Star Wars: The Psychology of Kylo Ren

Drea Letamendi
Movies Star Wars
Movies Star Wars

With Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker about to open, clinical psychologist Dr. Drea is taking a look at two of the central characters in the third Star Wars trilogy and their story so far. Click here for her profile of Rey.

Impassioned. Impulsive. Out of control.

Strong with the Force, Kylo Ren is a young warrior who clumsily commands the galactic military dictatorship known as the First Order. Wrapped in long, black robes and often concealed by a battered combat helmet, Ren has the potential to be a formidable villain. His unconventional, crossguarded red lightsaber is much like his personality: rugged, fiery, fragmented and unfinished. Indisputably, Ren is fearsome because he is unpredictable and reckless. He is fervently driven, unrestrained, and consumed with hatred. His emotional outbursts and frenzied tantrums reveal the flood of hate coursing through his body. And yet, Ren is unconvincing as a true villain. He’s unable to present himself as confident or unwavering. Ren struggles to form an all-embracing self-identify; he cannot fully access the evil stirring inside him because some semblance of Jedi faith remains at his core. Ren battles with an internal conflict that creates doubts and weaknesses within him, and as such, we’re unable to see him as the figure he so desperately wants to be, Darth Vader.

The Predatory Mentor

Kylo Ren — born as Ben Solo — was hand-picked and recruited by the mysterious master of the dark side of the Force, Supreme Leader Snoke. Son to Leia Organa and Han Solo, Ben carried a unique ancestral makeup that Snoke wanted to possess—might Ben have inherited the pride, the devotion, and the tenacity from his Force-strong mother, Leia, but also the impetuousness, self-centeredness, and thrill-seeking from his scoundrel father, Han? Was he willing to take risks –and would this mean he could be pushed to violence? True, it became clear to his parents that Ben had inherited something sinister from his grandfather, Darth Vader. As an adolescent, Ben began to struggle with mixed emotions and confusing urges, and Leia sensed that Snoke was threateningly close to narrowing in on him to harness that spark of darkness for his own advantage. As Leia explained, Snoke was interested in Ben because “He knew our child would be strong with the Force. That he was born with equal potential for good or evil.”

To help Ben, Leia sent him to train with his uncle Luke Skywalker, who, despite seeing the strengths in his nephew, intuited an uncertainty growing inside of him. One late evening while the rest of the Jedi training academy slept, Luke became convinced of young Ben’s turn to the dark side, and approached Ben’s quarters, preparing to confront his nephew. As rationality returned to him, Luke quickly came to his senses. Ben, however, awoke to his uncle standing over him with his lightsaber drawn, and he lashed out defensively. In a rage-fueled episode, Ben injured Luke and went on to murder the rest of the cadets, taking a few with him as they abandoned the academy. This misunderstanding formed the catalyst for Ben’s separation from the Jedi. Determined to turn him to the dark side, Snoke leveraged Ben’s feelings of betrayal and confusion, and lured him away, ultimately succeeding in corrupting Luke’s pupil. Kylo Ren, of the Knights of Ren, was born, and Ben Solo was no more.

It is important to name the abusive relationship between Snoke and Kylo Ren. Though it is unclear how strong Ren’s self-doubts were as a Jedi learner, Snoke takes advantage of the young man’s need for acceptance by offering a mentorship that would affirm Ren’s darker thoughts and impulses. Knowing full well of his Skywalker bloodline, Snoke brings Ren to the Rarlech system to train him as a dark warrior, hoping to groom him into a combatant as strong as Darth Vader. During a formative exercise, Snoke uses the Force to suspend Ren at the edge of a deep cliff. With his Force abilities still underdeveloped, Ren is unable to resist Snoke’s grasp. Snoke admonishes Ren, explaining that Ren should be afraid because he isn’t in control of himself. Ren feels powerless, and Snoke knows this is how to bond him. Snoke proceeds to coach Ren by telling him that feeling powerless was good. Powerless men, he urged, often “turn to anger and lash out blindly.” Powerful beings can therefore use their rage as a weapon. “I need more from you,” he pushes.  “I need you to find your true power…your true potential.”  As part of this exercise, Snoke releases Ren from his Force grip, advising him to convert his fear into anger, and then turn his anger into power. Ren follows obediently and manages to sustain his own body over the cliff.

