Psychological Profile of Sam and Dean

Psychological Profile of Sam and Dean

Let me start by telling you a bit about myself. I am a 25-year-old graduate student working to get my Masters in Clinical and Counseling Psychology. I am currently in the middle of my internship, which is my last requirement to get my degree, and hope to one day get a Ph.D. The point of telling you this is so that you know I know at least some of what I'm talking about here.

I was reading spoilers on Ausiello's site and saw a dialogue about how Sam and Dean have been presented throughout the series—more specifically, complaints about Dean's lack of mythos and Sam's lack of emotional development. This dialogue bothered me a great deal because I think the writers have been doing a marvelous job with both characters. So I wanted to share my clinical interpretation of the Winchester boys. I'll try to tone down the psychobabble.

1. Let me start off with a little vocabulary—nothing too hard, I hope. I'll be talking about internalizers and externalizers. Think of them as two opposite points on a continuum—like a number line with negative infinity at one end, positive infinity at the other, and 0 in the middle. The complete internalizer and the complete externalizer are theoretical constructs—they serve as anchor points, but don't really exist. Most people fall somewhere in the middle, maybe to one side or the other a bit, which is fine. People experience problems, however, when they fall into either extreme.


Externalizers are never to blame for anything. Everything bad that happens is someone else's fault. Most people externalize occasionally, but people who externalize all the time are usually irresponsible individuals who blame others for their problems. When you blame others for everything, you are giving them control. "I failed the test because my teacher didn't like me" translates into "Why should I bother to study (ever) when the teacher will decide how I do anyway?" Externalizers are rarely motivated or successful individuals, and many experience a great deal of distress, though others do not.

Internalizers blame themselves for everything. The good part is that they take control of their lives, which is very motivating for them. The bad part is that they often set themselves up to fail. "I failed the test because I didn't study enough" turns into "I failed the test because I'm stupid" or "I didn't study enough because I'm a bad person." This leads to significant distress and anxiety because no one succeeds all the time.

Both Sam and Dean are internalizers (we've seen them take the blame for things that were not at all their fault), but they operate on different levels of functionality.

By functionality, I mean, literally, the level at which they are able to function. Can they do what they need to do keep their job/family/life the way they want it? Can they complete tasks on time and in an appropriate manner? Can they maintain relationships with others? Can they communicate well? The more a person can do these things, the more functional they are.

The term adaptive refers to the optimum or healthiest way. Someone can hold down a job they hate and be completely functional; a more adaptive person will find a job they like and function there.

2. Sam is a highly intelligent, highly motivated, and highly functional person. Which is not to say that Dean is not intelligent or motivated, but he's motivated in a different direction than Sam, and is not as functional. Sounds like Sam's better off, right? Wrong. Let me explain why.

When I say that Sam and Dean are motivated into two different directions, I'm referring to Sam's love affair with normalcy. Sam spent most of his formative years learning to fit in. That meant that he had to learn how to hide his emotional and psychological problems, and he had to do it very well to achieve his goals. The fact that he's highly intelligent helped.

We know that he has to be intelligent because he would not have gotten into Stanford (since he's not a legacy kid) or scored what he did on the LSAT if he wasn't. And since his goal was to fit in with the Stanford-type crowd, he couldn't be visible depressed or moody or angry, because that would have made him stick out like a sore thumb (only the rich kids get to have visible psychological problems). But he couldn't go about like he didn't have a problem in the world, either, because that's just not realistic. People would have realized that he was hiding things, and he would have had difficulty maintaining close relationships. So he learned, probably very early on, to allow minor problems to show. In the series, we see Sam get upset when they can't save the damsel du jour, for instance. That's normal, so Sam has no problem letting it show.

By letting some of his problems show, he very cleverly learned to hide his deeper baggage. In fact, it's so deeply buried he probably doesn't know its all there. But there is no way that Sam does not have baggage. It's quite common for graduate level students (which Sam very nearly was) to experience a high degree of anxiety and depression (because they're usually internalizers). But graduate level students have to be able to hide their emotional problems because otherwise they can't function—they fail or have behavioral problems that get them kicked out. Of course, the most adaptive learn to manage problems in a better way, but they're not the norm.

So from the outside Sam is highly functional: able to deal with problems on a normal level and do whatever it is he needs to do to get through the day. Dean's not as functional as Sam because normal was never his goal. He never really gave a damn about fitting in with anyone when he was growing up, and so he never learned to mask his problems effectively.

