Donald Trump: the psychological impact of toxic masculinity and how healthy, happy men diversify

I want to begin this piece by sharing how challenging it can be for me to understand the underpinnings of American masculinity as an American woman of color.  Even after 10 years of experience as a clinical psychologist, coach and professor I still feel stumped sometimes in helping men navigate their career development and improve their interpersonal relationships, particularly as it relates to their masculine identity.  I have a deep sense of curiosity and motivation to understand the perspectives of all my clientele. Public figures can also also stir my intellectual curiosity, especially when similar issues are cropping up among those I’m helping in my practice.  I write as a way to synthesize the research and consultation I do with professional colleagues and members of various social groups to increase my understanding of particular clinical issues.  By improving my understanding of how men operate within their gender framework, I can more effectively support their goals for happiness and achievement while respecting their values and world view.

Donald Trump’s entire public life provides a rich opportunity to examine how male gender expression, at it’s extreme, can lead to a toxic psychological crisis in masculine identity.  In this article I’d like to set aside drawing conclusions about his potential to effectively lead as President of The United States of America.  Why?  Just imagine for a moment, what it would be like to be Donald Trump’s therapist.  You see, as difficult as it may be, therapists must aim to reserve judgment in order to understand and assess how to be helpful in creating healthy change and growth.  If we can we understand Donald Trump’s psychological make-up as it relates to masculinity, surely we can learn something about the gender confines that men face in getting their psychological needs met as they strive for fulfillment and achievement.  Why is this important?  Trump reflects the toxic side of American masculinity, and if we don’t take a close look at how and why toxicity develops and festers within male culture, we can’t begin to stop it from infecting others in small or large ways in men everywhere.

Imagine for a moment, a four way street intersection, where gas fueling stations are housed on each of the four corners.  At each fueling station, you can ‘fill up your tank’ on:

  1. Physical Aggression/Strength/Athleticism
  2. Money/Influence of Financial Wealth
  3. Control/Influence Upon Others (at work or in personal relationships)
  4. Sexual Prowess and Virility/Sexual Satisfaction

These four fueling stations can be seen as representing the most traditional, socially acceptable, even socially celebrated opportunities for men to fuel their sense of masculinity.  Whether or not you personally agree with this, the vast majority of American men are measured by others against these four standards of traditional masculinity at various points in their life.  While men also aim for other forms of achievement (e.g. intellectual development, family life development, practice of religious faith) those strivings aren’t typically seen as embodying strength of masculinity in and of themselves.  Traditional masculine-affirming pursuits do not have to be at the expense of other’s rights, take on a quality of malicious manipulation and oppression, or require a man to rely on them as his sole means for fulfillment.  Masculine identity serves men best when it allows space for them to thrive in these traditional areas should they choose, but also allows them ample space to enrich their lives through other areas of fulfillment and connectivity.

Some men whom I’ve worked with appear to be ‘stuck‘ in the relentless pursuit of boosting one or more of these traditional areas of masculinity in the hopes of achieving lasting happiness.  The theory of masculine overcompensation dates back to Sigmund Freud’s notions of ‘reaction formation‘ and ‘defense mechanisms‘. Some men respond to having their masculinity questioned by emphasizing their expression of traditional masculine traits.  In 2013, a group of sociologists put this theory to the test.  In Overdoing Gender,” a study for the American Journal of Sociology, men were given feedback suggesting they were ‘feminine’, which led to an increased support for war, homophobic attitudes, interest in purchasing an SUV, support for, and desire to advance in dominance hierarchies, and belief in male superiority.  Research from The American Journal of Men’s Health and a host of other studies conclude that the expression of traditional masculine traits can be hazardous for men’s health functioning.  William Ming Liu, editor of the journal Psychology of Men and Masculinity  describes toxic masculinity as providing a very limited way for men to relate to each other- when boys are socialized to avoid feelings and weakness it increases their overall psychological stress.