Snoke shows approval of his budding student, assuring him that if he wields his “true power” then Ren can rule alongside him. Embedded in this lesson is the agreement that Ren is to harness his own darkness, to give importance, value, and personal connection to the turmoil inside of him. The reward? Validation. Acceptance. Purpose. Snoke manages to do something terrible: He makes Ren associate pain with love. Motivated by the concept of a caring parental figure, one who accepts all parts of him, Ren draws nearer to Snoke.

Luke Skywalker, despite his good intentions, may have been a toxic mentor–someone who hindered and suppressed his student’s learning, someone who diminished his student’s self-confidence by withholding knowledge, someone who insisted that he knew better than the talented pupil before him.

Luke’s ego kept him from truly seeing the pain within Ren, and blinded him from the opportunity to guide Ren away from what could have been very natural inclinations toward destruction. Snoke, on the other hand, is a predatory mentor. He groomed Ren by cunningly maneuvering the young man into a position that made him more isolated, dependent, and vulnerable to more abusive behavior. Snoke ensured that Ren would trust him—and only him—so that he had nowhere else to turn and no one else to go to.

Grooming is an insidious predatory tactic.  An abuser chooses to groom a vulnerable (usually young) person in order to exploit them for personal gain.  The strategy often starts with separating or creating distance between the victim and their parents (here, Snoke forbidding anyone in the First Order to use Ren’s birth name), gaining the target’s trust (Force-holding Ren over a cliff), breaking down their defenses (strenuous physical and mental training, penetrating Ren’s mind and picking apart his weaknesses), and manipulating the victim (convincing Ren that his true calling is to emulate Darth Vader). It was Snoke who believed the Jedi should be eviscerated, and that the last known living Jedi Master, Luke Skywalker, should be persecuted and killed. He used his relationship with Ren to further these hateful ideologies that permeated the First Order, to weaponize the young boy, and to establish supremacy over the Resistance.

To be clear, Snoke’s grooming tactics are primarily for sociopolitical indoctrination; there is no indication of sexual predation on Snoke’s part. And yet, manipulating the energy of the Force inside Ren, is, in some way, interpersonally violating. Snoke selfishly pierces and picks at Ren’s mind for his own gain, to pleasure the feeling of power, possession, and dominance. Without consent or permission, Snoke takes and poisons Ren’s Force energy, a delicate essence that Ren is just beginning to explore. Other grooming characteristics employed by Snoke match the psychological profile of an emotional abuser: He gives Ren overt attention (favoritism), compliments his power (ego stroking), communicates in hologram (isolating), appears as a towering figure in said hologram (threatening), offers military weapons and ships (gift-giving), and, ultimately, berates Ren for wearing a Vaderesque helmet (gaslighting).

Why does Ren give in to Snoke? Grooming can feel exhilarating – at first. The predator shows attentiveness, understanding, empathy, and other, tangible rewards to seduce their victim. Snoke’s fascination with Ren is real—he is truly, deeply fixated on Ren’s ancestral ties, and craves ownership of Ren for this reason. But Snoke has little interest in protecting or preserving Ren as a person.  Ren may have first felt overwhelmed by the attention he was receiving, but after being rejected, abandoned and “given up” by his light side mentors, Ren turns directly toward the evil of the First Order. He belongs to Snoke, body and soul.

The Erasure of Ben Solo

By his own choosing, Kylo Ren often wears a face-concealing black combat helmet accented with silver metal to affect a menacing brow. This voice-altering helmet serves to conceal Ren’s facial characteristics and speech, as it is important to Ren that others not detect remnants of Ben Solo. “You just dress-up to hide the faces of your rebel scum parents,” General Armitage Hux would scoff. The mask serves to hide his true identity, but it also connects Ren to his idealized persona. It conveys power, mysteriousness, and vehemence, all things he wants to be, but it also symbolizes the figure Ren idolizes: Darth Vader.

