Star Wars: The Psychology of Rey

Drea Letamendi
Movies Sci-Fi
Movies Sci-Fi 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 Kylo Ren.

Rey is a thoughtful, strong-minded scavenger from the desert world of Jakku. Self-sufficient and inventive, Rey spent most of her childhood and young adulthood alone, discovering ways to survive in the harsh and windy climate of a remote, unremarkable planet. Rey is Force-sensitive—meaning that she is attuned to the flow of the mysterious, binding energy of the Force—but in her early years is unaware of this extraordinary power. Though she has few memories of her early childhood, Rey carries one formative flashback of her parents leaving her on Jakku when she was very young, just a few years old. In some versions of her memory, she is screaming for her parents not to leave her, watching them fly away on a ship as the junk boss Unkar Plutt restrains her by the arm. Rey’s parents remain a mystery. They were likely not even from Jakku. Rey believes, at times, that she was abandoned on the desolate planet, or even traded, no different than a piece of junk or a scrap part.

For the most part, Rey lives in quietude. Relying on her own intuitiveness and occasionally learning from the traders and off-worlders in Niima Outpost, Rey is a product of her environment as well as her inborn abilities of persistence, determination, and patience. Rey is resilient not simply because she has the innate capacity to tolerate adversity; she is resilient because the social and ecological elements of her world require her to be so. Rey is a survivor.

The Trauma of Abandonment and the Protection of Resilience

Rey can be stoic and silent at times. She spends hours of the day alone in her home, a massive, decaying Imperial All Terrain Armored Transport (AT-AT) that lies on a barren wasteland. She quietly forages inoperable ships that have crashed on Jakku, trawls through junk fields in the Starship Graveyard, and patches together wares from military bits leftover from old battles. Rey can seem contemplative, even content, as she moves through her daily routine of scavenging, trading for food rations, and eating her meals. Between her trips to and from the littered junkyards and the trade outpost, Rey is patiently waiting. She is waiting for her parents to return. She is waiting to be reunited with family. She is waiting for something to happen. Something to explain to her where she is from what her purpose really is. Where she fits. Rey’s search for a sense of belonging is a sign of healthy adaptation. Belongingness fuels her courage. It drives her character. Despite her feelings of abandonment and loneliness, she is not yet despondent or disheartened. Rey embodies pure hope, inside and out.

Understanding the origins of Rey’s personality is somewhat challenging because her history remains relatively unknown. Individuals are significantly shaped by early experiences in their lives, including their upbringing, the style of parenting they received, strong attachments, trusting relationships, social support, and so forth. And although we cannot fully disentangle genetic from environmental influences on personality, both factors play an essential role in shaping one’s character. That is to say, Rey’s parents mattered.  Their background, who they were, what planet they were from, and their temperaments would have ultimately contributed in some ways to Rey’s identity through cultural as well as genetic inheritance. As it turns out, Rey’s longing for answers is warranted and relatable—identifying her parents will indeed help her understand who she is.

Rey’s sense of self is also inevitably impacted by her trauma. Trauma is a culturally broad term, but can refer to any experience that causes intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, or threat of annihilation. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), trauma takes into account the emotional response to a terrible event.

How we interpret a difficult event –how we form ideas, concepts, and even worldviews as responses to the event –is the part that’s psychologically transformative.

There are multiple types of traumas ranging from accidents to personal loss to random acts of nature—Rey’s childhood trauma is considered interpersonal trauma, and this distinction is important. Interpersonal traumas range emotional and physical abuses, and generally come from some type of intentional, human-driven action. These types of violations are interpreted by the brain and body in much different ways than accidents and natural disasters because the assault is deliberate. Rey isn’t alone by chance. She was left there. Rey has a hazy memory of her parents’ leaving her on Jakku, but it is clear that she interprets the event as something that is shattering to her core. Rey’s separation from her parents is internally coded as abandonment, betrayal, and rejection. Rey not only wonders who she is, but she silently struggles to understand whether she has any value. How is she any different than the scraps and parts she sees littered along the landscape of the forgotten planet of Jakku? According to the Children’s Bureau, abruptly removing a child from their original home can be devastating and confusing for them, sometimes leading to long-term social and emotional effects. In many cases, removal is necessary because the child is living with abuse and/or neglect. It is unclear whether Rey experienced childhood maltreatment from her birth parents—nonetheless, her early years resemble the challenging experiences foster youth and children placed in state custody often face. Furthermore, Rey is not placed in a supportive, enriching, and loving home after she is separated from her parents, which creates a vulnerability for further trauma.

