3 Narcissistic Traits in Kylo Ren

Are we exploring enough of the darker side of "Star Wars: The Last Jedi"?

Posted Dec 19, 2017

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Following the much-anticipated premiere of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”, it's almost impossible to not make a psychological commentary. The element of the dark side and the teachings of Jedi masters have long been explored, yet there's something very fascinating about analyzing complex characters on their own. In this case, Kylo Ren. 

In "Star Wars: The Force Awakens,¨ we have only begun to know Kylo Ren as the evil character who wishes to continue Darth Vader's mission to eliminate all Jedis. However, it is not until The Last Jedi, that we are able to truly dig deeper into his psyche. Yet, the more we know, the more questions we have about him. 

What makes him tick? What's his underlying need? Where does this thirst for power come from? What are his aspirations and fears? In a literal and metaphorical way – who is the man behind the mask? Who is Ben Solo and what gave him that final push into the dark side? 

This character has so many layers to him, that one – similar to Rey – is left doubting and hoping. And – to me anyway – the movie doesn't really put an end to this doubting. If anything, it leaves an open door to even further wondering and hypothesizing. Will he eventually turn good? Or, is it all an act? And, if so, I can't help but think that his pathology is much more severe than the one this article aims to explain. 

Regardless of all of this, the deeper I dove into the movie, the more I thought about how much Kylo Ren reminded me of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). And, rather than the complete diagnosis, there were small parts of the movie that reminded me of key traits of this disorder. 

Empathy is deficient and dysfunctional 

Those who exhibit traits of NPD are people who "believe they are superior or special, and often try to associate with other people they believe are unique or gifted in some way." One of the most characteristic traits in this disorder is their apparent lack of empathy, often portrayed as an inability to connect on a deep, emotional level with other people.

Pincus & Lukowitsky (2010) have distinguished between two types of narcissism: the arrogant narcissism and psychopathic narcissism. According to them, "the psychopathic narcissist copes with self-esteem dysregulation by engaging in antisocial behaviors to protect or enhance their inflated self-image. Such individuals will commit violent criminal acts in order to gain admiration from others, display extreme rage reactions to criticism, and are interpersonally sadistic without experiencing remorse or empathy. " 

In The Force Awakens, we see more of this trait in Kylo Ren, and this is finally consolidated when he kills his own father at the end of the movie. However, in this movie, we see a speck of empathy, particularly when he refrains from blowing up the spaceship commanded by his mother. This decision can help us hypothesize as to the quality of relationship he established with his parents. But, taking this even further, it makes the element of empathy even more complex. Rather than a "lack of empathy", Kylo Ren seems to have a dysfunctional and deficient understanding of empathy. 

Baskin-Sommers, Krusemark & Ronningstam (2014) have taken this understanding of empathy to a clinical level. Their empathy-based findings suggest "moving away from an all or nothing belief that those with NPD simply lack empathy." When we begin to understand the concept of empathy as a multidimensional element, we can begin to work on it. In Kylo Ren's case, we can see that his understanding and portrayal of empathy is as multilayered as he is, and I think the future expanding of the Star Wars universe will unravel more about the development of Kylo Ren's empathy.

Manipulation as a form of communication

Another important trait of NPD's is their need to manipulate others to achieve what they want. The way their manipulation works varies. In Kylo Ren's case, the part in which he tries to lure Rey into abandoning the rebels and "ruling" together, is a great example of his intent to manipulate. 

It's not all that clear the reason as to why he wants to run away with Rey. It might be him trying to ease his inner conflict or wanting to eliminate Rey as a potential competition – which we know that people with narcissistic traits do not enjoy having. But, what is clear, is the way he uses power dynamics to manipulate her into doing so. 

He needs to put her down, make her feel insecure and unworthy in order for him to feel a bit more powerful. In order for him to feel in control of the situation. He tries to manipulate her with her past, her neglecting parents (or an assumption that they were neglecting), and use this as leverage into making her feel smaller. 

This is something characteristically narcissistic. It's important to understand that beyond their need to portray themselves as superior, they need to feel as they truly are above everyone else. Particularly because there's an underlying strong feeling of insecurity that they must abolish at all costs. And they try to diminish this feeling through their relationships with other people. 

Need for power

Research has shown how people who exhibit narcissistic traits are often drawn to positions of power. More importantly, the general public who follow their leadership, respond well to leaders with certain traits. 

The death of Snoke might be the most plot-twisting moment in the entire movie. But, what's even more interesting and complex is the reason behind this. Is it to get on Rey's good side? And if so, was that a tactic as well to get her to trust him and eventually submit herself to him? Or was it a "cut the snake by the head" type of moment? A need to eliminate the highest power, so that he could become the highest ranking power? 

While we might not have answers to this question, we know that Kylo Ren exhibits a strong need for power. The genesis of where this comes from is a question on its own, as we don't know much about his upbringing. But, we do know that he has a rather complicated past – one which we learn about a little bit more in every movie and allows us to hypothesize about what shaped him to become the person he is. 

The interesting aspect of his character is that we are torn. We don't know yet if we like him or not. And the reason this happens is that we keep learning about him and his inner workings. It's more helpful to understand narcissism – and many other psychological traits – as a continuum, rather than a "diagnostic sentence." When we are open to knowing more about each individual's background, we can begin to comprehend why they behave the way they do. More importantly, what makes people more "force-sensitive," and others more vulnerable to join "the dark side." 

References

Baskin-Sommers, A., Krusemark, E., & Ronningstam, E. (2014). Empathy in narcissistic personality disorder: From clinical and empirical perspectives. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 5(3), 323-333. doi:10.1037/per0000061

Brunell, A. B., Gentry, W. A., Campbell, W. K., Hoffman, B. J., Kuhnert, K. W., & Demarree, K. G. (2008, 10). Leader Emergence: The Case of the Narcissistic Leader. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(12), 1663-1676. doi:10.1177/0146167208324101

Kernberg, O. F. (2004, 08). Pathological Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Theoretical Background and Diagnostic Classification. Aggressivity, Narcissism, and Self-Destructiveness in the Psychotherapeutic Rela, 45-59. doi:10.12987/yale/9780300101805.003.0003

Levine, A. B., & Faust, J. (2013, 02). A Psychodynamic Approach to the Diagnosis and Treatment of Closet Narcissism. Clinical Case Studies, 12(3), 199-212. doi:10.1177/1534650113475475

Pincus, A. L., & Lukowitsky, M. R. (2010, 03). Pathological Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 6(1), 421-446. doi:10.1146/annurev.clinpsy.121208.131215

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