As a woman and mental health professional, it can be tempting to say “hmmm…have you considered seeking fulfillment from OTHER areas?  You’ve already experienced objectively high levels of achievement through these traditional areas, and you’re telling me you’re still unhappy/unsatisfied.  Why not pivot and diversify?  See if some other areas of personal development could help you feel better/more fulfilled for the long term?”  In my professional experience, toxicity can take root in a man’s masculine identity when he gets stuck searching for fulfillment from these 4 traditional areas of masculinity only.  Without diversification, it can lead to toxic overdose!  In Donald Trump’s case, he keeps going back for more and more like an addict- all of his accomplishments are no longer getting him that desired high, so he keeps upping the ante.  Overdosed on orange self-tanner and sporting a shellacked comb over, surrounding himself with garish gold interiors, aggressively forcing himself sexually upon countless women, accruing more debt in the relentless pursuit of financial return, publicly decrying ideas of racial superiority that benefit himself at the expense of others, and finally, seeking political office as the world’s most powerfully influential men.  He is feeding his own internal beast and he does not appear to be slowing down.  I suspect there is a deep, empty abyss inside his sense of identity that is always starving for increasingly grandiose, self-serving displays of ‘success’.  This particular phenomenon of toxic masculinity is not only psychologically unhealthy, but socially destructive when public figures like  Donald Trump effectively normalize misogyny, sexism, racism and xenophobia.

donald-trump

While many American men aspire to experience some degree of his accomplishments in the areas of wealth, power, influence, access and opportunity with beautiful women, it’s important to underscore that these gains alone may very well NOT lead to the level of fulfillment and happiness one might imagine.  Encouraging a more well-rounded sense of masculine identity, one that allows room for pursuits that go beyond the traditional male gender constructs will increase men’s opportunity for lasting and balanced happiness.  Research by Levant and other psychologists reveal healthy aspects of masculinity might actually protect  and improve men’s health. These healthy aspects of masculinity include:

Aiming to grow and diversify oneself in these key areas can help men achieve lasting personal fulfillment beyond traditional masculine pursuits for success.  Each are common treatment goals I work on with the high-achieving men in my executive coaching practice.  Many have shared with me how rewarding it feels to build upon what they’ve already mastered and thrive in these important life aspirations.

Rachel Dolezal: Why would a white woman misrepresent her race as black? Psychological insights from a mental health expert.

Rachel Dolezal- Now and Then.NAACP official Rachel Dolezal of Spokane, Washington has recently come under tremendous media fire for misrepresenting her racial identity as African-American for approximately the past 10 years.  Her biological parents have publicly made statements that the family’s ancestry is Czech, Swedish and German with some “faint traces” of Native American heritage as well. Her parents have also provided journalists with a copy of her daughter’s Montana birth certificate listing herself and Larry Dolezal as Rachel’s parents as evidence to validate her identity.

While CNN has yet to get comment from Rachel Dolezal directly (as of the production of this article), she has alluded to a family fight over alleged abuse, according to the Spokesman-Review.  She has also recently refused to directly answer a newspaper journalist’s questions about her racial heritage, and said she wanted to talk to local NAACP leadership first. “I feel like I owe my executive committee a conversation,” she said.  Public response to this controversy been mixed, with some reflecting a sentiment of confusion, others with speculation, cynicism, or support.  Many want to know:

“Why would a white woman pretend to be Black?”

As a mental health expert with a wide range of treatment experiences in various settings, I can offer some psychological insight regarding what might lead someone like Rachel Dolezal to identify as a member of an oppressed racial group.  Based on the information that has been made publicly available through news media sources such as CNN, I can begin to hypothesize what may be some possible reasons behind a person’s choice to racially align themselves with an African American/black racial identity in spite of having a Caucasian/white racial heritage.

In my experience as a mental health professional over the past 15 years, I have worked with a number of individuals who’ve had the unfortunate experience of discrimination, abuse, trauma and crime.  The emotional trauma of victimization is a direct reaction to the aftermath of experiencing discrimination, abuse, trauma, and/or crime.  Abuse victims can suffer a tremendous amount of physical and psychological trauma.  While some are emotionally resilient and manage to overcome the real adversity they experience, others are less so, and experience higher levels of emotional pain and suffering.  In some cases however, a person’s understanding of themselves as a ‘victim’ is not in response to actual or significantly measurable experiences of abuse, trauma or discrimination.  This can occur as a result of a personality pre-disposition that develops early on in some people, as a way for them to psychologically cope with receiving what they feel is ‘unfair treatment’ from others.