Like Vader, Ren experiences himself as different and detached from the world around him. He doubts that others feels what he does—the intensity of his conflicting emotions, the constant pull between the light and dark side, the deeply felt urges to lash out against the universe. Ren is convinced his grandfather, however, somehow mastered this inner turmoil. He held the illusion that Vader transcended moral distress. He gained control of his emotions. As such, Ren looks up to Vader like one would a deity.

It is no coincidence that Ren chooses a uniform similar in appearance to Darth Vader’s cape and armor. Through black robes and a red lightsaber, Ren tries to embody a vision of imposing darkness. His vocoder amplifies his voice in such a way that it affects a mechanical, deep tone. Through this role, he can command attention. He associates terror with respect; intimidation with power; obscurity with deference. If he can become a monster, he will earn what he’s always wanted: visibility. Paradoxically, by hiding who he is, Ren feels seen.

As Ben Solo, he was ineffective, blamed. As Kylo Ren, he matters.

Despite his efforts, however, Ren misses an important aspect of his grandfather’s form: Darth Vader didn’t choose his menacing exterior. Before he became Vader, Anakin Skywalker was nearly killed in a traumatic lightsaber battle against Obi Wan Kenobi on the fiery planet of Mustafar. Kenobi severed his arm and both legs, and left Anakin to burn to death on the volcanic rocks. Though he survived, Anakin becomes a cybernetic machine, depending on his mask and armor for life support. Ren suppresses these details and fixates instead on the symbolism of the helmet—an emblem of violence, oppression, and supremacy. In homage to his ancestral idol, Ren places misguided importance on the helmet in order to detach from his humanity. He selectively venerates the darkest aspects of Anakin Skywalker, a person who ultimately rediscovered his morality, achieved balance, and completed a thorough journey of self-actualization and redemption. Blindly, foolishly, Ren uses his grandfather’s image to futilely address his own unmet needs, to purge Ben Solo, and to get further and further away from a part of himself that brings him deep shame. Ren feels a visceral hatred toward Ben Solo, seeing his past self as a failure.

Ren might also use his helmet as mechanism to enhance his capacity for violence. He may have sensed how the helmet alters his confidence, determination, and drive. He is, after all, more intimidating and arresting when he wears it. But helmets and masks can also increase one’s level of aggression. Studies in social psychology have shown that covering our faces increases the likelihood that we will engage in antisocial and unlawful acts. Disguises that hide a person’s face can increase anonymity and therefore lower inhibitions. This phenomenon is known as deindividuation. According to psychologists, under some circumstances (think: groups that wear concealing hoods, for instance), a deindividuated person may lose their sense of being a distinct individual which can lead to reduced self-evaluation (a lapse in one’s conscience), decreased feelings of social responsibility (predicting little to no consequences) and lack of self-awareness (forgetting one’s personal sense of right and wrong). Criminal justice research shows that disguised offenders inflict more serious physical injuries, attack more people at the crime scene, engage in more acts of vandalism, and are more likely to threaten victims following attacks. Costumes can amplify levels of violence.  

For Ren, are these vicious acts in alignment with his ego, are they syntonic to his psychology …or is he being influenced by the forces of Snoke and the First Order? What ideology, if any, does Kylo Ren adhere to? If he believes that, as the special apprentice to Supreme Leader Snoke, he must persecute and destroy the New Republic, the Resistance, and the entire legacy of the Jedi, what do these actions represent for him? His powers are strong, but his emotional development remains nascent.  It could be argued that Ren sees the destruction of the Resistance as the final step in destroying Ben Solo. It is also possible that he is still developing his sense of identity and remains confused about his true, personal values. Ren’s helmet decreases his self-observation, giving him a sense of relief from this identity confusion. As he pushes Ben Solo away, he has fewer opportunities to reflect on the characteristics of Ben that may be more aligned to his true nature.

Caught between Light and Dark

What is clear is that Ren displays and handles emotions differently than either the Jedi or the Sith. Master Luke, for instance, would have preferred for Ren to subdue and inhibit his negative emotions of rage, jealousy, and fear. Entertaining those feelings, according to the Jedi, would lead to bad decision-making, unhealthy attachments, and malicious behavior. The Sith philosophy, in contrast, encourages warriors to engage their uncomfortable feelings and convert them to mental and physical strength. As Palpatine instructed Anakin Skywalker, “I can feel your anger…it makes you stronger, gives you focus.”