Of certainty is the resilience we see in Rey. Psychological resilience is our ability to mentally and emotionally cope with hardships. Resilience exists when we access our mental capacities, engage our personal assets, and use external resources in order to protect ourselves from the hazardous effects of life’s stressors. Rey demonstrates key resilience skills, which can easily be remembered as the “7 C’s.” The first six include competence (for instance, building a repulsorlift speeder out of scraps in order to haul materials during foraging, and learning various alien dialects); creativity (fashioning the lenses from the stormtrooper helmet into a pair of usable protective goggles); confidence (carrying strong internal conviction, a sense of integrity, persistence and self-recognition when she has done well for the day); character (handling situations with a solid set of morals and values, such as rescuing BB-8, a spirited astromech droid, from being sold for parts by a greedy scavenger, Teedo); coping (tolerating the absence of her parents through managing her emotions, creating scratch marks on the side of the walker to mark the passage of time, to remind her how far she had come and to count down the days until her family returned for her); and control (empowering herself by building traps, computers, and learning how to use a quarterstaff to protect herself from others).  In speaking of resilience, Rey embodies a remarkable ability to create routine, predictability, and even gratifying moments out of the randomness and harshness of the backwater planet.

Something Awakens

While she lives on Jakku, however, Rey lacks a certain, crucial resilience skill: connection.  She has yet to develop close ties to a family or community in order to help her build a solid sense of security and shared values. Interpersonal connections prevent us from following destructive paths or sinking further into a hopeless state. Connections help us create a sense of physical and emotional safety. Connections remind us of our purpose in the larger picture. And connections find themselves toward Rey, but she rejects these opportunities, at first. In encountering BB-8, Rey’s inclination is to rescue the droid but immediately part ways, perhaps because she’s not able to see the benefit of companions, or she’s convinced that these bonds will only distract her from her goal. This schema changes significantly after Rey meets Finn, a stormtrooper who defected from the First Order. Rey accepts Finn’s story that he is actually a member of the Resistance and agrees to help him. In an exhilarating and impulsive moment, Rey and Finn fly the Millennium Falcon off of Jakku and into open space. This adventure leads her to meet Han Solo and Chewbacca, original members of the Rebel Alliance. Even as she grows closer to Han, a trusting mentor, someone who believes in her abilities and potential, Rey feels the longing of her origins again. When Han, for instance, notices the abundance of skill and technical acumen in her, he asks Rey to co-pilot the Falcon with him. Rey is visibly delighted by the notion—purpose, adventure, maybe a father figure?—but she tells him, “I have to get home… I’ve already been away too long.”

With the help of Han, Rey is introduced to Maz Kanata, a pirate and collector who operates a castle on the planet Takodana. While exploring the castle, Rey begins to hear voices and whispers. A presence calls to her. Rey follows her intuition deeper into the lower levels of the castle. She begins to hear her own voice, herself as a child, crying to her parents to come back to her.  She follows her own voice toward an empty room full of artifacts and chests. Intuitively, Rey opens a small trunk to find Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber. Maz, who is mysteriously wise about Rey’s future, offers a bit of advice. “Whoever you’re waiting for, they’re never coming back,” Maz asserts. She is clear, but kind. “The belonging you seek is not behind you,” Maz continues. “it is ahead.” Though she is frightened (and reluctant), Rey begins to turn toward a mindset of openness, presence, and self-awareness. This sparks her journey of mindfulness.