Sometimes, a person’s perception of what is ‘fair and unfair’ can be very distorted.  It may be that they are highly sensitive to feeling slighted, and/or develop a sensitivity to early criticism.  They may have difficulty coping what many other people are capable of accepting as the normal ups and downs of life.  When someone’s personality develops in this way, they can feel entitled to ‘better treatment’ than they are receiving, and when they don’t get it, they feel it’s because others are purposefully mistreating them. In their minds, it’s this perceived ‘mistreatment’ that leads them to developing an identity as a ‘victim’ as a way to process their experience of being chronically wronged.

Over time, someone who has developed emotionally in this way may be drawn towards people and experiences that reinforce their experience of being mistreated in the world.  They may even provoke people and/or manipulate circumstances so they can claim they were wronged.  Over time, they may come to rely on garnering sympathy from others as a way to benefit from the emotional support of those who are sympathetic to their experience.  Receiving this type of support can reinforce their pattern of identifying as a chronically mistreated person. Taking on the ethnic identity of a member of a systematically socially oppressed racial group could give someone an opportunity to not just experience real discrimination and racial prejudice, but also garner emotional, social and political support from equal right’s activists.

Rachel Dolezal grew up in what her parents called a diverse environment, with family friends of various ethnic backgrounds, and four adopted siblings who are black. She was “always interested in ethnicity and diversity” growing up, her mother Ruthanne said.  Media sources have pointed out a clear discrepancy between early photos of Rachel Dolezal as a blonde, fair skinned white woman and recent photos that reveal she has chosen to alter her physical appearance by darkening her skin and adopting an afro-like hairstyle with a kinky/curly texture as a way to portray herself as having an African-American racial heritage.  Many people are sounding off that Rachel Dolezal “has been dishonest and deceptive with her racial identity.”  What do you think?

DJs and Mental Health: Electronic Music’s Last Taboo

DJs and Mental Health: Electronic Music’s Last Taboo

This article was featured in djbroadcast.net, an international platform for music, art & lifestyle.  Thank you author Dan ColeEditor In Chief at Blueprint Media BV for this well-written and timely article, and for bringing this topic into the light for the music community. I appreciate the mention and inclusion in your writing.

“The challenges of being an on-the-road performer are often popularized in modern culture; more so than they are discussed by real life musicians. One only has to refer to the likes of DJ Ickarus (aka. Paul Kalkbrenner) in Berlin Calling, who succumbs to a mental illness as a consequence of the rock & roll lifestyle he adopts.  Or there’s Frankie Wilde in ‘It’s All Gone Pete Tong’, who struggles with addiction, loss of hearing and arguably, loss of self-identity. Yet, as we happily grimace at these fabricated, big screen purveyors of dance music, mental health issues in real life are no laughing matter. One in four of us will struggle with mental health issues at some point in our life. It’s something however that a very small segment of the DJ community has spoken openly about. So how prevalent is it among the touring DJ scene, and why does it appear to be the last taboo to be broken? We spoke DJ veterans Joost van Bellen and Jeremy P. Caulfield to shed some insight on this sensitive subject.”

Aim For the Stars
Towards the end of Dom Phillips’ 2009 book, Superstar DJs Here We Go! (The Rise and Fall of the Superstar DJ), is the story of Sasha, and how, during the peak of his career, he struggled to deal with the pressure the industry was putting him under to release music. Following the success of several singles and countless mixes, he was still yet to release an album – a record he consistently confirmed was coming out. ‘Muzik magazine went over to New York to interview him. Sasha proved elusive,’ Philips wrote. ‘The eventual feature was entitled The Lost Weekend. Last time Muzik sees him in New York, he’s half underneath his bed at the Soho Grand Hotel, waving a two-litre bottle of vodka in one hand and a bin in the other.’

