As always, please read the Disclaimer and also remember that this post WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS for the current season (Season 4) of Game of Thrones on HBO.

If you want to read more of these analyses check out Diagnosing Westeros – The Psychology of Game of Thrones currently available on the Amazon store as an ebook.

psychology of Cersei

Cersei doesn’t approve of your diagnosis.

I was starting to think that I had run out of characters to analyse in terms of psychology for Game of Thrones – but then there was “First of his Name” and I was reminded of the lovely Lysa and her son and the general unease with which they leave me – but that is for another day.. Watching the blogs and comments sections this last week, I found that there was plenty of questions which essentially asked the same question “Will the real Cersei please stand up?” Her interactions with Margaery Tyrell were somewhat soft for Cersei and she seemed to have lost a bit of that bitterness that she has had in the past. Has she lost her touch after the death of Joffrey? She seems broken, right – or maybe that there is another personality that she is channeling. Ok wait – no it is not ‘Multiple Personality Disorder’ – otherwise known by it’s proper name of Dissociative Identity Disorder…So, without further ado, it is time to look at the psychology of Cersei.

Despite this being one of the oldest posts on the site it continues to be the most popular – check out some of the more recent Game of Thrones characters – Jon Snow, Arya and Theon.

The Problem

So let’s get to it, what is the Psychology of Cersei Lannister? To start with, Cersei has labile temper – often swinging between being relatively calm and then without a great deal of warning she is threatening, vengeful and intimidating. She is a great game player, and manages the relationships around her with a massive amount of time and energy. She is willing to accuse her own brother for the death of Joffrey (Joffrey’s analysis is here) without any real evidence that he did anything, because potentially the blaming of Tyrion means that she does not have to cope with her own feelings.

She also engages with what could be termed risky sexual behaviour, or incest to put it better. Potentially this sexual relationship with Jaime, which he seems more invested in, is a way of managing yet another relationship in her life…

So what could it be that underlies these behaviours? Freud would say hysteria, although Freud would say that about a female with emotional problems. Besides that, Freud is dead, and dead men tell no tales, nor do they make diagnoses. For the more psychologically savvy among you, you may have already hit the nail on the head – the behaviours that Cersei exhibits are probably those which best match the diagnosis of Borderline Personality disorder.

People with this disorder find the concept of strong emotions to be very hard to handle and as a result use other methods to distract them from these feelings. People in clinical settings tend to show a history of self harm, binge eating and risky sexual behaviours, all of which help sufferers to manage their emotions with these alternate behaviours rather than having to deal immediately with intense feeling states. People with BPD, in general, find the ups and downs of everyday life to be too intense to handle, problematically this often leads them to have bigger life problems. These problems tend to compound meaning that, in the long term, people with BPD face a high risk of suicide and self harm due to their desperate desire to avoid uncomfortable emotion.

Cersei tends to keep people at a distance so that she can better manage and manipulate them, however when people catch on to the manipulation they soon start to leave and ostracise the person suffering from BPD. As a result of this people with BPD tend to become isolated which increases their feelings of loss of control which in turn leads to more extreme behaviours to try to wrest this control back. This often means parasuicidal and other behaviours which tend to take the focus off the actual feeling. People with BPD are not craving attention, although it seems that way, but rather they are seeking a way to mitigate the feelings that strong emotions raise in them. Unfortunately, the behaviours which they engage in can look like they are trying to get attention, which in turn increase the judgment of others towards them, leading to further interpersonal conflict. Thus, the vicious cycle of relationship difficulty is forever perpetuated for the person with BPD. A good example in Cersei’s case is that she uses the accusation of Tyrion as a way to manage the intense emotions that she is feeling in relation to his death.

Treatment?

The (somewhat) good news is that BPD can tend to go into spontaneous recovery in the 4th decade of life, which she is somewhere close to at this stage. However, this recovery is usually preempted by a stable and supportive home environment, something that Cersei is not particularly privy to…

To explain her actions in First of his Name, people with BPD will often have moments when they realise that their actions are having a serious effect on their ability to engage with others, in clinical practice these brief insight periods are often the things are the most easily worked with. Unfortunately, with the lack of a good therapist in Westeros (maybe just some old Maesters with ulterior motives) the ability to get any recovery is very difficult I have a feeling that the real Cersei will be back with us some time very soon.

The way in which characters so closely meet psychological diagnosis makes me wonder whether the writers of the show are basing characters based on these diagnoses. What are your thoughts? Will Cersei’s game playing get her into trouble in the near future?

Written by The Psychologist

7 Comments

Lauren

I think you’re off base here. Granted you are basing your diagnosis off of the show, and haven’t read the books-which include chapters from Cersei’s perspective, allowing us some insight into her thought processes. I think you’ve fallen into the trap that many mental health professionals are drawn into-that a woman who is difficult must have borderline personality disorder. True, she does display some manipulative behaviors and what could be interpreted as poor emotion regulation-but these are not the true hallmarks of a person with borderline personality disorder. The pattern of unstable interpersonal relationships, a poor sense of self and desperate efforts to prevent abandonment are not present.

If you want to go the personality disorder route, I’d look more closely at narcissistic or anti-social than a borderline diagnosis. Cersei has way too much control over her emotions, and again the instability of sense of self is not present, and her behavior is NOT driven by a wish to prevent perceived risk of abandonment. I personally wouldn’t describe her emotional presentation as labile-do we see some swings? Sure. But she’s also been put through the ringer in many ways, and her emotional reactions are typically in response to strong stimuli. Her relationship with Jaime may be socially taboo, but it isn’t risky sexual behavior per se. There are no multiple partners without practicing of safe sexual behaviors. Substance abuse? Sure, but again you can’t jump to a borderline diagnosis solely based off a drinking problem and I wouldn’t qualify her use of wine as “self harm”. There’s some grasping at straws in an attempt to fit her into the preferred “unstable woman” diagnosis going on here. No parasuicidal behavior, no unstable attachment-and again, no frantic efforts to prevent perceived abandonment-the hallmarks of a presentation of borderline personality disorder (now Lysa, on the other hand…).

Let’s look at the systemic and cultural factors here, as any good clinician should. Cersei is a strong-minded woman trapped in a world where women are supposed to sit down and shut up. She’s learned how to exist within this system, and many of her behaviors are attempts to work with the tools she has to get what she wants. Cersei (in the books, at least), embraces her anger and love as fuel for this task, and does not struggle with the experience of them. If anything, she relishes it.

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The Psychologist

Hi Lauren and thanks for the awesome feedback. Do you have a clinical background yourself, it definitely sounds like it?

I have to say that I have considered exactly this myself since writing the piece and that it did feel a little ‘straw clutchy’ I would argue that she uses action and interpersonal manipulation (such as the accusation, and sticking to it, of Tyrion) as a manner of maladaptive emotional regulation to achieve her ends at the cost of others. I would probably argue against other PD as well, but think that I have jumped to the dx of BPD. Much like Joffery, I think that she definitely exhibits some traits, but doesn’t meet full criteria for a diagnosis.

Cheers for the feedback – I will add it to the main article as an addendum 🙂

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GoTfan

Have you even read the books? She fucks every one in them. If that’s not risky sexual behaviour… also she’s batshit crazy and evil.

Reply
The Psychologist

Haha, yes indeed. I wrote the article for the TV audience, I didn’t want to spoil too much for people who hadn’t read the books and were only following the series. With a lot of the analyses, there is a lot that could be added in as background from the books.

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Mike

I think you’ve pegged her fundamental flaw in pointing towards narcissism. Having read both the books and watched the TV show, in both I think Cersei might be best viewed as an “anti-Daenerys.” Daenerys is the real-deal, a natural who has vision and does not simply crave power for power’s sake. Cersei, on the other hand, essentially is about Cersei and, as an extension of herself, her children. Her relations with Jamie are also in essence a self-worship (he is her twin after all).

In essence, Cersei wants to be her father and, in truth, is her father to an extent, though she’s more an imitation of him than actually him. Whereas her father is effective in the realpolitik of their world and is about power for its own sake; Cersei is about power as well, though more as an affirmation of her own sense of self-worship than for any other reason.

The subject could probably be explored in-depth, though I would differ that Cersei is managing in a world that is patriarchal. While Westeros is most certainly that, this isn’t at the core of her being. True, she resents it, though that’s not the primary cause of who and what she is; that’s more a reflection of her own inflated sense of self and lack of empathy for others.

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