Ren, however, struggles to manage his distress either way. He’s convinced that he should harness the darkness within by using the power of the Force, but is instead overwhelmed, disorganized, and conflicted. Here, we see how he is impacted by secondary emotions. Primary emotions simply refer to the initial feeling we experience in a situation. Secondary emotions, in contrast,are the reactions we have to primary emotions. For example, a person may feel ashamed(secondary) as a result of being anxious (primary).  Ren’s primary emotions are in the realm of sadness, despair, hopelessness—after all, he lacks a sense of belonging or achievement.

His self-esteem is low, his sense of self is fragile and vulnerable.

Secondary emotions are often caused by the beliefs we carry about emotions to begin with.  Some people, for example, may believe that being sad or fearful are signs of weakness, and they react accordingly. For Ren, he dodges his primary feelings of sadness and jumps right into the secondary emotions—he experiences his impulsive, rageful, and destructive senses deeply. Unable to contain the intensity of these feelings, he lashes out. Then, because there is good in him, he faces additional feelings of regret, guilt, and shame. These “lapses” toward the light side lead him to return to anger for being weak. The tumultuous spiral continues, such that Ren cycles back and forth between anger and shame. To his disappointment, Ren is unable to “successfully” convert his anger to dark power because he’s not yet reconciled or even understood the sadness within him. Ren may hate Ben Solo, but he’s nowhere close to loving Kylo Ren.

What fuels Ren’s emotional cycle, then, are his moments of uncertainty. He questions himself. He feels remorse. The light side. When his mind wanders into his early Jedi learnings–perhaps the lessons of patience and serenity, the tenants of treating all life forms with respect and dignity, maybe the sense that serving as guardian rather than destroyer may be his calling—Ren becomes emotionally dysregulated. He’s unable to manage the intensity and meaning of what’s happening inside of him, such as the feelings of worthlessness, insecurity, and self-hatred. As such, he turns toward to his grandfather for clarity. “Forgive me,” Ren says to the charred, melted, deformed helmet worn by Darth Vader. “I feel it again. The call to the light.” He asks the spirit of Darth Vader to show him the power of the darkness again. “Show me, Grandfather. And I’ll finish what you started.” Alone with a heap of burnt metal, Ren searches for purpose, for wholeness, and for a way to cauterize the turmoil within him.

Time to Let Old Things Die

Loyalty is incredibly important to Ren, but he has not yet experienced a healthy bond characterized by trustworthiness or safety. Ren’s relationship with his birth father was disrupted early. Han may have doubted his ability to save Ren early on, as is hinted later in his comment to Leia, “there’s nothing more we could have done. There’s too much Vader in him.” Ren’s relationship with Luke was also fundamentally mistrusting; his Jedi mentor avoided sincere exploration of his darker tendencies and instead turned on him.  Leia may have been Ren’s only connection to a compassionate and mutual bond—it was Leia, however, who Ren associates with being sent away, and he may harbor resentment toward her for giving up on him. Supreme Leader Snoke, then, is the distant, authoritative, and manipulative mentor. Taken together, Ren’s caregivers failed to offer him secure attachments. Ren is sent away, blamed, and then victimized by one of the most powerful figures in the galaxy. What can be heavier than this kind of pressure?

Ren’s early relationships were formative in that they may explain the tactics he uses to engage Rey, the young Jakku scavenger he kidnaps during his attack of Takodana. Curious by her courage and potential linkage to the Jedi, Ren takes Rey to the Starkiller Base and restrains her in an interrogation chair. Determined to learn the location of Luke Skywalker, Ren intimidates and pressures Rey. He uses the Force to penetrate and examine her mind. “You know I can take whatever I want,” he threatens, his face forcefully close to hers. Throughout his interactions with Rey, Ren is replaying his own trauma, relating to her through his use of aggression, humiliation, and dominance.  We get a glimpse of Snoke as we see how Ren becomes psychologically assaultive with Rey. And though he nearly succeeds, Ren is shocked by the mental strength within Rey. “You’re afraid…” she accuses. “That you’ll never be as strong as Darth Vader.”