While we might otherwise laugh at the rock & roll clichéd actions of Sasha at this point in his career, it is clear that these were not the actions of a healthy person. Massively overwhelmed due to an exhaustive schedule and pressure from a baying audience, Sasha’s actions became irrational, and his actions, unsound. These idiosyncratic, patterns on behaviour are characteristic of many artists within the musical sphere. When the pressure is on, and fatigue sets in from over-work then one’s own mental health can begin to suffer. This is especially prevalent when there is an ease of access to excess alcohol and drugs.

“…At one point, after a pretty exhausting tour,
I came back and it just wouldn’t stop –
the anxiety stayed…”

Confiding in the Press
DJs are bearing more than ever in progressively candid interviews with press and media. Quite often an artist will talk about their childhood, liaisons and drug use. Yet very rarely will they talk about some of the mental challenges that have had to tackle. Topics of which can be perceived to be extremely personal. There are a rare few who have gone against the tide. Dutch DJ Laidback Luke is one of them.

“I’ve had burnout twice in my life; I had a burnout when I was 20 and I had a burnout when I was 30,” Laidback Luke confides to online publication, OnlyTheBeat. For a mini-documentary entitled, My Son The DJ, the Dutch DJ elaborates further regarding the latter incident. In 2010 Laidback Luke had the most international bookings out of all Dutch artists (150 in one year) – this inordinate touring schedule, combined with the breakup of his marriage lead to this second period of burnout. “I was in the bus enjoying my time off and I all I wanted to do was fucking scream inside of the bus because I was just getting crazy,” he explains. This is the response of someone who is not just suffering from physical fatigue, but from something more complex, and sometimes misunderstood; nervous exhaustion.

When we’re ill we can see the doctor, or simply take some medication, but matters of the mind are much more difficult to fix. German house DJ, Motor City Drum Ensemble, was honest enough to talk extensively about his anxiety problems in a recent Resident Advisor documentary. “At one point, after a pretty exhausting tour, I came back and it just wouldn’t stop – the anxiety stayed,” he candidly admits. The realisation of such, actively lead to the DJ cutting down on his touring commitments, in order to improve his health.

For every story of someone who’s managed to acknowledge their health problems, there are countless examples of those who haven’t. Just take the tragic story of US house producer Gemini, aka. Spencer Kincy. Luke Solomon talks about Kincy’s problem in a Resident Advisor Exchange podcast, during which he describes how Kincy has ‘decided to opt out of society, to not have a fixed abode, not be a part of the music industry anymore and he doesn’t want to be a part of this world anymore – that’s his choice and mental illness and that, are a factor.’ Although, this is a very drastic example, it only goes to highlight the extent to which mental illness can impact an individual’s life. Something, which were it not to have been brought to our attention, could have easily slipped under the radar.

Expander
Dr. Christina Villarreal, a Mental Health Examiner in Oakland, talks about the psychological issues celebrities can struggle with at various points in their career, in an article for The Examiner. Villarrea
l lists the following points:

No Privacy – a suffocating environment can lead to individuals acting out in an uncharacteristic manner, such as ‘unsavoury sexual appetites, volatile outbursts or uncontrolled substance abuse.’
Loss of Self-Sense – this can cause individuals ‘to make choices that no longer reflect their true self.
Loss of challengesa problem that can cause those who’ve become successful, to consistently seek new challenges and ways of becoming even more successful.
Imposter syndromea problem that can lead to inadequacy, when an individual feels that they might not be up for the job.
Quest for media spotlight immortalitya prevalent problem leading to artists going to the utmost limits to ensure that they remain as famous forever.

You can apply any one of these issues to a certain number of DJs. It’s clear that when Sasha was pushing himself around the time of Xpander, as stated at the start of the article, that that lack of privacy and loss of self-sense, was putting a huge strain on the Welsh DJ.

Leading dance music journalist Marcus Barnes, writing on the health issues that touring DJs need to be wary of, consulted senior NHS nurse, Jacqui Jedrzejewski, when writing a similar article for the online outlet, Meoko. As well as various physical ailments, such as back issues and tinnitus, Barnes states that consistent touring, alongside effects of jetlag, can lead to  wide-ranging effects on an individual’s physical and mental wellbeing.’Barnes also refers to the problems of depression, upon which Jedrzejewski states that:

‘Becoming isolated from friends, or the world in general and feeling alone or misunderstood can quickly lead to depression.’

