Mad Men: "That's what the money's for!" How Mad Men captures workplace stress and emotion deprivation

This post is part of the Psychology in TV and Movies series of posts. I’ll be writing about the films and shows which capture interesting ideas and theories from the world of psychology. Today I look at workplace stress in Mad Men's 'The Suitcase'.

Background: Don and Peggy are up late at night working out an advertising pitch for Sampsonite suitcases. Peggy let’s Don know that she has missed her birthday dinner with her boyfriend and her family due to this project. She then let’s Don know that she is not happy with how he received the credit for her work on a prior project.

Don: You gave me 20 ideas and I picked out one of them that was a kernel that became that commercial.

Peggy: So, you remember.

Don: I do. It was something about a cowboy. Congratulations.

Peggy: No, it was something about a kid locked in a closet because his mother was making him wait for the floor to dry, which is basically the whole commercial.

Don: It's a kernel.

Peggy: Which you changed just enough so that it was yours.

Don: I changed it into a commercial. What, are we going to shoot him in the dark in the closet? That's the way it works. There are no credits on commercials.

Peggy: But you got the CLIO! (an international awards competition for the creative business)

Don: It's your job! I give you money, you give me ideas.

Peggy: And you never say thank you.

Don: That's what the money's for!

The Suitcase is probably the best episode of Mad Men (in my opinion)

The acting is superb, not only in this scene, but throughout the whole episode. Elizabeth Moss and Jon Hamm have moments that are so true to genuine human longing and frustration that I remember feeling aggrieved they did not win in their respective acting categories for that year’s Emmy Awards*. Creator and writer of the show Matthew Weiner, who also wrote the episode, remarked after its release that Peggy’s stance with Don is somewhat equivalent to experiences he had working under David Chase in the making of The Sopranos. Weiner here is referring to the heirarchy on The Sopranos where Chase was the creator and brains behind the show, while Weiner was a writer and producer

*Kyle Chandler won for his final season as Coach Taylor in Friday Night Lights, and in hindsight, that is also a great result.

The delicate act of obtaining credit and validation

It should be noted that Peggy is a remarkably complex character, and trying to comment on her feels like a the equivalent of novice art critic commenting on Jackson Pollock’s work. There is one aspect to her pain in this scene that struck me. Peggy here takes an act of courage and starts to stand up for herself with her mentor Don. Many people would relate to Penny’s desire here - to not only get some credit from Don for her work , but also to be thanked and validated for the effort and extra mile she goes to in her work. Unfortunately, she seeks the validation silently for years up until this moment. But now that moment has come. She finally attempts to seek recognition from Don: unfortunately for her, Don's set of beliefs about the world mean that he is perhaps the last person to ever provide credit to anyone.

How our past may inform our behaviour when it comes to seeking credit

Some background is important here; Peggy appears to come from a family where she is somewhat invisible or seen as a nuisance. She has a cold, critical mother and a father who died from a heart attack when she was 12 years old. This perhaps makes her vulnerable to both seeking out people and workplaces who continue to see her in a way that is invisible. It appears that the brain loves to make choices which repeat that which it knows and is comfortable with**

**For more on this, there is a great article in The Conversation by Tasmin Saxton here

Peggy has always appeared to me to be a person who does not seek out the praise of others in response to her conscientiousness, because for her this would be indulgent and haughty. This is perhaps why she is such a good fit with Don, and why Don may at times feel like family to her. But like so many other people who have learnt that people aren’t likely going to give you the validation you desire, this eats away at her.

So when she finally calls Don out on his lack of care, praise, or gratitude and receives nothing in return*** she feels a deep rejection. She seeks the praise she desires the most from the person who is perhaps the least likely to provide it. Jeffrey Young, Janet Klosko (1994) and psychology minds before them have called this the paradox of those people who struggle with emotional deprivation from caregivers when growing up. In short, Young proposes that an upbringing of emotional neglect from our early years contributes to a worldview that makes it torturous to deal with the connection and isolation.

*** I have a theory that she gets nothing back from Don perhaps because Don himself was never modelled how to guide and respond to other people with these qualities. It could also occur because Don may feel so much inferiority about his upbringing and has to overcompensate so heavily for this in his standards for others and himself.

Young states “Our experience of emotional deprivation is... the sense that we are going to be lonely forever, that certain things are never going to be fulfilled for us, that we will never be heard, never be understood.”

“Emotional deprivation feels like something is missing. It is a feeling of emptiness. ... It is a feeling of aloneness, of nobody there. It is a sad and heavy sense of knowledge that we are destined to be alone… One may conclude that for the most part, I have not had someone who really listens to me, understands me, or is tuned into my true needs and feelings. Or that I have rarely had a strong person to give me sound advice or direction when I’m not sure what to do. It is a sign of the Emotional Deprivation schema to feel chronically disappointed in other people. People let us down. We are not speaking about a single case of disappointment, but rather a pattern of experiences over a long period of time.”

Jon Brion’s heartbreaking song Little Person probably sums up the hopes and fears of those struggling with an upbringing of emotion deprivation

How does one proceed if they see the world this way?

Many people struggle with this worldview to some degree, others moreso. A mindful self understanding can help at times: to recognise that you are in the struggle of validation seeking and feeling let down, and to hypothesise that it may be the past informing your present rather than a defect you have created within yourself. Ideally, people learn to nurture themselves through that pain rather than hope for others to recognise it in them. Through therapy, some even learn to express their needs and concerns to others with dignity in spite of fears that they will be unheard or seen as petty. Therapy can also help at other times to assist the process of seeking partners, friends or workplaces that end the cycle of invalidation.

So what happens to Peggy?

Luckily for Peggy, this belief and fear that others will ultimately let you down has some healing as the episode continues.

Later on, we see the vulnerability, rather than the aggression, of both characters emerge. Don has genuine regard for Peggy in a more serene moment. Don opens up to Peggy about his past and hints at the shame he carries from his upbringing. The episode is a beautiful piece of art about human connection and human vulnerability.

Quite interestingly, the comments in the youtube video above are divided as to who 'is right' in their argument. Is Don right to say that as a boss he doesn't need to provide gratitude, because the salary should be enough validation? Is Peggy right to say that she should be given some thanks for the award winning work she produces? Some commenters support Don's argument because they relate to him being a firm manager and ‘calling out’ the neediness Peggy feels. Some support Peggy because Don has a moment that is void of any empathy, and from the perspective of a worker, money as a reward is typically somewhat insufficient, depending on your salary. From my perspective, they are both simply channelling parts we probably all relate to at different points in our life. Our hopes that we can be seen, and our remoteness to empathy when suffering from burnout.

Patrick Sheehan is a clinical psychologist who works with adults and adolescents in his private practice located in Glebe, Sydney. If you want to enquire about an appointment, please head over to the contact page.

Share Tweet