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On Identity and Self-Esteem: Lessons From Downton Abbey

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From a psychological perspective, Downton Abbey demonstrates how times may change, but certain human challenges remain the same. The season finale includes the typical drama and heartbreak, but what is most interesting about this episode is its thematic exploration of the human struggle with transitions, identity and self-esteem.

As the season opens, Mary jokes with Matthew that it is no longer 1850 and so she is determined to enjoy and embrace her pregnancy rather than hide herself away. While clearly excited about impending motherhood, Mary's frustration about the physical and social limitations of pregnancy lead her to question her identity. When Matthew implores her to give Lady Edith's new suitor a chance, stating "just be as nice as you are" Mary responds:

You think me nice, but nobody else does. What makes you so sure I am?

Matthew assures his Mary that she is, indeed, nice, replying:

Because I've seen you naked and held you in my arms and I know the real you!

Mary projects a vision of absolute confidence, and yet she is not able to answer an exceptionally basic question. Her lack of clarity about whether or not she is, indeed, nice demonstrates an identity struggle with the tension between how she is experiencing herself, and how is imagines others see her. This is a psychological struggle quite common to adjusting to motherhood and to so many other stages of human development.

Tom Branson's identity struggle is much more obvious and painful to witness. Isobel Crawley characterizes Tom's transforming but fragile identity while they dine together one evening. They are together because the rest of the family is away on a holiday and neither Isobel or Tom are invited:

Tom... you've managed a delicate transition superbly... but don't be too eager to please. You have a new identity and I don't mean because you're not a chauffeur anymore. You are the agent of this estate and as the agent you have a perfect right to talk to anyone who works under you. Anyone you please. You have a position now and you're entitled to use it.

The new house maid, Edna, takes a fascination to Tom's transition from the downstairs to the upstairs, and attempts to both embarrass and seduce him as she mocks his wardrobe:

Anna said when you first came back as Lady Sybil's husband, you refused to dress the part, but you do now.

A shaken, somewhat humiliated Tom protests:

I was tired of talking about my clothes every time I came downstairs. I'm still the same man inside.

And an unconvinced Edna then asks:

Are you ashamed of who you are or of who you were? Is that why you won't eat your dinner with us?

Tom may be Edna's boss, but Edna seems to have all of the power as she waltzes with confidence out of the room.

Struggles with transitions such as Mary's and Tom's are thematically similar to those of many psychotherapy clients. Frequently, people seek therapy when something significant has changed in their life, and adjusting to this change highlights struggles with self-esteem and identity. Whether through parenthood, changing roles, the death of a loved one, a new job or any other significant change, the near universal tension between how we experience ourselves and how we imagine others experience us is a challenging and fascinating struggle. The goal is to be able to affirm oneself without an over-emphasis on how we imagine we are seen by others. "Imagine" being the key word, because one never really knows what others are truly thinking or feeling.

The always-perceptive Mrs. Hughes understands this concept so well and is able to pierce through Tom's pain and give him the loving guidance he desperately needs:

Would you allow me to speak as I would have in the old days? You let Edna make you ashamed of your new life. But you've done well and Lady Sybil would have been so proud.

When Tom sobs and replies that he cannot bear life without his beloved Sybil, Mrs. Hughes continues:

You must bear it. And one day I hope, and so would she, that you'll find someone to bear it with you. But, until then, be your own Master.

Mrs. Hughes' wise guidance is applicable to the challenges that so many of us face when feeling isolated, insecure or alone. She urges Tom to affirm himself in spite of his loneliness, and teaches him that being true to himself rather than beholden to the opinions of others is an essential survival skill. Through their powerful connection, it seems possible that Tom may, someday, reclaim happiness.