A psychologist from Northwestern University, Dan P. McAdams, has written a book called ‘The Strange Case of Donald J. Trump: A Psychological Reckoning’, which was reviewed by the university’s website. McAdams is an advocate of what he calls a “narrative approach to studying human lives,” so the book looks at Trump from the perspective of the stories Trump tells about himself. (Disclaimer: I have not read the book, only the review.)
While I agree with some of the concepts in McAdams’ theories about narrative psychology, this approach misses the deeper emotional reason for the behavior of people like Trump. By failing to understand the role of low self-worth and poor shame tolerance, McAdams focuses merely on superficial aspects in Trump’s personality and functioning. As I have written previously, the problem with these superficial approaches is that, unlike the concepts that I propose in Self-Acceptance Psychology, they do not offer understanding that provides guidance on how to treat people like Trump.
I agree that a “life story provides a moral frame of reference because it grounds your experiences in basic values and beliefs,” as this review states. However, morals and values come from prosocial emotions, most notably shame and guilt. When we feel embarrassed about a behavior we’ve engaged in, most of us feel guilt, which signals to us that we are behaving in ways that are not in alignment with our morals. This experience should signal us to change our choices in behavior to relieve the guilt.
Shame and guilt were emotions honed by evolution to ensure that we behaved in ways that were acceptable to our tribe. This helped us avoid being cast out of the tribe either physically or socially. People like Trump who were never held accountable did not learn how to manage experiences of unworthiness, failure or shame in healthy ways, such as through responsibility, accepting faults, asking for forgiveness, and then engaging in self-compassion.
So when McAdams asserts that Trump has no inner story because he is an “episodic man” who sees life as a series of battles to be won, this misses the point. Trump has “no potential for growth” because he is “compulsively in the present.” But why is he compulsively in the present? Because he fears looking backward and reflecting on his mistakes and failures. This would trigger too much shame and he lacks the psychological skill of self-compassion to manage this emotional threat. So he remains highly focused on the present moment to avoid narcissistic wounding. Certainly this inability to be self-aware and introspective causes Trump to be a very shallow human, lacking emotional maturity and meaning in his life.
McAdams’ research focuses on stories of redemption, or overcoming suffering or adversity. He finds that people who can engage with themselves on this theme have better mental health and are happier. If we consider this from the perspective of prosocial emotions and morals, we can again see that someone who fears engaging in self-reflection for fear of learning about their inadequacies is going to be fundamentally unable to recognize that they have failed or struggled. To offer oneself grace and atonement for failures requires that one first honor those failures as having occurred. People like Trump are so frightened of the experience of shame that they divert from addressing or acknowledging their inadequacies, leaving them intrinsically unable to learn from their mistakes. Sadly, this also leaves them unable to grow into fully functioning, psychologically stable adults with healthy relationships with themself or others.
Trump is hollow, as McAdams writes, because he lacks an ability to process fundamental emotional experiences of both the depth of suffering and the grace of self-forgiveness.
Until we as psychologists and society recognize and fully address the role of this tricky emotion of shame, we will be unable to offer interventions that truly offer solutions. Mindful Self-compassion (Neff and Germer) and Compassion-Focused Therapy (Gilbert) interventions offer very direct, research-supported ways clinicians can address feelings of unworthiness that often lead to personality disorders, anxiety, depression and other “mental disorders.”