This article contains major spoilers for the HBO show, Game of Thrones. You have been warned.
Many of us who tuned into Game of Thrones last night were astounded, yet, ultimately not surprised by the hero who conquered the Night King. It was an epic scene when Arya Stark leaped out of seemingly nowhere and skillfully maneuvered her Valyrian steel dagger to kill the biggest threat to Westeros. And it was perhaps one of the most powerful takedowns on television.
After all, this was a young woman who did what Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, and many other characters on the show couldn’t. Yet one could argue that Arya Stark has been preparing for this particular battle her whole life: a skilled fighter, a trained assassin, she had just as many skills and talents, if not more, than anyone on the show. Her defeat of such an enemy was poetic in its own right: this was a young woman who grew up in the darkness of trauma and patriarchal structures of her society, only to channel that trauma into an unparalleled ability to fight the darkness.
From the very first scenes of the show, Arya Stark defies what is expected of young women. When she shoots the arrow right into the target her brother Bran was meant to hit in the first episode, this is potent foreshadowing that Arya’s skills will come in handy — and that they will surpass those of her peers and male counterparts. The youngest girl in the Stark household is bold and talented with a sword, equipped with expertise in the art of bow and arrow. And as we find out later on, she can fight even better than Brienne of Tarth. Her destiny is greater than one might assume – and her journey holds many powerful lessons about trauma survivors.
Arya Stark’s Journey of Complex Trauma
Arya endures what is known as complex trauma throughout the show beginning in childhood. According to complex trauma expert Dr. Judith Herman, “In contrast to a single traumatic event, prolonged, repeated trauma can occur only where the victim is in a state of captivity, under the control of the perpetrator. The psychological impact of subordination to coercive control has many common features, whether it occurs within the public sphere of politics or within the private sphere of sexual and domestic relations.”
Arya Stark undergoes numerous inescapable traumas throughout her very short life, drastically shaping her personality and worldview. As we know, adverse childhood experiences have a deep, long-lasting impact on the brain. She witnesses unimaginable trauma when she sees her own father being murdered as a young child. Her innocence and belief in the inherent goodness of the world are disrupted at a tender and vulnerable stage of development. Not only does she lose her family, but she also is forced to forfeit her own identity and the safety that comes with it. She is then separated from the rest of her remaining family and forced to walk her journey alone while masquerading as a boy. That is, until she is held hostage by the Hound who forces her to survive a long journey home to her family.
Her journey with the Hound by her side becomes a trek with many dead ends, as she discovers that most of her family has been killed. Throughout the first few seasons of the show, we watch the grueling misery of Arya’s strife as she is forced to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles – homelessness, being out on the streets, having to fend off constant threats of rape and death, major losses in her family, temporary blindness, and the brutality of her captors, just to name a few. One could argue that she goes through what psychologists have called “trauma reenactment,” with similar traumas being repeated across different circumstances.
At a pivotal point in her journey, Arya trains as an assassin with the Faceless Men – something which proves incredibly useful to her destiny as she learns to don disguises and fight in stealth mode. Though she is small, she is fierce. Though she is young, her training contains the wisdom of a lifetime, because she is forced to grow up quickly and survive situations many would not. Her journey to that level of maturity is incredible.
5 Powerful Lessons We Learn From Arya Stark’s Complex Trauma Journey
While many of us don’t spend our time fighting White Walkers or plunging Valyrian steel daggers into the Night King, Arya Stark still uniquely captures and represents the hero’s journey of a complex trauma survivor. Here are five things she has in common with other complex trauma survivors, and five lessons we can take from her unforgettable time on screen:
1. Her heightened instincts and ability to sense danger with alarming precision.
As a child, Arya is trained by Syrio Forel to be as “swift as a deer, quiet as a shadow, calm as still water.” She also learns that fear cuts deeper than swords. These are all lessons which inevitably help her to defeat the Night King. Arya’s training with Syrio Forel lays the crucial foundation for her sword-fighting abilities, but it is actually the dangerous incidents she is forced to confront head-on in everyday life which challenge and hone her ability to identify and navigate danger skilfully. It is in her life experiences after her initial training which give her the platform to utilize these lessons. From living on the streets of King’s Landing to fighting a trained assassin from Braavos while temporarily blind, Arya learns to defend herself against a variety of perpetrators even when she is just a child on the cusp of womanhood.