I spoke with Gordon Shippey, a US based psychotherapist and counselor about the perils posed to those exposed to excess fame. “Having an adoring fanbase near at hand can cause problems. One credible explanation for why we see stars acting badly, is that in their fans’ eyes, they can do no wrong. A big part of narcissism is the inflated sense of self-importance. But for people who are legitimately famous, that sense is reinforced by their fanbase.”

“I know DJs who get anxiety attacks and depressions; who get paranoid even when playing at a club or festival”

Pandaogen
Joost van Bellen is a revered and legendary DJ from the early days of dance music in The Netherlands. Known throughout the country as one of the instigators of the Dutch electronic music movement, the 54-year old DJ helped established the RoXY club in Amsterdam, which laid the groundwork for the current wave of
underground Dutch and techno.  He recently wrote a book – a work of fiction – about the perils of fame, entitled Pandaogen, from the perspective of a fashion model. “Success and fame would bring happiness, but she loses her friends and herself along the way to the Holy Grail,” explains van Bellen. “It can happen to DJs too, there is actually a DJ in my book who is my nightmare reflection in a mirror.”

Haven spoken previously about his concerns regarding the health implications brought on my excessive DJing, DJBroadcast caught up with the influential Dutch DJ to take his perspective on the whole situation.

 

“I know DJs who get anxiety attacks and depressions; who get paranoid even when playing at a club or festival,” he explains. “But most of them will be waving they’re hands in the air when they are back in that DJ-booth like nothing is wrong.” Is this a sign of denial, or do DJs not want to let on that this perceived notion them of having a good time is actually a fallacy?

As well as hosting the regular Rauw nights at Amsterdam’s Trouw, van Bellon is still doing two to three shows every week. He used to do a lot more; something which took its toll on his own mental heath.

“I’ve been there: saw things which were not there because of exhaustion and light effects in clubs. I had trouble breathing properly, got hyperventilation attacks and saw the world around me spinning like a merry-go-round.”

So if it is happening, then why does it come across as being so taboo? “You might feel like shit but you always have to be happy and pretend it’s a great party,” he states. DJs, are in a sense, becoming actors, and pretending that everything is fine. Until, that is, when it all goes terribly wrong.

Faking It
Jeremy Caulfield went into semi-retirement recently. The Canadian DJ, producer and label owner moved from Toronto to Berlin a few years ago, after establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with among his fellow tech-house and techno DJ peers. His label, Dumb-Unit, was established at the turn of the century, giving rise to the likes of Butane and Mike Shannon.

Caulfield however called time on his DJing, after recently becoming a father, in addition to taking on the management of a new Berlin-based café and bar, Aunt Benny, which he runs with his wife and brother-in-law. He could see that, if he carried on with the way things were, it wouldn’t work out too well for him. He’s now opted to focus on being a dad and looking after his business – he’ll still take the occasional booking though, but only if it’s for the right reasons; the reasons why he started DJing in the first place.

Fans of Caulfield might have seen this coming. In a 2009 Resident Advisor article, Caulfield expressed his growing weariness of international touring.

‘Years before—on my first tours—I was excited to be in Europe, to visit the sites and to take in the culture. But lately I had not been feeling very inquisitive. My TV intake began to rise, I was getting into the salted peanuts a lot earlier and seeing a town consisted of a pre-gig excursion to the hotel bar. The original sheen had faded.’

Now out of the rat race Caulfield looks back with an objective eye. “I wouldn’t say that I was going nuts yet, but I could see that it was wearing me out,” Caulfield explains. “While I have regrets of not fulfilling my duties, I’m quite happy that I ended it – even though I’ve moved into something even more stressful.”

“…You become a sociopath to some
degree because you have to
maintain this persona…”

 

As we discuss his experiences, the conversation inevitably came to the subject of ‘loss of self sense,’ as Villarreal described it. “I think after a while you become a sociopath to some degree because you have to maintain this persona,” he says, about the constant need to put the ‘DJ act’ on when meeting people.

“I pulled all my [social] accounts when I retired,” Caulfield continues. “On a narcissistic level, it’s an epidemic, so pulling my Facebook account was a real personal vindication and was one of the most beneficial things for my health.”