Discouraged by Rey’s resistance, but still fueled with rage, Ren confronts his father, Han Solo, who makes one last, desperate attempt to reason with his son. They haven’t seen each other in years. When Han calls him by his birth name, Ren is more determined than ever to cleanse himself. “Your son is gone” he asserts. “He was weak and foolish like his father. So I destroyed him.” Han suggests Ren remove his helmet nonetheless. After doing so, Ren becomes more sincere and begins confessing his pain.  “I’m being torn apart,” he tells his father. “I know what I have to do…but I don’t know if I have the strength to do it.” Only an arm’s length from his father, Ren unclips his lightsaber hilt and extends it toward Han. Hopeful, Han reaches for the weapon, wondering if Ren is turning toward the light side. Then, Ren ignites the lightsaber, sending the fiery red beam into Han’s chest.  “Thank you,” Ren mutters, killing his own father.

It becomes clear that Ren is asking his father for the strength to carry out his longstanding plan.

Ren’s solution was in the works for a long while; he has finally identified the way to reconcile the pain within him. By murdering his father, Ren has finally killed Ben Solo. He’s achieved, from his vantage point, complete independence from the light. gra shocking act of patricide didn’t make Ren feel stronger – somehow it makes him feel weaker. Ren had hoped this singular act would create a sense of wholeness and clarity, but found he remained at war with himself.

The Man Inside

Though Ren can appear cold and unfeeling, there is evidence that he isn’t immune or untouched by human empathy and compassion.  Yes, it causes him discomfort, but Ren still has an access, a connection, to his father’s good virtues and his mother’s integrity. Slaying Han, he realizes, does not mean he ceases to be those things. It was Snoke who ingrained the idea that when he isn’t rageful, he isn’t in control. Once again, Ren has failed. As such, Ren is chastised by Supreme Leader Snoke, who calls him weak and sentimental.  Snoke cements the blame by verbally retracing his faith in the young warrior. He convinces Ren that he was bested by the untrained girl because of a certain weakness: grief for losing his father.

“I’ve given everything I have to you…” Ren tells Snoke. But the Supreme Leader looks toward Ren with disappointment. “You failed. You are unbalanced.”  Disillusioned and rageful, Ren smashes his helmet against a wall. He abandons the symbol of Darth Vader. After all, how would someone as fragile as he compare himself to the beloved Lord Vader? Who, then, can help him achieve escape from these powerful emotions? Ren doesn’t have the ego strength now to withstand the personal assaults thrown by Snoke.

He’s lost connection to those who he mistakenly thought would empower him: Han, Snoke, and now, Vader.

Meanwhile, Ren’s emotions fixate on Rey, who had appeared to him in mutual Force-visions. Though they could not predict them, the two begin to gain insights into each other though these strange connections, and Ren lowers his guard. Feeling somewhat safe with Rey, Ren no longer tries to hide his feelings of pain and misery, and, in turn, their Force-bonding intensifies in strength and rawness. But Ren can’t stop himself from hurting her. Feeling an energy between them, a spark, a closeness—it reminds Ren of his traumatic abuse. He becomes emotionally disorganized, confused by his feeling of warmth, a sense of growing trust. In interpreting this energy, Ren falls back into an abusive dynamic, enabling his schema: I need to dominate this person vs I might learn from them; they may help me build an understanding of my own power.  As such, Ren accuses Rey of holding a softness for her parents. He tells her they abandoned her, but she “can’t stop needing them. It’s your greatest weakness.” He pushes harder to further her pain.  “You’re looking for them everywhere, in Han Solo, and now in Skywalker.” Sensing Rey’s sadness, and loneliness, Ren offers his solution: “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you were meant to be.” Ren relates to Rey the way his mentors related to him:  appeal to her weakness, reprimand her, dominate her, educate her through pain.

Turning Point

Having grown confident in their united power, Rey arrives on Snoke’s warship to address her and Ren’s combined potential. When she arrives, Ren receives her, and they enter Snoke’s throne room together, where the Supreme Leader awaits their arrival.  Not surprisingly, Snoke attacks Rey’s body and spirit, using the Force to suspend her in the air as he berates her abilities and identity.

