Darth Vader Wasn’t Bad: He was just scared…
Updated: Aug 15
“Join me and we can end this destructive conflict…”
Viewing Star Wars for the first time was and is a life-changing experience. We all remember that first scene. Princess Leia’s Republic Corvette, Tantive IV, comes into view with Tatooine in the distance as her ship is chased by Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer. This opening sequence is often noted as the iconic memory we all share from Lucas’ classic film. My dad took me to see Star Wars for the first time in May of 1977 at the Myrtle Beach, S.C. Ocean Cinemas. I was 8 years old. At the age of 46 I still get chills during these opening scenes.
However, despite the power of the opening, the image that held me the most captive was the first moment I saw Darth Vader as he stepped through the airlock blasted open by his stormtroopers. With his black cape flowing about him, Vader stood to survey the damage in the smoke-filled corridor. Without a word, his mere presence bled power and fear with the only sound being his slow, deep breathing. Even as an 8-year-old, I was not afraid of Vader, but I was mesmerized. Despite his attempt to destroy Luke, his torture of Leia, and his tacit approval of the destruction of an entire planet, I knew I liked him. But why?
As the film closed and the fanfare of John Williams trumpeted, I knew my life had changed. But how? I knew Vader was similar to me but how? At the time I couldn’t understand it all. And as my dad and I left the theater that night, he held my hand and squeezing it he looked down at me saying, “You know...that Darth Vader was pretty cool.” I looked into his eyes and agreed. He was cool. The fifty-four Darth Vaders which inhabit my office are a testament to his “coolness.” But how could a murdering, planet-destroying, machine of a man be cool? I argue not only was he cool, but more importantly, he wasn’t bad. Darth Vader wasn’t a bad guy. He was just scared.
In my private practice, I see a lot of scared kids and parents. More accurately, I see a lot of anxious people. As a society, we are are working harder in our jobs now than at any other time in history. Levels of anxiety are the highest ever reported. Individuals report 40% more stress, worry, and panic now than in the 1950s (Stossel). With parents under so much pressure and stress, the lives of our children are similarly stressed. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an effective tool in helping reduce anxiety. However, prior to beginning CBT sessions, my most frequent tool is an introduction to the true nature of Darth Vader. Thankfully, Darth Vader may be one of the most well-known characters in history, and the majority of my clients have a good understanding of him and his story. My first session begins with a foundational question.
“What is the difference between the Jedi and Darth Vader?”
The most common answer to this question is, “Darth Vader is evil and the Jedi are good.” Even Obi-Won agrees as he laments the fall of Anakin by stating, “He’s more machine now than man. Twisted and evil.” But I disagree with this fundamental assumption of Vader as an evil being. Darth Vader wasn’t evil. His actions were clearly bad and should be characterized as evil; however, those actions were motivated by something else. He was motivated by a magnified feeling we all experience to one degree or another. Darth Vader was motivated by fear and anxiety. In reference to my foundational question, the correct answer is, “The only difference between Vader and the Jedi is where they place their sense of control. Vader attempts to control others, and the Jedi strive to control themselves.” Darth Vader wanted peace and justice throughout the galaxy which is an admirable goal indeed and one I’m sure everyone would support. Vader even implored his son to join him in aspirations for galaxy-wide peace by stating, “With our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy.” Vader wanted the same goal as the Jedi, but he went about it the wrong way.
Born into slavery and having no father, Anakin Skywalker began life already under stress. Stress was a constant presence in his life as he scraped together spare parts for sale in order to help care for his mother and increase the quality of their lives. Without a father, Anakin had the self-imposed pressure of trying to be “the man of the house,” while also serving the constant demands of his slave master, Watto. Anakin also had to not only serve his master and attempt to care for his mother but he was also exposed to extremely dangerous conditions. Watto subjected him to podracing which could and should have easily resulted in his death. The only thing preventing his death was the Force which allowed him the ability to compete successfully. No human had the reflexes necessary to race. Watto was more interested in what Anakin could do for him in prize money than for the safety of his child slave. Anakin’s mother could do nothing to protect him, so yet again, Anakin had to find a way to be in control and manage the dangers in his life on his own. His life experience was that of managing danger and having very little true control over his own life.