“Narcissism is entwined within the fabric of the scene. As a DJ you are projecting yourself to a younger crowd and when you start getting out of touch with that and you can no longer trust your own instincts about what is good and what is cool, that its time to relinquish a bit.”

At what point, after you’ve been promoting yourself and talking-up your own work, do you actually begin to believe the hype you’ve created about yourself? Social media only inflates the DJ-super-ego. Even though, as I discuss with Caulfield, DJs rarely have anything interesting to say.

The Wild Card
Bill Hicks famously said, “I want my rock stars dead,” and in a weird way, we do actually want to see our idols suffer, due to our sycophantic relationship with celebrity and media. There’s a collective ‘sigh’ when our favourite drug-addled musician cleans up, because we worry that the music quality might suffer. Or we drop our shoulders when we read that a DJ we adore doesn’t drink. How can we relate to someone who isn’t as decadent as us?

We are naturally drawn to the eccentrics; the Sven Väths, Squarepushers, deadmau5s – in this world. Some of these wild cards might not have the best grip on reality, but then again, that’s what makes their art so great. “You don’t have to be mentally healthy to be an artist,” Caulfield explains. “Just make sure its not killing you or hurting anyone else around you.” Caulfield makes reference to Danny Tenaglia’s ‘breakdown’ in 2012, in which he took to social media to resign from DJing. During his online rant the US jock complained about how poor he was (‘many people think I am wealthy but I assure I am not’) and that he was intending to move out of his NY loft. Of course this didn’t happen and his resignation was short-lived, but there it was; a breakdown made public through the internet – for all to see.

In all areas of art, we are drawn to those whose eccentricities are exuburated by their individual neuroses: Vincent van Gogh, Daniel Day Lewis, Kurt Cobain. As Joost van Bellen said, “you have to be a little twisted to be a good DJ.”

The Last Taboo
It’s clear that more than likely, some of our favourite DJs have exhibited some of the pior listed traits about irrationality, dependency and depression. Yet, the topic at hand seems to have been ignored in conversation.

While researching the article I reached out to many artists for their opinion and almost all of them declined to comment. This as much didn’t come as a great surprise. While reading Barnes’ Meoko article I saw that Elite Force, aka. Simon Shackleton, had commented on the piece heavily, so I decided to reach out to get his opinion on the situation. “Generally people are very guarded about this side of things,” he told me. “There’s so much smoke and mirrors when it comes to this profession, and honest responses would probably be seen as a sign of weakness by many people.”

“…There’s so much smoke and mirrors
when it comes to this profession…”

Again, there was that reference to avoiding public displays of weakness. Caulfield also touched upon this during our conversation. “No one wants to be a downer,” Caulfield explains. “In these days people who are downers get scuttled under the carpet, this relates to drug usage too.”

Caulfield thinks that the image of the troubled DJ might also have a detrimental impact on their career, which is why people stray away from the topic. “The legitimate side of dance music, where it has moved to now, i.e. big money and business, has grown and any sign of weakness is deemed to be bad. People often will look for a way to take advantage of that.”

All of this, he explains, is tied together through the intricate web of social media. Once someone becomes more open through social media, then their message spreads like wildfire through the music community. Just look at Tenaglia.

Breaking The Habit
The DJ community has become very open when discussing their nefarious habits, such as drug abuse, sexual promiscuity and other on-the-road mishaps. Yet the only way to break the taboo surrounding mental health issues, is to discuss them freely, in an environment free from judgement. Is the electronic music scene ready for that? We can hope that our scene that was born out of open tolerance and liberty, can also embrace the needs of its more challenged participators.

The elements of conceitedness and for all practical purposes, machoism, need to also be addressed. We can’t carry on expecting that DJs live this party-hard, facile style-of-living. By allowing them to be more open and honest, we might even help ourselves approach reality with a fresh perspective. One individual in particular we can point to is Seth Troxler. From his extremely candid interview with Resident Advisor about the problems of holding down relationships, to his RBMA lecture which touched up upon the issues of holding it together, Troxler has been a luminary among the DJ community about discussing real-life problems.

