The God of Mischief Who Would Be King: The Psychology of Loki

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Loki

You can’t keep a good God of Mischief down! Loki is about to return in the new Disney+ series, Loki, debuting June 9 – well, sort of, given Loki really and truly died in Avengers: Infinity War. But as seen in Avengers: Endgame, there is now a divergent timeline of Loki running amok, who escaped with the Tesseract. We’ve seen Loki at some huge extremes, as both hero and villain, but what motivates him? Clinical psychologist Dr. Drea Letamendi provides us with all the info below...

MEET LOKI

Loki Odinson wished to be extraordinary, remarkable, and illustrious. Surrounded by the ostentatious milieu of gods, rulers, and royalty, and raised among the symbology and mythos of intergalactic warfare, Loki developed the belief that one’s worthiness was intrinsically derived from power. In truth, Loki earned his feelings of supremacy, mastering an impressive amount of formidable abilities—superhuman strength and speed, regenerative healing, longevity, illusion manipulation, mind control, superior intellect, invisibility, and shapeshifting. Yearning for visibility and recognition, Loki held the unwavering belief that he was destined to be a great ruler. A god. And what are gods if not powerful, despotic, and superior? Beaming beneath his gold-horned helmet, a crown demanding attention and awe, Loki embraced his obsession with dominance.

Loki holds, however, a dark secret within himself. At his core, Loki nearly always feels injured and defeated. His sense of self—the way he sees his own traits, beliefs, and purpose within the world—is fragile and susceptible to criticisms of all kinds. His mind is bombarded with messages that he’s inadequate. He uses his most useful craft, his cunning mind, to distract and create theatrical illusions that draw attention away from his faults.

Loki is most recognized for his mischievous traits—his endless scheming, deceitful tactics, and opportunistic conjurations. He does, in fact, find his strengths at the intersection of magic and manipulation; he excels by transforming the self into other beings and performing interdimensional teleportation. He delights in his ability to strike wonder and surprise, but it’s the wounds he causes that give him the most gratification. Loki’s constant shapeshifting and elaborate illusionist work can be broken down to one thing: foolery. His cheap tricks serve as a profound actualization of his core self: He’s fragile, unstable, disjointed, immaterial. Like his spells, his self-image fades and vanishes, grows empty and meaningless. Loki’s thin veil of magic exposes his devastating fear: that he’s barely anything at all.

EARLY ABANDONMENT AND THWARTED BELONGINGNESS

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Loki’s sense of personhood derived from his years of upbringing on Asgard and the lessons he learned alongside Thor, his brother. Their father, Odin, the King of Asgard, raised them to understand the responsibilities associated with ruling their planet, and although he felt they should always be ready for warfare, often spoke of the merits of intergalactic peacekeeping among the Nine Realms. Nonetheless, Loki grew to feel resentful and jealous of Thor, who would eventually take the throne as King of Asgard. Loki constantly compared himself to Thor, who was courageous and self-assured, inevitably interpreting Thor’s characteristics like “good” and “valued.” In search of his self-worth, Loki struggled to find these attributes in himself—his temperament was much different. Compared to the confident Thor, Loki was self-doubting, overly sensitive, and sometimes misbehaved. He found that his antics would gain attention from his parents. Aware that Loki felt overshadowed by his brother’s physical prowess, his mother Frigga trained him in magic, believing that this would balance their strengths and give him a sense of mastery.

As Loki developed into adulthood, he continued to feel like an outsider in his family. His self-disappointment coupled with the pressures and expectations of the Asgardian monarchy became burdensome. When he notices a strange level of immunity during a battle on the home planet of the Frost Giants (the Jotunn), a race of brutal and unruly warriors long recognized as historical enemies of the Asgardians, Loki faces burning questions about his true origins.

Inside Odin’s vault, where ancient artifacts and relics were protected, Loki examines an ancient weapon of the Frost Giants. As he picks up the weapon, it dispels the magic that gave him his Asgardian appearance and reveals Loki’s true appearance. It was then, after growing suspicion, that Loki learns the devastating truth of his heritage: he is a descendant of the Frost Giants. A deep, self-hating pain bursts into his consciousness. His sense of self collapses under the devastating weight of shame, betrayal, and loneliness.