The difference in functionality actually hurts Sam more than Dean in the long run. Dean does not ask for help, as we've seen; but when he's experiencing a high level of distress, his every action is a cry for help. We all see it in his expressive eyes or self-destructive behavior; in the way he avoids talking about his emotional problems, any emotional problem, like the plague. When he's distressed, he simply doesn't function as well. Which is normal. This is what people are talking about when they say that Dean is a highly evolved character, emotionally speaking, and I agree. Dean may be less functional, but he's more adaptive in the long run.

With Sam, it's different. We almost never see him cry for help. He simply appears to deal and move on. But the truth is, he doesn't. How do I know? Because we do catch glimpses into what's actually going on in his head.

A. In Bloody Mary, we first learn that Sam blames himself for Jess's death. This is a clear (and unhealthy) internalization. We also see that he had no intention of ever talking about it with Dean or anyone else, and might never have mentioned it if it hadn't become necessary as part of the case, and later again in Home.

B. In Provenance, Sam tell Sarah that he's cursed, and that people around him get hurt (read: it's his fault they get hurt—internalizing again). While he explains this very calmly, there is no way that he believes that and doesn't feel a significant amount of distress. Since that episode, Ash, Ava, Andy, Madison, John, and Dean have all died, as well as other, less significant characters. There is no way that Sam doesn't blame himself for these deaths, and we do see hints of that, like when Ava went missing. In fact, Dean notes that Sam is dealing with her disappearance way too well later in Simon Said, and comments on it. He's picking up on the fact that Sam's faking good, but he doesn't know how to pull him out of his shell and, as noted above, doesn't talk about emotions anyway.

C. In Playthings, a drunken Sam tells Dean that it's his fault he can't save everybody, and that he's afraid he'll go darkside. He's visibly upset and we see, for the first and only time, a degree of self-loathing that is worrisome. But just because we haven't seen it since, doesn't mean it's gone away (If anything, I expect that Sam loathes himself even more now). Dry-eyed and sober the following day, he makes sure Dean remembers his promise to kill him if he goes darkside, and renews that request several times. Most people would ask to be saved, not killed. The fact that he appears calm just means that Sam is hiding his emotions, not that he actually is calm.

D. In Asylum, a possessed Sam reveals an inordinate amount of anger toward Dean. I assume that it was already there, because the ghost specifically targeted Sam, and he did so for a reason. Dr. Ellicot realized that Sam was much more disturbed than he appeared. That kind of anger doesn't come out of nowhere; it usually comes from hurt, or fear, or frustration, or some mix thereof. My guess, based on their past and what they were currently fighting about, is hurt that Dean always seemed to choose John's side. Not just a little hurt, either, or Sam wouldn't have been so angry—and this probably links back to the big fight with Dad when Sam wanted to go to college, and Dean's conspicuously noncommittal attitude about it. As other fanficcers have hypothesized, I believe that Sam expected Dean to take his side, and felt hurt and rejected when Dean didn't. I'm also curious about what happened two years previous to the pilot that Dean hadn't called Sam and Sam wouldn't have answered if he had called.

E. In Phantom Traveler, we learn that to be possessed, a person has to have some weakness, like emotional turmoil. Sam is possessed in Under a Bad Sign, a clear indication that he was upset to a crippling degree at the time, even though he appeared only moderately angry when he found out he might go darkside.

In all honestly, those are the only major examples I can come up with in Seasons 1 and 2 that focus on Sam's emotional turmoil (I'll get to S3 in a minute). As I've said, I don't believe that this is because Sam wasn't experiencing psychological turmoil, simply because he was hiding it too damn well. Dean was also experiencing psychological turmoil, but he was doing it all over the place and anyone who knew him at all, as well as some people who didn't, could see it. That's the difference in functionality I was talking about earlier. And what it meant in the long run was that people knew Dean was hurting and were at least able to try and help. Very few people ever caught on to how truly disturbed Sam was, and I don't think anyone realized how deep his problems went, including Dean. If people don't know the problems are there, they don't try to help. This is actually typical for people like Sam who are high achieving, highly intelligent, highly functional adults—Sam's just facing worse circumstances than most people, and so it hurts him more.