We also need to address our own expectations and understand what effect they have on those we look up to. At some point we should have said, “hey Sasha, Xpander was really cool. I don’t care if you do another album or not, just be who you are.”

Going out, partying and dancing, are forms of escapism; an attempt to temporarily detach ourselves from reality. But how do DJs indulge in escapism and what happens when they need a break? No wonder there’s this perpetual relationship with DJs and drugs. This should be a warning sign, that we need take this issues more seriously.”  – author  Dan Cole, editor-in-chief, djbroadcast.net

 

The psychological impact of being in the spotlight: the emotional struggle of celebrities

Most of us imagine feeling happy and content should we ever achieve the wealth, fame and notoriety associated with being a celebrity.  However, the experience of being a person who is highly visible in the media can take a tremendous toll on one’s psychological functioning.  Even the most grounded actors, musicians, professional athletes, and high-ranking officials are vulnerable to the deleterious effects of being in the media spotlight. In his research, Jib Fowles, author of Star Struck: Celebrity Performers and the American Public (Smithsonian Institute Press), found that the average age of death for celebrities overall, was 58, compared to an average of 72 years for other Americans. His findings also revealed that celebrities are almost four times more likely to kill themselves than the average American. This article serves to explore the negative psychological impact of being in the media spotlight, which leads many celebrities to struggle emotionally.

As you read the following points, consider which celebrities have exhibited these traits to their own detriment.

No privacy. Everything celebrities do is publicized for the world to see, discuss, and mock. We love reading about the gaffes and gossip of the rich and famous, the more embarrassing, the better.  A celebrity’s natural response to this level of intense scrutiny is increased self-consciousness and paranoia.  Many celebrities, particularly those in the political arena, grow weary of the unrealistic standards they are held to, and begin to feel resentful of the limitations of being in the public spotlight.  They may “act out” in response to feeling suffocated by their carefully constructed public image.  Self-destructive, acting out behaviors often include unsavory sexual appetites, scandalous liaisons, volatile outbursts, or other destructive patterns such as uncontrolled substance use.  Exposure of their behaviors by the media can lead to overwhelming feelings of shame when their public image is destroyed.

Lost sense of self. Many celebrities feel unable to assert their individuality in a media world fraught with stereotypes.  As the media and fans develop a false perception of a celebrity (which is often one-dimensional) a celebrity begins to lose track of the multi-faceted aspects of their own personality.  This causes them to make choices that no longer reflect their true self, which further compromises their sense of identity.  Over time, they feel increasingly isolated and alone and have difficulty trusting others.

Loss of challenges. The experience of reaching the pinnacle of your goals and realizing it’s not as fulfilling as you think can be disconcerting. You’ve landed your dream job and begin settling in after your first big break…at first it’s exhilarating, but then you eventually wonder, “Is this all there is?” When a celebrity begins to feel they have nothing left to strive for – i.e. they’ve “made it”, suddenly they are left struggling to fill that empty emotional space with something even more thrilling or risqué.  Often celebrities turn to taking increasingly bigger and more dangerous risks, as a way to regain a sense of challenge.

Imposter syndrome. Some celebrities are bewildered by their fame, knowing that they are far from perfect.  The feeling of being an imposter occurs when people don’t feel they deserve their success. Celebrities may also fear being discovered, i.e. that the public will find out that they’re not as talented, intelligent, or attractive as they are portrayed in the media. They become keenly aware that their fans have idealized them in a way that is impossible to match in real life.  Consequently, celebrities can begin to feel their gifts are no longer enough, leaving them with a sense of inadequacy.

Quest for media spotlight immortality. Many celebrities fear their fame is fleeting, which leads them to constantly obsess about losing the attention of their fans and the media.  After a celebrity’s fame peaks, it is often a brutal ride downward as they garner less attention from others.  The loss of the spotlight can leave people feeling bereft of purpose and importance.  As a result celebrities often become desperate to regain notoriety and in doing so, become prone to buffoonery.  In the wake of this loss, they often turn to self-destructive behaviors as a means to cope with overwhelming feelings of failure.

This article was composed by Christina Villarrreal, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist in Oakland, CA