The Psychology of ‘Game of Thrones’: Tyrion 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 Jon Snow, Daenerys TargaryenCersei Lannister, Sansa Stark, and Arya Stark — our consulting psychologist provides case formulations of some of Game of Thrones’ most compelling characters.

“Never forget what you are. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.”

If you wonder what in the Seven Hells could make all the fighting worthwhile, Tyrion Lannister should come to mind. He is our emotional anchor, our conduit, a reflection of how we ought to react when faced with the seemingly constant turmoil brought forth by the elusive Iron Throne.

Tyrion’s mere existence as a dwarf is seen as a shameful mark on a dynasty that values status above all else. His father, Tywin Lannister, is touted as the richest and most powerful man in Westeros. Thus, privileged like his siblings, Lord Tyrion has benefited from a lavish, opulent lifestyle. And yet, despite the safety net, Tyrion has always had to justify his place among men. He feels that he has been “on trial” his entire life. Tyrion’s sister, Queen Cersei Lannister, holds him responsible for the death of their mother because she died while giving birth to him. “You ripped her open on your way out of her,” Cersei snarls at him, framing his birth as murder. His morose response is, “She was my mother, too,” revealing that he is often the villain, not the victim, of others’ narratives. Shouldering the death of his mother is a burden Tyrion will carry with him his entire life, and, no matter how “good” he tries to be, this transgression will continue to manifest as self-doubt and self-punishment. He must constantly prove to himself that he is actually worthy of simply being.

Knowing he is seen as a monstrosity, Tyrion learns to adapt his internal self to compensate for his exterior appearance. In becoming accustomed the degradation he receives, even from his own family, Tyrion develops many shields. He learns that if he deflects the disparagement directed at him – whether through humor, wisdom, or wine—his family’s prejudice will collapse onto itself and reveal their self-hatred. Knowing what it feels to be devalued, Tyrion has never had to resort to cruelty, and in the rarer instances when he channels meanness, it is often directed at the self in a punchline. “Never forget what you are,” Tyrion tells Jon Snow, in an effort to champion Jon’s own uniqueness. “Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.” Being completely authentic means representing every aspect of ourselves, even the ones that we find shameful and vulnerable. Tyrion’s wit, self-awareness, and sympathetic nature disproves any claim that he is a monster. To that end, Tyrion has the biggest heart of the all.

Tyrion demonstrates a strong capacity for emotional intelligence.  Also known as EQ, emotional intelligence refers to our ability to identify, process, and navigate our own emotional responses as well as those of others. Think of this skill as emotional literacy. Tyrion, for instance, is able to recognize his mental state and understand who he is in the room on that wavelength. He listens intently and can empathize with others. He can tolerate and manage messy feelings that are intense or overwhelming – this is an aspect of bravery. Tyrion demonstrates bravery when he steps into a leadership role at the Battle of Blackwater as others desert. In that moment, he effectively mitigates negative feelings: His fear of the enemy, his anger at Joffrey for deserting, and self-doubt about his combat skills.

Having a “smart heart” means a person is able to notice when others are hurting. It also means a person can cheer others up (think of Tyrion’s dark humor, from which we’ve all found relief), or calm them down when needed. Being well-attuned to others during conflict is a valuable characteristic, and Tyrion realizes his value. “I belong here,” he says of Kings Landing, and his family, however vile they are. “These bad people,” he explains, “…it’s what I’m good at… talking them out of doing bad things. I like it more than anything I’ve ever done.” In his revelation, Tyrion realizes his intuitive wisdom is a strength and that his ability to counsel could bring him happiness. If it is true that all of us are seeking to fulfill our unmet needs, being appreciated as he is seems to be Tyrion’s pursuit.

In contrast to the many suppressed and fearful members of King’s Landing, Tyrion is actually emotionally expressive. He shows his emotions without hesitation or fear of getting hurt. With Shae, what started out as an arrangement led to a loving, exclusive relationship. Tyrion is unafraid to show Shae that he loves her and cares deeply for her. Fearing for her safety, however, he forces himself to send her away across the Narrow Sea. His love for Shae becomes his biggest weakness, and her later betrayal of him prompts his darkest turn. Tyrion murders Shae cruelly and slowly via strangulation, fighting every good-hearted impulse to let her go. His bold declaration while on trial earlier in the season becomes an eerie prediction: “I wish I was the monster you think I am.” This becomes a prophecy. As if no longer able to hold it all together, Tyrion allows his self-doubt to overcome him. Killing Shae is an outpouring of pain, a culmination of Tyrion’s lifelong internal battle between beast and human.

Throughout his life, Tyrion craftily learns to use his standing as a Lannister to mitigate the prejudice he has faced since birth. In truth, he has depended on his name, and sees little value in himself beyond Casterly Rock. But after being sentenced to death and escaping King’s Landing through the help of his brother, Jaime, Tyrion is forced to experiment with discomfort. He is astonishingly adaptable and remains influential to each person he meets. In Season 6, Tyrion learns to find value beyond the name Lannister. When Queen Daenerys formally appoints him the Hand of the Queen, his self-worth shines through. As the Queen’s advisor, he realizes he can be instrumental in what will be a historical battle. Tyrion is likely the only suitable match against his sister Cersei, someone who lacks his strengths of intuition and human connection. In fact, it is Tyrion who appeals to everyone’s emotions, as he realizes that only through direct observation of a grotesque zombie will Cersei and her followers understand the massive enemy about to attack them. “We are a group of people who do not like each other,” he admits. Despite the suffering they’ve inflicted on one another, Tyrion suggests a momentary team-up of humanity. For him, being on the same level of his peers, finding himself alongside them for a common goal, brings a sense of belonging and likeness. Tragically, Tyrion accepts the harsh reality: for some, he can be considered human only when even more horrifying monsters come into the picture.

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.