his ambition.  But the honeymoon period has gradually been wearing off, so his self-loathing has been gradually returning, and the overcompensation gradually started returning with it (thus, the pep talk in the conference room). However this unexpected encounter with Lane brought those uncomfortable self-loathing feelings crashing back into his emotional awareness full force, so he copes with this overwhelming emotional onslaught  the best way he knows how: repression, overcompensation and perfectionism.

That’s why he immediately goes to Roger’s office with grandiose plans. Grandiosity is the preferred defense mechanism of the narcissist. That’s why he suddenly announces he doesn’t want Jaguar, he wants Chevy. That’s why he doesn’t want Mohawk, he wants American. That’s why he doesn’t want Dunlop, he wants Firestone. That’s why he’s so willing to fire Ken if need be to get that win. That’s why he goes into the Dow meeting like a shark that just tasted blood. He needs to kill the shame-related sensations his encounter with Lane reawakened in him. He’s trying to revive his old ally the false self back to full strength to help him beat back the toxic shame bogeyman knocking at the door of his conscious mind.

Note the things Don says:

Even though success is a reality, it’s effects are temporary. You get hungry even though you’ve just eaten…81% isn’t enough. You’re happy with 50%? You’re on top and you don’t have enough. You’re happy because you’re successful, for now. But what is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness. I won’t settle for fifty percent of anything. I want one hundred percent. You’re happy with your agency? You’re not happy with anything. You don’t want most of it, you want all of it. And I won’t stop until you get all of it.

This narcissistic, perfectionist language is on the surface a pep for Dow, but in reality it’s more a pep talk for his false, idealized self. And I’m not saying he’s doing all this consciously. I don’t think he’s telling himself “Man, that self-hatred is really welling up in me after that talk with Lane. Maybe I should overcompensate and get a big win and build up my false self again.” He’s too emotionally retarded and incapable of deep introspection for that. I think it’s just a knee-jerk response, a survival instinct for his ego that bypasses all rational reasoning.

IV.

I think in this episode especially, we see the Jaguar car as a metaphor for a shame-based person as well. All season long, we have Jaguar described to us as a fundamentally defective product. It’s not an generally good product that just happens to do a few minor things badly. It’s a flawed product to its core. It’s whole identity to those on the inside is defectiveness and unreliability. It has to rely on a false, idealized image to sell it, just like a shame-based person relies on a false self. Instead of trying to remedy the core problems, everyone involved focuses on downplaying and hiding flaws and dazzling people with its appearance and the ways it can get you external validation from others. A shame-based person’s false, idealized self is a high-maintenance construct that has to be kept operating using a huge, complicated toolbox of defense mechanisms to keep it going. Similarly, in the previous episode Don Draper mentions to Megan that Jaguar is just a flashy car that’s all front and comes with a giant toolbox just to keep it running.

That’s why I think the moment Lane was faced with that Jaguar waiting for him, this ultimate metaphor for a shame-based persona staring him in the face, was the moment he lost it and decided right then to kill himself. I also think that’s what why choosing to kill himself in the car was very fitting. And the fact the car, just like a typical shame-based false self, let him down in a crucial moment was an excellent touch.

A commenter over at Hitfix.com made some good observations about the psychology of suicide and how it applied to Lane’s actions, which I link to over here. I won’t elaborate on it here or quote it at length, but it’s worth reading.

V.

Why are some shame-based people like Don able to overcompensate against their toxic shame and become narcissists, while others surrender to it and become codependents? I think part of it has to do with inherited temperament, but a big part has to also do with upbringing.

Don was mistreated by his father Archie, who beat the hell out of him and constantly reminded him he was the son of a whore. But Archie died when he was 10, and his stepmother remarried to “Uncle Mack,” who Don said was nice to him. So Don had it bad, but he didn’t have it completely bad for his whole life, or even a third of it. He met people like the hobo, who taught him the “hobo code.” He had a father figure who was nice to him. He managed to break free and reinvent himself with no ties to remind him of home, with a new name and a new city. He had the first Mrs. Draper in his corner as a confidante who supported him.

