What can Marvel’s Loki teach us about Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)?

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Character Overview:

Loki is the God of Mischief, adopted brother of Thor, and grows up as a prince of Asgard despite actually being a Frost Giant. As presumable through the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Loki is a troubled character who has had a difficult childhood, a lack of self identity, and a divorce from his birth culture. He is also a widely popular antagonist because of the underlying sense of goodness in him, despite his consistent tendencies of betraying those who trust him and being characteristically spontaneous. This case study will look into the psychological background behind Loki’s behaviors, and explore how his actions and tendencies affect maintaining healthy relationships and living a typical lifestyle. 

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Psychological Underpinnings:

Loki is presented as an unstable individual with identity issues stemming from a variety of factors: not knowing his true birth parents, growing up constantly overshadowed by Thor (first, and birth-son, of their shared father Odin), not knowing his true place in either Asgard or with the Frost Giants, and not having a sense of familial security.

A few of Loki’s risk factors include, to be frank, “daddy issues”, as he never knew his birth father, and grows up feeling lesser than his adopted father’s birth son, Thor. His relationship with Thor is another risk factor, as his thirst for power is likely to have originated from wanting to prove himself next to his older brother, and needing validation.

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Suggested Diagnosis:

Based on evidence from the movies, I would diagnose Loki with borderline personality disorder. According to the DSM-V, symptoms of borderline personality disorder include “frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment”, “identity disturbance”, “a pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation”, “impulsivity in areas that are potentially self-damaging”, and “inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger” (5th ed.; DSM–5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013). To be diagnosed with BPD, an individual must exhibit five or more symptoms, and these tendencies would affect the individual’s ability to maintain a typical lifestyle. Let’s take a look at how these symptoms apply to our unpredictable antagonist:

  • Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment
    • In The Avengers, Loki takes charge on his desire to rule Earth. Loki has always wanted to be in a position of power, taking action to rule Asgard or Jotunheim in Thor (2011) and Thor: The Dark World (2013). Given his background, it’s sensible to connect Loki’s literal abandonment as a child, which led him to adoption into Asgard, with a fear of future abandonment from the family that he has come to know.
  • Identity disturbance 
    • Defined by the DSM-V, identity disturbance is characterized by “a painful sense of incoherence, objective inconsistencies in beliefs and behaviors, overidentification with groups or roles, and, to a lesser extent, difficulties with commitment to jobs, values, and goals” (5th ed.; DSM–5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013).We can deduct through Loki’s inconsistencies between good and bad that he does not confidently side with one ideal, since it seems he is frequently torn between a selfish desire for power and an underlying benevolent calling to “do the right thing” (Thor: Ragnarok, 2017).
  • A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation
    • This one makes sense superficially: throughout every movie that Loki stars in, he manages to betray someone who trusts him, manipulating his relationships, andthor.jpg fluctuating back and forth between the good and bad side. Throughout the movies, Loki wavers between sabotaging Thor and saving him, ultimately not being able to sentence his brother to death. The symptom of idealization and devaluation can be characterized by a stereotypical “love/hate” relationship, and we can thus use Thor as an example.
  • Impulsivity in areas that are potentially self-damaging
    • Seeing as Loki is the main antagonist in The Avengers, but comes right around and saves Thor’s life in Thor: The Dark Worldwe have established that he is an unpredictable and spontaneous character. His impulsivity can be characterized in a multitude of examples from the movies, and are intrusive to healthy daily functioning because he is unable to maintain stable relationships and gain the full trust of any loved one.
  • Inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger
    • Here, we can look closer into Loki’s power phases, such as while taking over Earth in The Avengers. He is quick to lash out, with a quick temper, and also takes the lives of many innocent individuals when he does not get what he wants. As this evidently affects his daily functioning, preventing him from building healthy relationships and establishing rapport with his community, this exhibited symptom meets the qualifications for BPD.

Conclusions:

loki1As evident from his popularity and fan following, Loki is a beloved antagonist because many find his underlying sense of goodness the most endearing, as it adds to his character development throughout the Marvel movies.

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is “marked by an ongoing pattern of varying moods, self-image, and behavior” (National Institute of Mental Health). It is prevalent in 1.6% of the population and has a 5.9% lifetime prevalence, based on the US census from 2017 (UpToDate), For more information on BPD, NIMH and NAMI have great overviews on their websites.

As a side note, this case study was a pilot, and I plan to make changes in the near future, such as adding quotes, providing further evidence, and adding more discussion points (such as how diagnosis does not define the character, and potential other ways to view Loki’s behavior). Keep an eye out for updates.

As a disclaimer, this case study is my own opinion based on presented cinematic material. I recognize that there could be numerous other interpretations, and I am open to discussion or additions to this post. Have questions or want to add on to assessment? You can reach me via the Contact page.

References:

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), American Psychiatric Association, Arlington 2013.

Feige, K. (Producer), & Taylor, A. (Director). (2013). Thor: The Dark World [Motion Picture]. United States, Marvel Studios. 

Feige, K. (Producer), & Branagh, K. (Director). (2011). Thor [Motion Picture]. United States, Marvel Studios. 

Feige, K. (Producer), & Whedon, J. (Director). (2012). The Avengers [Motion Picture]. United States, Marvel Studios. 

Feige, K. (Producer), & Waititi, T. (Director). (2017). Thor: Ragnarok [Motion Picture]. United States, Marvel Studios. 

Mental Health America. (2017, May 10). Borderline Personality Disorder. Retrieved May, 2018, from http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/conditions/borderline-personality-disorder/ 

National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2017, December). Borderline Personality Disorder. Retrieved May, 2018, from https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-conditions/borderline-personality-disorder/

National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2017, December). Borderline Personality Disorder. Retrieved May, 2018, from https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-conditions/borderline-personality-disorder/ 

Skodol, A., MD. (2017, April 27). Epidemiology, Clinical Features, Course, Assessment, and Diagnosis. Retrieved May, 2018, from https://www.uptodate.com/contents/borderline-personality-disorder-epidemiology-clinical-features-course-assessment-and-diagnosis

Smith, M., MA, & Segal, J., PhD. (n.d.). Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD): A Guide to Symptoms, Treatment and Recovery. Retrieved May, 2018, from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/mental-disorders/borderline-personality-disorder.htm/

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Copyright Disclaimer: This character, their photos, and storyline references are all copyright by Marvel Studios. All information and content presented in this assessment are solely analyzed for general information and reference purposes. 

© Post material by Juliann Li and The Character Clinic, 2018.
All rights reserved.