Another disclosure: I have not read any of the books based on the series by George R. R. Martin, and I understand that the television series strays from the books in some significant ways. For that reason, this article addresses my observations, as a psychotherapist, of the HBO show exclusively. As I write this the series is in its fifth season, so I will speak to my impressions of various characters in their development to that point.
The narcissism continuum ranges from traits of narcissism, where change may be possible, to the more extreme version—what the DSM-5 calls antisocial personality disorder. With antisocial personality, many experts assert that personality is fixed and there is no ability to change or adapt to prosocial behavior due to low conscious/low empathy. (To the layperson, the latter is typically described interchangeably with the terms “sociopath” or “psychopath”; however, there is much debate clinically regarding the differences between those two descriptors, a subject for another article.) In addition, a person can fall a bit to the right of “traits” on the spectrum and be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, wherein there is less fluidity in the ability to evolve. Moving further along that continuum is a low conscious/low empathy version of narcissism called malignant narcissism, which straddles the line with sociopathy/psychopathy. These are all forensic labels that describe the narcissism-related challenges an individual might present with, and while labels can be pathologizing, they provide a framework of perspective in terms of understanding the experience and degrees of narcissistic abuse.
Now that we’ve covered the continuum of narcissism, let’s examine how and where some of the characters of Game of Thrones might fit into it. I realize that some consumers of this series are very passionate about it and may have a broader and deeper understanding of the characters than I have, and by superficially examining dramatic portrayals of these characters’ narcissistic tendencies and extreme behaviors, please know that I by no means mean to make light of the experience of real-world narcissism. In reality, narcissism is a complex, nuanced, and often insidious issue.
(Also, SPOILER ALERT for those who are not caught up!)
Traits of Narcissism: Tyrion Lannister
Many have come to know and love Tyrion, the politically deft, wise, and height-challenged Lannister. Tyrion demonstrates a capacity for empathy and ability to love when he falls for Shae, a prostitute his father, Tywin, will not allow him to be with. (An emotional Tyrion later strangles Shae in her sleep after she refuses to flee Westeros, where she stood little chance of surviving, and mocks him in his murder trial.) Tyrion is acutely aware that he is the family scapegoat, faulted for the death of his mother at his birth and the object of negative projections from his sister, Cersei, and father, but he remains loyal to House Lannister, which is known for pride, family legacy, prominence, and wealth at the expense of others. Tyrion is well aware of his privilege, which he uses to his advantage, frequently showing insight that he knows his family bloodline protects him from poverty and being cast aside publicly as an “imp.” He is able to maneuver the fierce and complicated politics of the realm, which, in part due to Tyrion’s acute intellect, features the Lannisters as the house of prominence.
What might happen in therapy: Tyrion seemingly would take well to psychotherapy and likely would benefit from some supportive therapy, family-of-origin work dealing with the narcissistic abuse of his family toward him, substance abuse treatment (he drinks excessively to drown out his problems), and some cognitive behavioral restructuring to help him regain his self-worth. Tyrion only intermittently flirts with traits of narcissism. He reads people easily, and he chess plays with stunning precision.
The Narcissist: The Character of Tywin Lannister
The head of the Lannister family, Tywin, exerts supreme dominance of the Iron Throne. For some time during the series, his grandson, Joffrey Baratheon, is King of the 7 Kingdoms. Tywin serves as Hand to the king (Joffrey’s top advisor), and basically rules the land and holds the power from behind the scenes. He makes sure his family continues to achieve dominance as the predominant family in Westeros, even if that means condemning his own son, Tyrion, to death following the poisoning of Joffrey. At many points throughout the series, Tywin disowns Tyrion and blames him for the death of his wife during childbirth. Tywin elevates his son Jaime on a pedestal as the “golden child”, whereby Tyrion has been lobbed off permanently, which ultimately results in Tywin’s own implosive demise.
What might happen in therapy: Tywin didn’t have a chance to partake in psychotherapy, but if he did show up for his first session, he would probably deny he has a problem and tell his therapist that she is the crazy one. Tywin liked things as they were, when he was in control and had the power. Any other way wouldn’t work for his large ego, as his personality traits were quite fixed in his advanced age.
