The Psychology of ‘Game of Thrones’: Daenerys Targaryen

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 Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister, Cersei Lannister, Sansa Stark, and Arya Stark — our consulting psychologist provides case formulations of some of Game of Thrones’ most compelling characters.

“I’m not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.”

Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen. Lady of Dragonstone. Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea. The Unburnt. The Breaker of Chains. And the Mother of Dragons. Underneath the layers of titles, the prospects and ambitions, the aspirational claims, who is Daenerys Targaryen? More importantly, how does Daenerys perceive herself? Securing the Iron Throne has essentially become an obsession, something exclusively equivalent to Daenerys’ identity. And though there is nothing wrong with ambition, the cautionary lesson exists in her self-limitations. A person’s sense of self is much more complex than their social status, however empowering that role might be. Instrumental to Daenerys’ psychological functioning is how well she can differentiate her unattainable ideal self –the perfectionistic leader who commands—and a more authentic, fallible and integrated self.

Though quiet, Daenerys is confident, determined, and remarkably resilient. Her steadfast fixation on the Throne can be off-putting at times, and this might be largely due to gender expectations surrounding women in power rather than a personality or psychological deficit. Notably, Daenerys’ claim to power would only be possible through experiencing traumatic suffering, defying and redefining gender roles as an end to that suffering, and subsequent rejection of the status quo.

Early on, Daenerys’ sense of self is relational. Her beginnings are characterized by objectification, degradation, and forced submission. Her brother, Viserys Targaryen, was instrumental in both instilling and reinforcing harmful messages about “traditional” gender roles, which normalized masculine behavior toward aggression, misogyny, and sexual assault. He trades Daenerys like a broodmare to the Dothraki leader, Khal Drogo, in exchange for an army 40,000 strong, which he plans to use in his invasion of Westeros. Daenerys is unsuccessfully resistant to Drogo on their wedding night, and endures a violent, non-consensual sexual relationship with him as is the expectation of her wifely duty. Doreah, a former pleasure-girl from Lys, encourages Daenerys to expand her mind; she shares with Daenerys teachings about mythology, the native language, and a carnal form of mind-body connection. As such, Daenerys learns to use her sexuality –the singular tool she has at this stage—to win the status of an equal in her new husband’s eyes. Her reversal of roles and discovery of pleasure with Drogo is nuanced and indisputably carries problematic messages about rape. Flipping the script of dominance is best justified by later outcomes involving less pain, more choice, equal power. Escaping subjugation by “getting on top” is a perfect representation of her self-written narrative moving forward.

As she gains power, Daenerys learns to adopt the customs and beliefs of the cultures she leads, which demonstrates a great deal of psychological flexibility. In turn, she is able to influence practices related to sociopolitical matters important to her – the treatment of oppressed members of the community, especially slaves and women. Alongside the learning of new languages and internalizing of new practices, she leverages her resources to pursue end-goals she feels are just in her new order.

Again, her methods can come across as domineering or overbearing, but not unlike our cultural world, women are profoundly underrepresented in high-power roles across Westeros, and, among other things, we see a gendered socialization of leadership. Men are often seen as “agentic,” members of societies who are likely to be assertive and take charge. By and large, women are expected to be “communal,” a euphemism for being nice, friendly, nurturing. Leading the Dothraki, the Unsullied, and, presumably, the widespread lands of the Seven Kingdoms is assumed by most to require an agentic style. Dr. Alice Eagly, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, names the specific problems that women encounter related to their pursuit of leadership roles in gender traditional, dichotomist societies: The first is the “double standard,” wherein a female candidate for a powerful role has to put her agentic side on display in almost a performative way to reassure people that she can take charge (we can see this play out when Daenerys goes a bit too far and executes the remaining House Tarly via dragon fire). The second pitfall is the “double bind,” which happens when a woman in leadership authentically acts tough, perhaps objectively at the same level as her male counterpart, and yet there is a backlash against her for being too tough. Often, women in power become isolated, increasingly more “silent” as they ascend, and significantly self-sufficient (at the very end of the spectrum, in the direction of pathological narcissism, is where Cersei operates). As Daenerys informs Jon Snow, “Do you know what kept me standing through all those years? Faith. Not in any gods. Not in myths and legends. In myself. In Daenerys Targaryen.”

The intersection of gender and power can have remarkable implications on one’s psychological functioning. Consider how much self-regulation and mental work are required for Daenerys to uphold her femininity and be seen as a competent, trustworthy ruler in the eyes of her fellow throne-seekers. Women are socialized to smile and laugh more; as well as cry and express sadness more freely. We block impulses that might discomfit others or appear to be a “selfish” expression of our own desires. Again, these gender expectations are incongruent with the social expectations of effective rulers. However, as a compassionate and nurturing leader, Daenerys found ways to mitigate these pressures. She put the needs of her constituents in front of hers. In Meereen, for instance, when a Shepard timidly presents her with the charred bones of his 3-year-old daughter and explains that a “winged shadow” (her largest dragon, Drogon) had burned her alive, Daenerys is shaken, but does not turn away. She directly faces the growing threat the dragons are posing to the people of Meereen. Fighting the internal discord, she leads her remaining two dragons into the catacombs and personally locks iron collars around their necks to ensure they do not escape. Rather than deny emotionality or shield any “softness” in her character, she embraces her vulnerability and allows it to lead her decision-making.

Daenerys has suffered countless ordeals of every kind, and not only survived them but found ways to transform helplessness into humanitarianism. At times she is ingenious. Other times, she is godlike. As she ascends, it is important to note her privilege, whether through heritage, supernatural abilities, or, you know, Dragons. It is true that experiences in self-sufficiency, uniqueness, and survivorship bias can lead to perfectionism. Her experiences of success and wide visibility lead to expectations around self-perfectionism. Psychologically, a person with perfectionistic traits sets very rigid and unrealistically high standards on themselves. Over time, Daenerys becomes consumed by her ideal self. She engages in an all-or-nothing mentality about performance and skill, and generalizes this schema toward others; e.g., if one does not bend the knee, one cannot coexist with her. Ultimately, a perfectionistic mindset is a self-defeating way to navigate the world – one cannot grow toward self-betterment without making mistakes and acknowledging self-failure. But admitting she is wrong is not in Daenerys’ repertoire, at least not anymore. Rather, as a result increased perfectionism, Daenerys has developed a rather harsh inner voice comprised of the shoulds and musts she has accumulated over the years that convince her she will become Queen and that no other outcome is tolerable. These messages signal unattainable goals and prevent her from examining herself with a more realistic lens, one that is capable of tolerating loss of the crown. It is crucial to her well-being that Daenerys understand who she is beyond her many titles.

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.