Lane, however, was oppressed from birth by his father. They appear very psychologically enmeshed, and Lane is still under his thumb. Lane never could totally reinvent himself, because wherever he was there were reminders of home. I think that’s why he so desperately wanted to reinvent himself as an American, because anything that reminded him of Britain reminded him of his oppressed upbringing. But it never worked. His wife oppressed him in her own way and always tried to remind him of England. His father still kept a tight psychological hold over him, bossed him around, and occasionally even still bashed him with a cane. He could never get the clean break from the past like Don did, and he never got a break from the oppressive abuse the way Don was able to after 10 years old. His whole life he never had a period where he wasn’t forced to ask someone for permission whenever he wanted to do something for himself, whether it was his father, his wife, or his old bosses. Meanwhile Don gained independence and stopped having to ask permission for things the moment he left the army.

The reason Lane’s main coping mechanism was surrender and not overcompensation was due to a psychological phenomenon called Learned Helplessness:

One thing which often spares people from feelings of depression or helplessness is a sense of control over their immediate or long term circumstances. A person should be able to walk away from an abusive relationship, for example, or voluntarily quit a stressful job. A psychological condition known as learned helplessness, however, can cause a person to feel completely powerless to change his or her circumstances for the better. The result of learned helplessness is often severe depression and extremely low self-esteem.

Learned helplessness can be seen as a coping mechanism some people employ in order to survive difficult or abusive circumstances. An abused child or spouse may eventually learn to remain passive and compliant at the hands of his or her abuser, since efforts to fight back or escape appear futile. Even if an opportunity to report or escape the abuse arises, many victims of long-term abuse choose to remain in the relationship because of learned helplessness.

Another common example of learned helplessness can be observed in school classrooms. Individual students are free to get up from their seats at any time to use the restroom, or even to leave the building. However, most students quickly learn that such actions result in swift and definitive punishment, so they eventually learn to remain in place during class. This form of learned helplessness helps instructors to maintain control over a large group of students, and students do eventually regain a sense of control over their own circumstances…

One famous experiment which examined the phenomenon of learned helplessness involved three sets of dogs. One set of dogs were placed in regular harnesses and became the control group. The second set of dogs were fitted with shock collars and placed in boxes with a foot-operated switch. These dogs could turn off the painful shocks by pressing the switch at any time. The third set of dogs were tethered to the second set with the shock collars, but their foot switches were rendered useless by the experimenters. They had no control over the duration or intensity of the electric shocks.

The results of the experiment demonstrated that the third group of dogs eventually stopped pressing the ineffective foot switches and became very passive and depressed. For those dogs, the painful shocks became an inescapable part of their existence, with no possible way to control or escape the situation. During a second experiment in which the dogs could end the shocks by jumping over a low barrier, the dogs from the third group would not even attempt to jump. This passivity and loss of self-worth is the direct result of learned helplessness, and many people who suffer from clinical depression require extensive therapy to recover from its effects.

Think of how Lane dropped to the ground the moment his Dad hit him with the cane. He just dropped to the ground and offered no resistance, just like the dogs in the third group of the experiment.

If Archie lived and played a role all throughout Don’s life, he would probably have turned out very differently. Through learned helplessness, he may never have even mustered up the nerve to run away to the army. After all, even the 10 short years Don spent with Archie can be seen to have had their effects on Don. The few times we ever see him cowed by others, it’s usually when a father figure type exerts some pressure on him, like when Bert Cooper strongarmed him into signing the employment contract or when Conrad Hilton had him jumping through hoops for his approval. Domineering father figures are the closest thing we’ve seen to a consistent weakness for Don in the whole series.