Mindfulness, the Force, and Self-Discovery

Mindfulness is the intentional practice of focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. Put more simply, mindfulness is the mental state of noticing the now. It is being open to the present. It is the inherent ability to know what’s happening in our body but not getting carried away (or scared) by what we learn. Mindfulness has noticeable benefits: it increases our ability to recognize emotional states within ourselves, dials up our self-compassion, and strengthens our ability to self-regulate—meaning, we’re more likely to not only tolerate heavy emotions but actually learn how to manage and lessen their intensity.  Through mindfulness, we learn how to respond wisely to what’s happening to us, rather than reacting blindly and lashing out. These, in fact, are all important skills that support mental health growth such as trauma recovery, anxiety management, and stress reduction

How can stillness, quietude, and curiosity give Rey intellectual growth?  An important outcome of mindfulness is self-awareness, which is our capacity for self-introspection. Self-awareness is essential in helping us understand how our emotions and thoughts guide us, drive our decisions, and help us form ideas about the world. Together on the hidden island of Ahch-To, Rey and Luke Skywalker bring some of these ideas to light. Luke, for example, employs these principles when he asks Rey to draw her focus and attention inward, to use intentionality and observation so that she can increase insight. Though he was reluctant at first, Luke begins to teach Rey about the Force. He describes it as an energy “between all things.” It is a balance. It is inside of us. It binds us. Luke is also stern in his warnings about the Force. “It is not a power you have,” he contends. The Force, for once, becomes crystal clear. It is not about genetics. Or IQ. Something we’re born with. Quite simply, it’s our ability to notice. And the most powerful statement Luke makes is that the Force “does not belong to the Jedi” and thus, the Force does not belong to anyone, even those who have the power to harness it.  In a teachable moment, Luke asks Rey to engage these principles, to reach out “with her feelings.”  As she stills her body and mind, visions begin to overtake Rey. A dark place calls to her. When she slips out of the meditative vision, Luke is terrified. “You went straight to the dark,” he tells her, fearfully. “It offered you something you needed… You didn’t resist.”

It is important to note that no prior training or skill level is required to achieve a state of mindfulness. One key aspect should be clear: mindfulness is not necessarily about staying “immobile.”  When we have suffered emotional trauma, our minds are often filled with anger, rage, hatred, self-loathing, and other negative feelings. In reaction, and in protection, we want to avoid these intense and threatening thoughts and emotions. Paying close, sustained attention to our internal experience is sometimes not tolerable, especially if it invites contact with traumatic thoughts, images, memories, or even physical sensations. For trauma survivors, complete silence is simply not possible, or even recommended. In teaching mindfulness activities, for instance, healing practitioners want to minimize the potential dangers of meditative states to trauma survivors who may experience their body’s stillness as triggering or re-traumatizing.  Combining mindfulness and movement (breathing, yoga, sound, music, etc.), can sometimes be more helpful than traditional meditation for these reasons.

Confronting Fear

On the sacred island of Ahch-To, Rey opens up to Luke about the changes she is noticing. “Something inside me has always been there,” Rey confesses. “And now it’s awake. And I’m afraid.” In a moment of solitude, Rey, once again, reaches out into the Force with her senses, and feels drawn to a cavern located below the sea rocks.  Convinced that there might be answers within the cave, Rey descends into the blackness, allowing her mind  to pull her back to her past. In the dream-like, glistening chamber, Rey approaches a reflective wall. She sees multiple images of herself, mirrored back to her over a hundred times. “Let me see them,” she commands, “my parents.” Two shadowy, indistinct, distant images begin approaching her on the other side of the blurry glass. They form into human bodies. And connect. Then, it’s just a simple reflection of herself. She stares into her own face. Her own reflection. Rey never felt so alone.

The Ahch-To cave is a test. Here, Rey is directly facing her fear, her ultimate worry that she may never know where she comes from or who she truly is. Rey asks herself what she must endure to find herself. It is loneliness, isolation, scatteredness. She sees herself fragmented, split into pieces. Not a whole person. Rey is simultaneously nothing and everything. To her surprise, Rey doesn’t find the answer within the cave. She is met instead with silence, loneliness, and very little mirrored back to her. The cave tells her that where she comes from is not the actual answer she seeks. Though she feels disappointment, this moment conveys Rey’s growing self-awareness. Rey manages to handle her fear in an empowered way. She accepts the fear, the unknowing, and the realization that the person she is to become is defined within. Rey begins to let go of who she thinks she’s supposed to be and embraces who she is now.