Many of us are familiar with the term “hypervigilance,” a state of hyper-attunement we can develop to our surroundings due to trauma. Arya Stark develops it in spades as she learns to evade danger in every corner. Often, hypervigilance is seen as a negative symptom of trauma, but actually, there are times our heightened attentiveness can be useful for our discernment of someone else’s true motives and character. According to researcher Willem Frankenhuis, people who have been abused in childhood can develop what Dr. Ungar (2016) calls “an uncanny ability to detect threats in their environment, an enhanced capacity to learn new things, and even improved memories when it comes to paying attention to parts of their environment that are the most relevant.”
After all, if our childhood environment was chaotic and traumatic, we likely mastered the skill of learning to anticipate danger and threat. We found ways of noticing nonverbal cues, subtle shifts in tone, gestures, and changes in our environment. We were always on the lookout – and this gave us the gift of an intuition more finely tuned than our less traumatized peers.
As therapist Athena Phillips (2014) writes, “Survivors of trauma regularly inform me of what they experience as something akin to having superpowers. The capacity to feel things other people can’t, to identify either the goodness or inherent evil in someone just by looking at them, or to “predict” interpersonal outcomes are some of the new-found abilities people have described. People who have experienced trauma often indicate that they are able to pick up on covert human behaviors, and there is a great deal of trust in their capacity to intuit. Oftentimes, these powers really do exist; survivors have developed a discriminating aptitude for picking up on environmental cues that may have significance to them.”
2. Her fragmented sense of identity and search for her true identity and wholeness.
Trauma creates fragments: it shatters the connection among memories, thoughts, emotions, and the self. Complex trauma survivors often find themselves confronting disparate inner parts which developed as a result of the traumas they endured; according to trauma experts, they must find ways to identify and integrate these parts in healthy ways in order to reach their true core calm and compassionate self (Schwartz, 1995). Much like any complex trauma survivor, Arya tries to escape the terrors of her childhood by taking on other identities and dissociating from her past except for her justified rage at those who murdered her family members. Her need for vengeance ultimately creates a “protector self” which keeps Arya focused on a list of people she must kill, rather than her true self and her grief.
Arya’s search for her own identity is also astutely represented by her brutal experiences at Braavos, where she learns to become “no one” in her training to become a Faceless Man and assassin. There, she is beaten, terrorized, and challenged to fight back. Ironically, it is her journey to become no one which eventually leads her to own the fact that she is indeed someone. As she tells Jaqen H’ghar bravely and with conviction, “A girl is Arya Stark of Winterfell, and I am going home.” It is only when she integrates her darkness within her true self, recognizes her true power and strength from the traumas she has emerged from that she decides she is going home. She goes home not just to her family, but to herself.
3. Her post-traumatic growth and psychological self-mastery.
As therapist Andrea Schneider notes shrewdly in her Game of Thrones blog series, characters who have endured trauma on this show can exhibit promising signs of post-traumatic growth, the positive psychological changes we benefit from after enduring adversity. While regaining a pre-trauma identity is next to impossible for characters like Arya Stark, her post-traumatic growth is tremendous.
Not only does Arya learn to incorporate the life lessons of her trauma into her sword-fighting and archery skills, she learns psychological mastery. She learns the art of resourcefulness even when she has nothing. She learns how to stealthily collect information (like when she does when acting as cupbearer to Tywin Lannister) to further her journey. She learns a great deal about patience, self-control, confidence, observing rather than reacting, and how to put herself in the mindset of her attackers and predators around her so she can anticipate what they will do – and preemptively strike. As a result of her traumas, she gains wisdom and skill sets beyond her years which many adults in the show are still struggling to obtain.
Arya Stark has no explicit desire to be a leader or queen, but her ability to lead due to her experiences make her more fit for the throne than many others who seek it for personal power. It is her desire for justice, rather than power, which makes her unstoppable.
Complex trauma survivors experience many of these same psychological benefits as they process, heal and grow from their traumas. They can learn to navigate life with an increased sense of gratitude, fortitude, and develop a habit for making the best of their circumstances to create success and joy at an even more intense level than someone who has never been traumatized. As they heal, they have an incentive, drive, and determination which can far surpass that of the average person, as well as a greater sense of meaning.
4. Her darkness has to be integrated in order to fully own her light.
Arya Stark is a curious character in that she is not encouraged to forgive those who have wronged her or took the lives of her loved ones. That is what makes her one of the most phenomenal female characters on television: her darkness is not minimized or sugarcoated. It is recognized, along with her authentic outrage, in all of its unflinching glory. And skilled trauma therapists agree: forced, premature forgiveness can actually hinder a survivor’s journey because it invalidates how we really feel and does not give us the time or space to actually process our traumas.
Trauma therapist Anastasia Pollock puts it this way: “The people I work with in the therapy room are resilient and courageous. They are able to work through their traumas, but many get caught up on one point: They believe they are supposed to forgive the perpetrator but can’t seem to get there. This is what I tell them: You don’t have to forgive in order to move on. Emotions are important and automatic. When we can acknowledge and appreciate even the darkest, most negative-feeling emotions, they often soften and release. As soon as I say, “You don’t have to forgive,” the person usually breathes a sigh of relief.”
Unlike a woman who turns the other cheek and goes immediately into love and light without any kind of transformation beforehand, Arya turns to her sword, Needle, to deliver a much-needed message to perpetrators like Walder Frey. The North remembers, and so does she. She avenges her loved ones one by one, and when she does, we can’t help but cheer from the sidelines.
Although in real life this form of vigilante justice is unrealistic, not recommended and quite gory (none of us should be baking our enemies into pies – we’d have a more productive time processing our traumas in therapy), we learn an important lesson about trauma: it cannot be spiritually bypassed. Our so-called “dark” emotions must be acknowledged in order to fully own our true light.
The outrage and rage we feel must be seen, heard, experienced, confronted and (while perhaps not shown on this show) healthily expressed in order to be healed. Whether Arya’s quest for revenge is misplaced is up for debate, but one thing is for sure: this young woman is not your typical depiction of a trauma survivor who forgives and forgets her way into healing. Yet her intense emotions are an all too real part of this journey.
5. Her resilience and strength would not be the same without her experiences.
While none of us would ever volunteer for the traumas we experienced, we can’t help but admit that we would not be who we are without them. We can still validate and honor the injustice of our traumas while acknowledging the internal resources and coping skills they granted us. Trauma can give us the strength and resilience of a sumo wrestler, and Arya Stark is no exception. As whole families are killed, legacies wiped out, and kingdoms come under siege, Arya Stark remains, one of the few survivors of her family. A weary traveler and warrior, she is forced to confront what no child should have to endure. But she does endure, and she is better for it.
At the end, it is this little girl who grows up to be the warrior woman – who ultimately conquers the darkness. No one expected her or saw her coming. Everyone underestimated her. And therein lies her greatest power. It was the traumas of her past which gave her the ability to defeat the Night King, to avenge her loved ones, and to protect her community. Complex trauma survivors, too, are capable of this same kind of resilience – and the ability to give back what they never received.
The Big Picture
Arya is every little girl who grew up in terror and trauma. Who survives impossible situations through her resilience, grit, talent, and determination. Whose identity is previously in fragments, only to become whole as she comes into the woman she was always meant to be. And yes, she is truly ruthless when it comes to her enemies. Yet it is perhaps her ability to own her demons which make her even more powerful when she’s avenging her loved ones, enacting some sweet justice and saving the world. We can all learn life lessons about trauma from this brilliant, multifaceted and truly one of a kind character. She is all of us who have survived – and thrived.
Frankenhuis, W. E., & Weerth, C. D. (2013). Does Early-Life Exposure to Stress Shape or Impair Cognition? Current Directions in Psychological Science,22(5), 407-412. doi:10.1177/0963721413484324
Herman, J. L. (1992). Complex PTSD: A syndrome in survivors of prolonged and repeated trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress,5(3), 377-391. doi:10.1007/bf00977235
Phillips, A. (2014, May 19). The Unexpected Gifts of Trauma. Retrieved April 29, 2019, from https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/unexpected-gift-of-trauma-0201124/
Pollock, A. (2016, January 20). Why I Don’t Use the Word ‘Forgiveness’ in Trauma Therapy. Retrieved from https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/why-i-dont-use-the-word-forgiveness-in-trauma-therapy-0120164
Schneider, A. (2019, April 19). Post-Traumatic Growth in Game of Thrones: Sansa. Retrieved April 29, 2019, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/savvy-shrink/2019/04/post-traumatic-growth-in-game-of-thrones-sansa/
Schwartz, R. C. (1995). Internal family systems therapy. New York: The Guilford Press.
Ungar, M. (2016, March 20). Horrible but True: Early Abuse Can Create Strength. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/nurturing-resilience/201603/horrible-true-early-abuse-can-create-strength