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When Loki confronts his father, Odin confirms it: “In aftermath of the battle, I went into the temple and I found a baby…Abandoned, suffering, left to die.” He further explains that Loki is the true son of Laufey, the King of the Frost Giants. The resulting rupture in their relationship—and the realization of his true identity as the son of the enemy—significantly reframes Loki’s self-concept. His early memories of inadequacy and unusualness are given rationale in this newer framework: Loki was unwanted, abandoned, and disposable. He spirals toward this new and very threatening narrative: His original protectors rejected him and thwarted his chances of holding his rightful place as a ruler, someone with power, someone with influence. His adoptive parents collected him like a relic or prize of war and raised him under the constant torture of limiting his prospects and withholding access to a crown, to belongingness, and love. What can Loki be if not rageful?

Our self-concept refers to our perception of the collection of characteristics that define us. Personality traits, abilities, likes and dislikes, our belief system or moral code, and the things that motivate us all contribute to our self-concept. Moreover, our self-definition is relational; how we see ourselves is shaped by how others see us. Loki, for instance, gathers enough evidence in his relational world to develop a “rejected oriented” self-concept. When he is snubbed or ignored, it triggers painful memories of his childhood and family dynamic. His self storytelling becomes iterative and builds over time, creating expectations that only serve (or confirm) this narrative. Thus, through this self-shaming cognitive bias, Loki’s interactions with others are almost always perceived by him as negative, threatening, and exploitative. As such, he grows hypersensitive to other people’s intentions—and fixated on a rejection-oriented social world. Because of his history of abandonment, he fears being seen as inadequate, weak, and unusual. From this lens, we can truly understand how Odin’s relentless speeches about “being worthy” are painful for Loki.

The experience of matter, or not mattering, in our social world, is key to our self-definition. We get a sense of Loki’s unmet wishes to matter in Thor: Ragnarok, when Thor returns to Asgard after being away in a series of battles to protect the Nine Realms. There, he witnesses a gathering of excitable spectators watching a bizarre play that centers Loki as the hero. Loki, disguised as Odin, has taken the throne and has orchestrated scenes that surround him with reverence, celebration, and love, knowing that he cannot earn these relationships in his true form.

Loki’s tragedy is best understood through his perspective. When working with people like Loki—individuals with early experiences of abandonment, rejection, or ruptures—therapists will sometimes suggest that they mentally travel back to the moment or age when they first started to have significant or chronic thoughts of inadequacy. It is when they first think to themselves, “I’m different.” (“I’m not good enough”; “I’m not smart enough”; “I’m not attractive enough,” etc.). What do they do now to compensate for those feelings of inadequacy? Some will dress exceptionally well, some will amplify other parts of their personality, and others will act out a role that they believe is more acceptable. It can sometimes be helpful to address the efforts (and exhaustion) related to thwarting the original harm of abandonment.

Loki is also not to blame for his internal reactions. Odin and Frigga were not unsuitable parents, but they likely represent an issue called the goodness of fit problem. Sometimes in families, there is an unintentional mismatch between a parent’s capabilities and their child’s needs. Perhaps children with Frost Giant temperaments (inherited tendencies) require more parental affirmation, direct validation, or physical affection. Frigga, who perhaps noticed Loki’s unique needs, excelled in helping him harness his magical powers and find alternative ways to fit into his environment. These efforts may have buffered his feelings of failure, but perhaps were insufficient in preventing his cynical and deflated worldview.

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Personality experts have identified a profile known to be particularly insidious and dangerous to society. Called the Dark Triad, this profile refers to the presence of three primary traits: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and Psychopathy. Narcissism is characterized by the pursuit of ego gratification, vanity, grandiosity, and a sense of entitlement. Loki’s absolute determination to commandeer the throne of Asgard, and then later to rule Earth as leader of the Chitauri, Thanos’s army, shows not only his exaggerated sense of importance but his firm belief that it is his birthright to hold such control over others. On Earth, he forces a crowd of humans to kneel before him, using the moment to articulate his true purpose, basking in the glorious feeling of unlimited control. Narcissism, however, is often a cover. People who are narcissistic have excessive but fragile self-love—an enduring over-inflation of the self coupled with the persistent need to gratify a flimsy and often wounded ego. Underneath their superior tone, Narcissists are actually quite harsh on themselves and carry deep self-loathing.

Machiavellianism refers to a duplicitous interpersonal style. Loki, for instance, can be morally cynical, cold, and use manipulation for his own gain. Aboard the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier imprisoned in Hulk’s confinement capsule, Loki subjects Black Widow to a game of wits with a plan to trigger her own self-doubts and deeper misgivings. He weaponizes her trauma and employs verbal assaults with an interest in witnessing her crumble (she doesn’t, of course).

Psychopathy, a rare trait, is perhaps the most dangerous of the Dark Triad. People who are psychopaths are impulsive, selfish, callous, and lack remorse. We often see these behaviors among serial killers who have deficits in self-control and tendencies to pursue hostility.

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Loki’s personality profile is somewhat consistent with someone presenting with the Dark Triad. When all three characteristics are present, there is an additive effect; the person has the tendency to maximize their own utility at the expense of others, accompanied by self-serving beliefs that only justify their malevolent actions. We see this combination, to some degree, in Loki. Rageful with vengeance, he lacks empathy toward others, seeks violence, and sees other people’s losses as his gains.

Some neuroscientists believe this malicious pattern can be traced back to brain functioning, suggesting that the deficit can be found in the part of the brain that helps us “think about oneself.” People who have weak connections to that part of the brain may seek attention in order to drive activity (e.g., dopamine) between that part of the brain and the reward system. Desperate moves to get others to see their worthiness reveal a likely dysfunction in that neural system. If Loki were to experience this under-stimulation, he’s likely rationalized his deficits. When he confronts Black Widow, he points out the hypocrisy of the Avengers. “You pretend to be separate from the horrors” he muses. He claims that they hide behind a moral code but are just as apt to engage in violence and destruction. Loki doesn’t believe the Avengers are exempt from (or above) the selfishness, greed, and rage that lives inside of him.

It might be easy to peg Loki as a callous villain, no different than the Chitauri, or the Frost Giants, or even Thanos, who would fit the Dark Triad profile more dependably. Loki presents notable features that are not consistent with the Dark Triad. He shows interest in connections with others, and though he may seem to scoff at the idea, Loki seeks belongingness. He simply wants to be noticed!

Like many of us, Loki wants to be seen by his peers as effective, accomplished, and reliable. On the artificial trash planet of Sakaar, Loki forms an alliance with Thor, Bruce Banner, and Valkyrie that involves giving them safe passage away from the planet and saving Asgard from Hela’s tyrannical rule. In fact, he makes many truces with Thor, often offering his assistance and talents in order to achieve a shared goal. Though he’ll likely sabotage the plan later, he shows signs of authentic fulfillment if not enjoyment of the time they have together.

SHAME: THE CONCEALED EMOTION

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Underneath Loki’s well-crafted illusions lives constant suffering. During critical periods, he felt as if his emotions were trivialized, ignored, or disregarded by the important people in his life. Nearly all his early experiences drew Loki to an extreme and irrational core schema: he is unlovable as himself.

Shame is a self-conscious emotion. Shame informs us of an internal state of profound inadequacy, regret, or dishonor. There’s an important difference between guilt and shame; when we feel guilt, we tell ourselves, “I feel bad.” When we feel shame, we tell ourselves, “I am bad.” Shame is also intensely secretive. Inevitably, we perform emotional gymnastics to keep the secret hidden from others. This deception work can be consuming and tiresome because we’ve set up all kinds of interpersonal barriers to keep people away from us (and our secret). Attacking others often serves to disown what the shameful person feels. In order to escape shame’s self-diminishing effects, Loki expresses contempt toward others, thereby relocating his own shame. The foreseeable result, however, is loneliness and detachment from others. By creating the universe that vilifies him, Loki becomes the enemy.

Drowning in the belief that the true self will never be accepted, some turn to disturbing choices that come with huge costs. One such route is known as pseudocide (or “suicide”), a term used to refer to the faking of one’s death. It is associated with chronic loneliness, shame, and the inability to tolerate distress. To be clear, the interest is inputting a part of the self to death. Nonetheless, it is a considerable and alarming issue; a person interested in committing suicide already feels “dead” inside and has dark wishes to experience what that loss might feel like without actually killing oneself. These features may also be present with some disorders of relationships such as Borderline Personality Disorder.

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Loki’s suicide reflected his thirst for attention as well as reverence; during an intense battle, he manifested an illusion of himself being killed by the Dark Elves in Svartalfheim, and, unbeknownst to everyone in the Kingdom, he returned to Asgard and successfully took Odin’s place as King where he remained for several years. Loki wished to witness how others would respond to his death, to observe how his family experiences the pain of losing him, and to seek satisfaction from the disruption associated with his “death.” People who fake illnesses (psychiatric or psychological symptoms) also tend to suffer from the dichotomy described earlier: fragile self-love. They’re struggling to manage low self-esteem contrasted by an inflated sense of importance. When the two don’t match, a person goes to the extreme to reconcile the resulting distress. Loki has found a way to essentially exile himself along with the parts he loathes, and create a life full of all the rewards he’s felt have been withheld from him.

BORDERLINE PERSONALITY DISORDER

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On the surface, Loki may appear confident, self-assured, and composed. Spend enough time with him, and we’d see what Thor sees. Loki’s mood swings, recklessness, and impulsivity make him difficult to be around. His frequent backstabbing, lying, and twisted choices have left Thor uncertain of his loyalty, but also reticent and unwilling to be open to a close relationship with Loki. Furthermore, Loki’s dangerous antics and menacing lifestyle puts others at risk, making him an unsafe partner or friend. Loki’s complex emotional patterns are consistent with someone who has Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), a mental health condition characterized by difficulties with regulating emotion. This means that Loki experiences his emotions intensely and for prolonged periods of time—it is hard for him to manage and stabilize his feelings—making it tough for him to maintain healthy relationships.

To his credit, Loki’s personality is complex and includes many enduring positive traits; like anyone with BPD, he isn’t defined by his illness. He is clever, playful, persistent, observant, humorous, decadent, adventurous, determined, charismatic, and arguably more charming than Thor. Loki is all these things in addition to and outside of suffering from the troubling symptoms associated with his personality disorder.

Individuals who have a personality disorder display an enduring, rigid pattern of inner experience and outward behavior related to an impaired sense of self and how they relate to others. Persons who have BPD, therefore, are not simply upset or unstable once in a while; rather, they consistently show an enduring pattern of extreme problems often noticed by loved ones in their lives. They swing in and out of very intense periods of depressive, anxious, and irritable states that last several hours if not days. They often have disturbing emotional outbursts such as bouts of uncontrollable anger or rage—often followed by shame and guilt.

Someone with BPD is likely to attract “stormy relationships.” These are bonds that are unstable, rocky, and discordant. A person with BPD also makes frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment by their friends and family. As such, they idealize the qualities and abilities of close people, but as a coping response, they violate the boundaries of those relationships. Often, it is an “all or nothing” or dichotomous style of relating. One is the enemy or the savior. This alternating between idealization and devaluation is called “splitting.” As a way to cope with his fears of rejection, Loki often splits with his brother (hating him/loving him) and with his mother Frigga (idealizing her/ vilifying her).

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Ultimately, to avoid the feelings of being damaged by others, Loki creates his own chaos. He incites ruptures in his relationships, sabotages connections that offer trust, and mismanages the bonds of friendship—and brotherhood. During their plan to escape the planet of Sakaar together to travel back to Asgard, Loki double-crosses Thor at the last minute; telling him it isn’t personal as the Grandmaster‘s reward would then set him up financially. Although it is likely Loki planned this betrayal, sabotaging the escape served to protect himself by avoiding further pain from rejection or blame down the road. Better to be the first to strike.