The Malignant Narcissist: Lord Petyr Baelish (aka “Littlefinger”)
Lord Baelish is quite the cunning and covert character. He is always observing and calculating allegiances and cut-offs between houses and individuals, and like an expert chess player, he reads his competition several moves ahead, always putting himself in position to be in close alliance with those in power. Baelish has no qualms about betraying and lying, which results in the execution of the beloved Ned Stark, perhaps the series’ most trustworthy character and the one-time hand of the king, at the end of Season 1. He also sends Lysa Arryn sailing through the Eyrie’s Moon Door so he can continue acquiring land and influence and utilizing Sansa Stark as a tool in conquering the North. Baelish’s manipulations are always premeditated, and when an immediate decision has to be made, he proceeds with his sole interests in mind, even though he tries to present himself as respectful, well-meaning, and honorable.
What might happen in therapy: If Sansa brought Baelish to therapy upon realizing that she was experiencing narcissistic abuse from her “uncle,” he likely would refuse to go, or he may attend and attempt to charm the therapist. Therapy is extremely unlikely to help Baelish develop insight or empathy. He is really out for his own power gain and could care less about anyone’s feelings or the impact of his actions on someone else.
The Malignant Narcissist: Cersei Lannister
Where do we even begin with Queen Regent Cersei? She is the epitome of sly, secretive, calculating, and controlling. Her every move seems to be a cold and manipulative power play. Cersei does not hesitate to inflict pain and suffering on anyone who stands in her way, even within her own bloodline, and she uses sex at times for gain. Cersei banished Sansa as a peripheral outsider at King's Landing, enabled the sadism and cruelty of her son, Joffrey, and stood by him as he ordered the beheading of Ned Stark. In addition, Cersei has ordered the execution of Tyrion, her brother, blaming him for the death of Joffrey. Cersei's maneuvers are always meant to elevate her status and typically involve causing intentional harm to her perceived obstacles to power and control.
What might happen in therapy: Therapy is extremely unlikely to help Cersei, as she is presented as extremely low empathy/low conscience. She has no qualms about murdering, silencing, or torturing anyone who comes between her and her goals. Cersei executes her chess moves with much premeditation. Cersei might attend her first session in therapy to “save face.” She might even listen to and consider what the therapist has to say, but she seems unlikely to use any insight for good.
The Psychopaths: Joffrey Baratheon and Ramsay Bolton
For some time during the series, Joffrey Baratheon—the entitled product of a not-so-secret, incestuous relationship between Cersei and her brother Jaime Lannister—rules the seven kingdoms. Prior to his inglorious demise, Joffrey admitted to enjoying killing animals. He forced prostitutes to beat each other, practiced his bow-hunting skills by shooting arrows into a concubine attached to his bed, relished humiliating people, and routinely engaged in sadistic cruelty, abusing Sansa and even forcing her to gaze at the severed head of her father. Joffrey derived tremendous narcissistic supply (ego boosting) from the harm he caused others, emotionally and physically. He paid the ultimate price for his cruelty on his wedding day.
Ramsay Bolton delights in torture and killing for sport. He castrates Theon “Reek” Greyjoy, flays his fingernails, and abuses him until he develops Stockholm Syndrome, losing his identity amid the brainwashing, mind control, and psychological torture. Theon very clearly experiences severe complex posttraumatic stress, and stands a chance of recovery only with no contact from his abuser. Ramsay, though, continues to toy with Theon, greatly enjoying the new devotion of his thoroughly tamed “servant.”
What might happen in therapy: Joffrey, had he lived, almost certainly would have considered the idea that he should go to therapy a profound and grave insult, and likely would have either no-showed or arrived with his crossbow, ready for more target practice. As for Ramsay, he’d sooner be in prison than in therapy. You’d never see him anywhere near a therapy office, unless he went for the sole purpose of manipulating and then doing something horrible to the therapist, as he appears to seize every opportunity available to inflict grievous bodily harm.
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Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW