The Psychology of ‘Game of Thrones’: Cersei Lannister

Drea Letamendi

The Night King has been defeated but the bitter wars for the crown in the Seven Kingdoms have yet to be settled. With so much still at stake, who among the throne-seekers will prove to be successful? To understand their personal motivations, strategies, and vulnerabilities, we must examine their psychological functioning. As part of a series of articles — including others focused on Daenerys Targaryen, Jon SnowArya Stark, Sansa Stark, and Tyrion Lannister — our consulting psychologist provides case formulations of some of Game of Thrones’ most compelling characters.

“I don’t care about making the world a better place.”

Maintaining image is central to Cersei Lannister’s personality. Fueled by a desire to remain the wealthiest, most powerful, and indisputably relevant figure in Westeros, Cersei goes to great lengths to orchestrate and maintain her status. At her best, she is incredibly self-aware, realizing that alongside ineffectual leaders like King Baratheon, her presence demands intimidation and reveals the weaknesses of others. Quite tactfully and steadily, Cersei uses people’s fear response to control them. Sentencing Sansa’s direwolf to death—though Lady had nothing to do with the attack on Cersei’s son, Joffrey—is our first exposure to Queen Cersei’s unforgiving demonstration of power as a tool of manipulation.

After arranging King Baratheon’s death in what will be perceived as a hunting accident, Cersei’s truest form emerges: She is what is known as a vulnerable narcissist. For starters, narcissists typically come across as overtly grandiose, effusing a sense of entitlement and superiority over others. Along with these features is the presence of egocentrism, which is the inability to untangle one’s perspective from objective reality, creating a skewed perception of importance. Cersei sees the world only from being in the center of it. She judges her personal value only in relation to others; thus, she needs to devalue them. Setting herself apart from “cripples, bastards, and broken things” (namely, Tyrion, in her eyes) upholds her sense of self as perfect and pure.

Cersei perceives events only as they connect to her. Her walk of atonement through King’s Landing should have theoretically humbled her as it would have done to many of us, perhaps by drawing out genuine feelings of guilt and repentance. Though she is visibly shaken up when she returns to the Red Keep, her transformation is actually unsettling. Rather than grow softer and forgiving, Cersei hardens herself more than ever. Her devotion to the crown is ever clearer, and faith and its followers become the enemy. She conquers if not suppresses “weak” feelings, instead transforming the humiliating experience into one that emboldens her sense of importance.

Narcissists tend to lack empathy. Because they are so self-centered, a narcissist is unable or unwilling to see things from other points of view. Cersei, for instance, prefers things from her point of view. “I do things because it feels good,” she asserts, in a chilling confession to Septa Unella. “I killed my husband because it felt good to be rid of him. I f*** my brother because it feels good to feel him inside me. I lie about f***ing my brother because it feels good to keep our son safe from hateful hypocrites. I killed your High Sparrow and all his little sparrows… because it felt good to watch them burn. It felt good to imagine their shock and their pain.”

Lacking empathy is perhaps one of the most dangerous elements of pathological narcissism because there is little emotional gatekeeping to keep others safe. Cersei is resolute and inflexible when it comes to the fate of her enemies. No amount of self-reflection is exercised that might introduce more complex emotions such as remorse, grief, or self-compassion. This trait is exemplified when she imprisons Ellaria and her daughter Tyene in the dungeons of Red Keep. Cersei mercilessly kills Tyene using the same poison that brought her own daughter, Myrcella, her ill fate. Cersei swears to keep Ellaria alive so that she can watch her daughter die and decompose. But Cersei’s social engineering – however abusive and callous—is not designed to bring her pleasure, but to establish dominance.

Cersei employs an outer veneer of superiority in order to disguise an inner sense of chronic vulnerability. Regulating the discomfort within herself is a driving force. She carries a deep mistrust of humankind. She allows her doubts to be revealed only when speaking with her brothers, Tyrion and Jaime, claiming that everyone in Westeros is after them and wants to see their demise. Along with this victimization mentality, and a hypersensitivity to others’ criticism, narcissists are prone to feelings of depression and loneliness. Often, the reality of their life doesn’t meet the fantasy life they feel entitled to have, creating a constant disappointment in the self. In fact, it’s likely that Cersei experiences a fair amount of emotional instability. Cersei wouldn’t dare reveal this painful secret to her enemies.

Cersei’s motives only appear sadistic; she is driven far more by power than by pleasure/thrill. Again, she seeks to silence the self-doubt and vulnerability within, through control and assurance. Everything is premeditated; not impulsive. This is indicative of Machiavellianism, an enduring personality trait characterized by frequent use of deception and an unhealthy fixation on the control of others. And much like an addiction, besting others is only temporarily satisfying. People with Machiavellian qualities aren’t likely to find peace, no matter how much they achieve. Machiavellianism and narcissism are two of the three elements that make up The Dark Triad, a shortcut term that refers to a collection of prominent, problematic traits that, when co-existing, increases risk for malevolence and creates major concern for society. Psychopathy is the third trait in the Dark Triad.

At the root of Cersei’s narcissism is the extension of herself – House Lannister. Though she seems to lack heart, Cersei’s devotion toward her family is her singular strength and perhaps a genuine connection to her pathos. As she grieved for Myrcella, Cersei discloses to Jaime that she perceived her daughter as morally upstanding and pure, in contrast to herself. “Our children were good,” she laments, almost delusionally (Hello? Joffrey?). “They had no meanness, no jealousy,” she claims. Unfortunately, as a mysterious westerland witch prophesized during Cersei’s teenhood, all of Cersei’s children eventually do die, and in tragic ways. When her last child dies, Cersei begins to feel the cumulative effects of her trauma. She remains cold and distant after Tommen’s suicide, viewing his self-killing as an escape from her exploitation and a betrayal of their family, rather than what it actually was: His solution to ending the pain. Cersei is unwilling to recognize that by murdering hundreds of people in the Sept of Baelor – including Tommen’s wife – she is the exact person who created that pain and perhaps should consider how her actions create culpability.

While childless, Cersei’s maliciousness and vindictiveness appear to intensify, and she relentlessly seeks to expand her power and destroy her enemies, almost blind to the looming threat that makes her efforts seem trivial. However, a new shift is introduced when we last see Cersei in Season 7. Reignited by the news of her pregnancy, Cersei remains destructive, but tightens her hold on the conviction that her single job as Queen is protector of the Lannisters. “I know what it means,” she expresses about the zombie dragged in from the Army of the Dead. “All I could think about was keeping those gnashing teeth away from the ones who matter most, away from my family.” If Cersei feels self-doubt, uncertainty, or any sense of fear of this new threat, she suppresses these sensations of discomfort. Instead, she doubles down on unrealistic strategies – like demanding elephants from the Golden Company—to maintain her incredibly fragile smokescreen. At this point, her executive orders and power-grabs seem almost performative. The Wall may be down, but it will take an even bolder and more intense event to pierce Cersei’s mask.

Click on the links below for our psychological profiles on other key Game of Thrones players…

Drea Letamendi
Dr. Drea is a licensed clinical psychologist and mental health educator. She co-hosts "The Arkham Sessions," a podcast dedicated to the psychology of Batman.