The Power of the Growth Mindset

Imagine if you were asked to identify yourself. Go on, try it. Point to yourself and say your name, out loud. Naturally, you likely guided your hand toward your chest, and pointed at your heart.  Our self-conceptseems to be represented intuitively in our hearts, not our heads or our minds. As it turns out, the elements that make us who we are –our abilities and talents—may not actually be defined by what’s in our heads after all, but by the strength of our motivation, our drive, the spark within us. Isn’t that where personality lives? Stanford psychologist and researcher Carol Dweck is best known for synthesizing these ideas about individual growth and personality. One of the most basic beliefs we carry about humans, she posited, has a lot to do with how we view personality. Dweck posited that a fixed mindset means we view our character, intellect, and creative abilities as static. Rey, for instance, may have started off believing that her aptitude and capabilities were “set” by her history, her parents, where she came from. These beliefs held back her potential, at first. Sure, she was resourceful on Jakku, but was limited to a self-concept strictly dependent on her imagined ties to her parents.

A person with a growth mindset,on the other hand, thrives on challenges, stretches themselves beyond pre-conceived limits, and perceives failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as an energizing springboard for growth. As it turns out, students who exhibit a growth mindset—because they believe they can get smarter and therefore direct efforts toward growth and learning—demonstrate higher levels of achievement compared to students with fixed mindsets.

Rey as a First Gen Jedi

During her life on Jakku, Rey learns a number of survival skills, builds tools and weapons, and manages to maintain a heart full of generosity and compassion. In some cases, Rey picks up skills from observing other traders and off-worlders who were more experienced than she. In other cases, Rey learns from her own mistakes and setbacks, and perseveres with the hope that her survival would lead to reuniting with her parents. Rey is able to use her existing intuition and lived experience to navigate the Force—something that doesn’t yet have a name. Using strong will, she is able to access abilities she was not even sure she possessed. Impressively, Rey uses self-motivation, focus, and determination to surpass her own mind’s limits. For instance, through this internal willpower, she resists Kylo Ren’s attempt to use the Force to invade her mind and memories during his interrogation of her on Starkiller Base. Though she never used the weapon before, she commands Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber toward her, ignites it, and ultimately engages in combat to defeat Ren, who was formally trained by his uncle at the Jedi Academy.

Rey is considered a nontraditional student of the Jedi. That is, Rey began her training later in life compared to the young Padawan learners who were recruited and matched to mentors in early childhood. Rey did not receive the benefits of growing up around other members of the Jedi Academy. She did not hold pre-existing knowledge about the teachings of the Force; she was not raised by adults who had completed those traditions and passed down the principles to her.

Unlike someone such as Kylo Ren, Rey was not raised by parents who were educated, experienced, and already connected to a system that she could ultimately benefit from in terms of early cultural indoctrination.

Broadly defined, a first-generation college student is someone who is the first in their family to attend college. As a young learner, Rey may have some things in common with the First Gen experience, including a lack of “college readiness” (for instance, not having any formal experience with Jedi Masters, exposure to similar curriculum, or direct teachings of the principles that may lead to formal entry into the program) prior to being accepted as Luke’s apprentice. Similar to First Gen students, Rey was initially unfamiliar with the rigor and expectations of the formal lessons of the Jedi, as she did not have parents that were available or resourced to adequately prepare her for such formal education.

Like other First Gen students, Rey lacked early opportunities to spend time with key community members (in her case, trained Jedi, members of the council, resistance fighters, historians, etc.), she relied on her own internal resources to achieve scholastic success (learning alien languages from traders and scavengers, earning her own food portions, protecting the weak and underserved, as Jedi are commanded to do), and she missed out on resources and materials that may have helped her develop the focus and energy needed for successful learning as a Jedi student. Lack of family support is another issue faced by Rey that matches the First Gen experience. With insufficient levels of emotional encouragement—in Rey’s case, no support at all given she was orphaned—a First Gen student is susceptible to low self-esteem due to lack of experiences and a sense of self-doubt or imposter syndrome. Like most First Gen students, Rey’s peers may question whether she has the “real abilities” that they do. Kylo Ren, for instance, asserts that Rey is untrained and lacks control of her power.