Persons with BPD, like Loki, also suffer from poor self-image, chronic feelings of emptiness, inappropriate boundaries, and episodes of dissociation. When a person dissociates, this means they disconnect or experience a lack of continuity between their thoughts, memories, surroundings, actions, and identity. One might say that Loki’s magic allows him to dissociate more freely and frequently. Using his adaptive powers, Loki learns to reconcile his relational pain by dissolving into the background, retreating into hiding places, or slipping into forgotten realms. Constant morphing and shifting of the self became a strategy of protection and avoidance; teleporting within the same dimensional plane is representative of his mutable, confused, and fragile boundaries. Loki has entertained disappearing forever. During a heated physical conflict between Loki and Thor on the Rainbow Bridge, the structure begins to crumble below them. The brothers find themselves staring down at the doom of a black hole, and Loki chooses to let himself go. He falls willingly into the abyss, allowing himself to descend far from Asgard, welcoming an unknown void of darkness, relief, and freedom.

BEING WORTHY

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Loki has often been his own worst perpetrator. He cannot seem to wrestle away from the version of himself who is menacing, meddling, pestlike, annoying, argumentative, and sassy. Though Thor holds frustration and despair for his brother, he’s noticed Loki’s struggle to connect and his flip-flopping patterns; and refuses to fully abandon him. If anything, Thor learns to abandon the expectation that Loki should be like him or the Asgardians. Rather, he helps Loki see his own unique, intrinsic value and purpose in the Universe. He’s assured that Loki might gain the capacity to be changed by positive experiences and the rewards of heroism. But how often is he offered these opportunities?

After Hela destroys Asgard, and the Asgardian refugees form a camp aboard the Statesman ship, Loki finds the opportunity to experience belongingness not through the constraints of the archaic monarchy but through the shared resilience of his people. By contributing to the formation of the new Asgard community, Loki shows signs of reconciling his damaged self. Thor sees this improvement, asserting to Loki, “Maybe you’re not so bad after all, brother.” When he goes on to say he would give Loki a hug if he were there, really in the room, this is a gentle recalling that Loki has always been felt as uncommitted, halfway, distant, and closed to him.

Their healthy bond is short-lived. The Mad Titan, Thanos, boards the Statesman and ruthlessly massacres half of its inhabitants. Loki and Thor are among those who remain. Under the pretense of offering himself as a helpful guide, Loki feigns allegiance to Thanos while secretly readying a dagger. Thanos, however, predicts Loki’s attack and grabs him by the neck, squeezing slowly and calmly.

At the moment before his death, knowing he has lost, Loki manages to commit himself to his last truth. “You will never be a god,” he utters at Thanos. Accepting his fate, Loki finds peace with the recognition of his own failures and setbacks, as well as the tenderness from his own self-forgiveness. Gods aren’t built from power, control, supremacy, or any absolutes. To be a leader, one must hold a meaningful relationship with those who trust in him; one must be honorable, self-sacrificing, and forgiving. Mattering is not just being valued; it is adding value.

Yes, Loki Odinson wished to be extraordinary, remarkable, and illustrious. He wished to matter if only in the way he knew how people mattered in the Universe. Loki’s fixation on power was nearly always misguided—like the illusions of his magic, his ideas of positionality were fundamentally illusory and penetrable. But by the end of his life, he was more than just an unscrupulous schemer.

Loki’s death was not a performance, nor an illusion or trick. Unlike his suicide, Loki’s real death shows him in his true, vulnerable form: dangling like a ragdoll in the massive hand of Thanos, feeble and helpless. Though he is at his weakest and his fear is showing, Loki’s mind is clear and unwavering. His quest for significance is satisfied by the knowledge of seeing himself as good enough because he chose good over evil. Loki locates the much-needed, if not overdue, compassion for himself and the recognition that, at the end of his life, lacking ownership of titles and people, he is truly worthy.

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