3. So we come to Season 3 and see a shift in the boys' characters. Dean's is actually a positive shift. He's received a lot of support from Sam and Bobby and had a few epiphanies, and actually comes to realize that he has been accepting blame that does not rightly belong to him. I loved the part in Dream a Little Dream of Me when he confronted his dark inner self. That was the biggest step forward I've seen for Dean the whole series.

Sam's changes have not been so positive. He still appears quite functional and adaptive most of the time ('okay, so lets focus on how to get Dean out of his deal'), but he's starting to come unglued about the edges—or, as Jared puts it, he's developing harder edges. Do not be fooled! This is not Sam toughening up! This is Sam devolving. Sam's ruthless executions of Jake, Casey, Father Gill, and the Crossroads Demon represent a drastic change in behavior that is NOT A GOOD SIGN. Changes like this indicate that Sam is less and less capable of handling and concealing his dysfunction. It's like a wound that has been covered up by a bandage, and now it's bleeding through and growing.

And Sam still doesn't know how to ask for help, or how to even look like he needs help. Take for example the episode Fresh Blood, when Sam tells Dean he wants his brother back. It looks like he's asking for help, but what he's actually doing is giving Dean permission to show that he's upset, which is a great relief and help for Dean. Sam benefits somewhat too, but he still manages to hide what he's feeling. We never hear Sam say "I wish you'd let me stay dead" or "I should be dead" or Dean's little motto "What's dead should stay dead", although he's got to have thought these things at least once. He doesn't scream or cry or beat the impala to a metal pulp. We never get into what Sam's really feeling underneath it all—because Sam's not capable of revealing that yet. It's not that he wants to appear functional, it's that he doesn't know how to not look functional. Not to mention he can't burden Dean anymore than he already is, and Dean makes it pretty clear in All Hell Breaks Loose that he can't handle Sam's recriminations. So periods of time when Sam is self-destructive show that he's really bad off, because his veneer is cracking. He's really close to a nervous breakdown or serious self harm.

As a side note, it would not at all surprise me to learn that Sam has been cutting himself in times of high stress for years and that no one knows about it. That's the kind of person Sam is—he doesn't handle his problems well, but no one knows it. Cutting is only one example of self-destructive behavior, of course, but he's probably doing something we don't know about. Killing the above mentioned demons is also self-destructive, because he has to deal with the guilt of killing their hosts, which just adds to his already burgeoning conscious.

We finally see how close Sam is to a breakdown in Mystery Spot, when Dean dies on that Wednesday. Does anyone doubt that every single moment of those long months Sam felt nothing but pain and anger? Because I don't. I think they made that pretty clear, and they also made it pretty clear that Sam was unlikely to live out the next five years. He'd just keep going on hunt after hunt with no regard for his own well being until something finally killed him. And when that happened, he'd only feel relief that it was over. His way of killing himself without committing suicide.

I think the only reason he might not commit suicide is because Dean sold his soul to bring him to life. Suicide would make Dean's sacrifice pointless. And eventually he would come to resent Dean for denying him that release. Sam is the kind of person who wouldn't think of suicide for a long time, but when he did, nobody would know about it. Because he wouldn't ask for help (he can't, remember?) or act suicidal at all. He'd just do it. There's that functionality shooting him in the foot again.

And so the point I'm trying to come to here is that Sam is as finely evolved character as Dean, but the character he's evolved into is just plain harder to read. Which fits his personality perfectly. I do hope that he continues to evolve, and perhaps we will finally see him break all the way in Season 4. If he survives the break, it will be good for him because he'll finally have to deal with all the stuff he's been hiding.

4. I don't have nearly as much to say about the mythology of the show as the psychology. Yes, it would be cool if Dean had powers. But the fact that he doesn't fits his character. In Sam and Dean we have 2 complimentary archetypes. Sam is the reluctant hero. He's drawn into conflict because he has powers/abilities/bloodlines that make him somehow special, even though he doesn't want to be. Dean's the conscious hero. Even though he's an everyman character, he's drawn into the conflict because he has a highly evolved sense of responsibility and the skill to do something about it. Neither character is superior to the other. Neither is more important or powerful. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses, and where one is weak in the other is strong. That's what makes them such good partners. I've always seen Dean as a co-lead, because he's always been every bit as important to the story as Sam. Being relatively normal doesn't change that. So while I look forward to seeing how the writers will develop Dean's mythology, I don't think it's necessary for him to be fully involved in the conflict. He already is, and not just because he's Sam's brother, but because he chooses to be.