The Jedi, Destiny, and Self-Determinism

Sometimes we hold on to a dream for so long, we can’t imagine ourselves without it. We become fused to it. We even reject evidence telling us that it won’t ever become a reality. When Rey meets people who form meaningful connections with her, the dream of meeting her parents begins to dissolve.  These new connections start to fulfil Rey’s eagerness to belong to family. Han, the fatherly technician who sees past her smallness. Maz, the wise and kind historian. And Luke, the hardened mentor who needs her compassion. As Rey grows more insightful from their teachings, the yearning for her birth parents lessens. One of Rey’s biggest challenges in her self-development is introduced by Kylo Ren, who recognizes that her strong desire to belong remains present. “Your parents threw you away like garbage,” Ren mocks her, in an effort to pull her away from the Resistance. “It’s your greatest weakness,” he continues. He callously explains that she looks for parental love everywhere—first, with Han, and then, with Luke as her mentor. Ren summons her to the Supremacy, a Mega-Class Star Destroyer serving the First Order. After Ren and Rey combine efforts to defeat Supreme Leader Snoke and his First Order guards, Rey is somewhat more trusting of Ren. His accusations about her parents still cut deep. “They were filthy junk traders who sold you off for drinking money,” Ren tells Rey, convincingly. “They’re dead.” In an effort to exploit her weakness, Ren pushes harder. “You have no place in this story. You come from nothing… You’re nothing.” Rey believes him.

The idea that her parents have no meaningful place in her own story splinters Rey’s existing schema, but it also introduces a freeing sensation that she might be ready to feel. Her ancestry, her genes, her lineage—In The Last Jedi, she is told none of it matters. Rey carries with her the heaviness of her hardships and traumas—but she also holds her own accomplishments. Her talents. Her might. Every gift Rey embodies means something different now, because she’s created them, channeled them, fought for them, herself. Rey’s ability to harness the energy of the Force is largely due to her own willpower and tenacity, not to some heritable trait. The inner spirit that propelled her toward the Jedi is her own. Rey can create her own path.

Rey’s childhood belief that biological determinism drove her behavior and even decided her future is weakened by her growing curiosity of free choice. Self-determination is an important psychological concept that refers to our ability to make personal choices and manage our own lives. This ability plays an important role in our mental health and well-being, mainly because it allows us to experience control over our surroundings, relationships, and future. Self-determination also has an impact on motivation—we feel more motivated to take action, to problem-solve, to get ourselves out of trouble, when we feel that what we do will have an effect on the outcome. But belief in ourselves isn’t always enough. We’re pushed forward by positive support, the people who encourage, foster, and teach us about our own inner strength). Maz, Han, Finn, Leia and Luke propel Rey toward her journey of personal success.

Despite the Jedi principle warning us that fear leads to terrible things, Rey shows us that fear can lead to meaningful change. She shows us how she transforms her uncertainty, fear, and disjointedness into free will. Confronting fear opens her willingness to understand pain and suffering.

Confronting fear teaches her to transcend the constraints of her own fixed mind.

In speaking of determinism, Luke’s wise words about the Force, ownership, and free will come to mind again. We do not possess the Force. We cannot own the energy that binds us to other beings in this universe. But when we will ourselves, we can connect with it in ways that transform us beyond our fixed limitations. We, too, are freed. Rey reminds us that we can rise up from anything. We are never stuck. We have choices. In trusting herself completely with the Force, Rey successfully rescues the small band of Resistance fighters and puts an end to the harrowing Battle of Crait. Rey is able to access the clarity and focus needed to lift the heavy boulders that trapped General Organa and the vulnerable crew within the mountain base. She boards each member onto the Millennium Falcon with enough time to escape the First Order. Just as she’s about to close the Falcon’s doors, Rey shares one more interaction through the Force with Kylo Ren. Staring him down, she makes the willful, intentional choice to close the connection and move on. In this moment, Rey learns she is self-actualized when her competence, connection and autonomy are fulfilled, not when she follows a path determined by others.

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.