Promising to kill Rey with the cruelest stroke, Snoke orders Ren to execute the girl who defeated him on Starkiller Base. Knowing that Snoke could sense his every intent, Ren turns his lightsaber toward Rey while simultaneously, surreptitiously, rotating Rey’s lightsaber in Snoke’s direction. Using his free hand, Ren commands the blue blade of Rey’s lightsaber through Snoke’s waist, severing him in half. After impressively killing all of the Supreme Leader’s Elite Praetorian Guards, Ren and Rey are left alone together. Ren turns to Rey, inspired.  “It’s time to let old things die,” he proposes. “Snoke, Skywalker. The Sith, the Jedi, the Rebels… Let it all die. We can rule together and bring a new order to the galaxy.”

Here, Ren attempts to seduce Rey with an appealing ideology: They are the most powerful two in the universe. He creates an “us vs them” dynamic, the very same that Snoke used to seduce him. Ren’s proposal, however, is appealing—and logical. The idea of discarding a system so dichotomous, one that had never been balanced, one that is dissipating and dying out, is a refreshing notion. Ren is essentially discouraging Rey from “wasting” her life on a dying culture. In a way, Ren and Rey embrace the middle of the Force, subverting what it means to be Dark Side or Light Side, transcending “the machine” that keeps both Jedi and Sith oppressed by constant war.  In this moment, Ren is convincing.  We’re all tired of the system; we all want freedom.

Thinking he’s making gains with Rey, Ren digs further into Rey’s emotional wounds. “You know the truth,” he says of Rey’s parents. “You have no place in this story. You come from nothing. You’re nothing.” The words burn.  Ren intends, with this statement, to disarm Rey, but also to test her. By punching her hard, he is observing how hard she punches back, what she’s capable of. In insisting she came from nothing, he is claiming she belongs nowhere. It is Ren, however, who feels that he belongs nowhere. His interest in partnering with Rey may be genuine, but Ren remains misguided, unsure of how to use his powers, mishandling and dishonoring the Force. Rey refuses his offering, giving him an all-too familiar, gut-wrenching sensation of rejection and disdain.

Looking Inward

What is Ren’s darkness? It was said that as a youth he suffered nightmares, upsetting visions, hallucinations and terrifying voices. In the Star Wars universe, the Dark Side of the Force isn’t unlike a negative energy or spirit. All of us, at some level, encounter feelings similar to what Ren might be sensing. We all have moments of self-doubt, hatred toward ourselves, and mistrust of others. If we have been hurt, we want to strike others, we want to lash out, we want to scream with rage. The conflict between the light and dark side lives in us, manifesting simultaneously in the self-protective urge to destroy one another and the hope that people unconditionally care about us nonetheless.

Kylo Ren’s darkness is psychological pain. For those of us who live with similar suffering, such as clinical depression, for instance, we experience moments of feeling “stuck” in our despair. Searching for a way to get “unstuck” or reconcile the turmoil, some individuals feel they have one option: choose a side. So, stop trying to be better, stop trying to find “good” within themselves. Stop searching for ways to be happy. Stop trying to climb out. Sink deeper within the vast emptiness. This also means stop fighting urges. Let malicious thoughts permeate the mind. Allow the irritability, aggression, and self-harm to exist freely and take control. In the agonizing fight within ourselves, some of us choose the darkness.

It’s likely that the concepts of light and dark have created much confusion in Ren’s concept of his own destiny.

His identity dualism, the self-fragmenting of his two personas, serves as a self-protective defense. But it cannot last. The fallacy of the Light vs. Dark side lies in the notion that we can fundamentally be characterized by “one side.” We fail by believing in the myth that we must be “good” one hundred percent of the time, by not allowing ourselves mistakes or lapses in judgment. Realistically, we are both. We must grant ourselves the permission to experience and even honor conflicts within us, to find self-acceptance in the mixture between light and dark, and the self-compassion to forgive ourselves when we lose control, so that we can grow beyond anything our mentors dreamed capable.

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.