Recommended Reading:

Healing the Shame that Binds You by John Bradshaw

4 Responses to “Mad Men, Season 5, Ep. 12 – “Commissions and Fees””


  1. How does someone get out of this healthily? I have a mate who I used to be friends with, until he went through a stage if depression. He came out of it with very low self esteem (no game, very guarded, and incredibly emotionally skeptical of peoples actions and intentions). To compensate, he projected himself as morally superior to people and turned into (to put it blatantly) a self righteous dick. Is there anything I could do or say in a situation like this, is pointing it out bluntly going to help or just push him further into denial?


  2. “Because he couldn’t feel his self-loathing as acutely, he was slacking off at work.”

    I touched on this back in the reader letter series. Self-loathing can be a powerful motivation to accomplish things. Many of those things will be societally approved things like making a bunch of money. Many of the people I find working in careers that are not intrinsically satisfying but highly compensating fall into this pattern. Their self loathing motivates them to make it big and push through the drudgery, drudgery most healthy people wouldn’t bother with.

    We see this with Don. He says he, “doesn’t want to put up with the bullshit and cynicism of SDCP anymore.” And when he first drives the Jaguar he says, “it did nothing for me.” Joan comments, “that’s because your happy.” But soon after things start to turn south with Megan, and the happiness starts to unravel, and now he’s psyched about the Jaguar account.


  3. Lee: Think of it like a drug addict, which is another type of shame-based person. In a way, people who narcissistically overcompensate are addicts, but for narcissistic supply rather than drugs.

    As with any addict, you sometimes have to do interventions. If you know anything about interventions, they can be a real crapshoot. Many times they spectacularly backfire. I’m not an expert in why some types of interventions work and others don’t, but I do think that what’s key is making the person realize that what they lose in the long run by engaging in their faulty behavior far outweighs any short-term benefits they perceive themselves to be getting. Some people can realize this easier than others. You can just sit them down, talk to them a bit with some good advice, and they can see that what they stand to lose with their shitty behavior far outweighs what they hope to gain. Others, though, can’t see it that way. The short term ego boost they get from their shitty behavior is their whole world, especially if they feel like they will collapse and fall into depression or emotional hell without it. Many people feel like without acting like an egotistical dick, they’re only choice is to be a depressed loser. It’s that more than human/less than human shame dichotomy I discuss in the article. For people that invested in their coping mechanisms, the only thing that can work with them much of the time is hitting rockbottom.

    There is a concept in psychology called ego syntonic and ego dystonic. Ego syntonic means that the behavior is fulfilling the needs of one’s ego. Ego dystonic means that the behavior is distressing to one’s ego. For example, I knew a narcissistic bitch for whom her behavior was totally ego-syntonic. She was a shrew, a bitch, a harpy, she was hypersensitive, she was manipulative, she was awful, but in her mind she saw it as “I have boundaries, I don’t take crap from people trying to put one over on me, I’m a fighter, I have self-respect, other people are just jealous…” She reframed all her bad behavior in ego-soothing, self-aggrandizing ways. A person who views her behavior as ego-dystonic is someone for whom the bad behavior causes distress. For example if this same girl woke up one day and realized “Thanks to my behavior I’ve lost every good man I’ve ever had, I’ve been fired from multiple jobs, I can’t hold down steady work. The only friends I can keep are long-term friends who are long distance that I barely have to interact with or new, nearby friends I interact with regularly who but never go beyond acquaintance level with, but I can’t seem to maintain long-term intimate friendships with people I have to interact with daily. Those always seem to fall apart. I’m sick of living like this.” At this point she can no longer view her behavior in a self-flattering light.

    The more ego-syntonic someone views their bad behavior, the more useless a blunt intervention will be. The person needs to recognize their shame issues and be willing to deal with them head on, without choosing to surrender to them or overcompensate against them, and that doesn’t usually happen until the person is shocked out of viewing the problem in an ego-syntonic way, which is what most interventions aim to do.


  4. Thanks, I’ll wait and see if it gets any worse in this case.