Experiencing these early life stressors must have been very hard on Anakin. His time on Tatooine likely reinforced within him a deep-seated sense that he was controlled by life’s circumstances and had little control over his own destiny. In response to being controlled by so many factors, Anakin’s nature was to attempt to control as much as possible, even attempting to control things far outside his ability. Prior to leaving his mother to train as a Jedi, we get a clear glimpse into Anakin’s heart as he says, “I will come back and free you...I promise.” While the sentiment is wonderful, we are able to see the pressure this 10-year-old child places upon himself. No child should feel as if they are responsible for saving their parent.
On the positive side, Anakin was gifted with superior intelligence as seen in his ability to build C3PO. His resiliency allowed him to thrive within the environment of slavery on a desert planet. As with many gifted children, Anakin likely believed he had a lot more control over the world than he truly did. In some ways, we can consider him to be a perfectionist. Seeking great goals and becoming obsessive about things such as building C3PO or winning a podrace despite death-defying odds.
Perfectionism has been described as a kind of neurosis which pushes someone to achieve severe and exacting goals. A subtype of perfectionism in children has been identified as “Pervasive Perfectionism.” Such individuals are very well organized and set high personal standards. However, they often react strongly and very negatively to mistakes resulting in anger outbursts or meltdowns. These kids also tend to have parents who have high expectations or are very critical (think about The Emperor as Anakin’s father figure with unreasonably high expectations). Dixon, F.A., Lapsley, D.K, & Hanchon, T.A. (2015) An empirical typology of perfectionism in gifted adolescents. Downloaded from http://www.gcq.sagepub.com at Harvard Libraries.
Having such a perfectionistic way of thinking leaves you with unavoidable failure as nobody can be perfect, not even the one who was to bring balance to the Force. (Sorotzkin, B. 1985 The quest for perfection: Avoiding guilt or avoiding shame? Psychotherapy, 22, 564-571). Having repeated experiences of failure plus never feeling perfect completion can leave one feeling defeated, shameful, and guilty. When looking at individuals who tend toward perfection, they develop a dichotomous way of thinking which is very moralistic. Sound familiar? Anakin, as he turned to the darkside summed up his dichotomous thinking by stating, “If you’re not with me, then you are my enemy.” Obi Won recognized this Sith way of thinking replying, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”
Anakin’s mother recognized the anxiety in her son. She also recognized his nature to add pressure to himself and attempt to control things far outside of his control. And I believe this worried her greatly. She did try to help her son by offering the advice, “You can’t stop change any more than you can stop the suns from setting.” The future version of Anakin in the form of Darth Vader heeded not this advice as he ultimately believed he could learn to conquer death itself.
The Role of Anxiety and Fear in Vader’s Life
Anxiety is a powerful force and one we require in our lives for survival. Anxiety is a more modern term for a base emotion known as fear. Fear affects all parts of our brains but especially the limbic system and little area called the amygdala. When researchers electrically stimulate the amygdala, individuals immediately experience a fear response and demonstrate all the symptoms of fear including sweating and rapid heart rate. Tolin, D. (2012). Face Your Fears: A proven plan to beat anxiety, panic, phobias, and obsessions. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Hoboken, New Jersey
We need this fear response especially when we lived in caves and had lions and bears as our adversaries. In the fear response, our heart rate goes up, breathing quickens, and blood flow moves to our extremities placing us in a ready state to fight or run. This state is often called “fight or flight.” In our body’s effort to survive, it will attempt to control the external environment in any way possible should that mean jumping out of the way of a car or fighting off any perceived attack. However, in our stress-filled worlds our bodies will often invoke this fight or flight response as it perceives an existential threat despite the absence of such a threat. Examples of this can include public speaking or taking a test which for some people can result in sheer panic. Anxiety can cause us to believe we must control variables that are far beyond our control.
We repeatedly see fear and the need to control external events arise in Anakin’s personality. He was afraid for his mother and felt the need to free her. He also feared the loss of his girlfriend and ultimately his wife on numerous occasions. During his assault on General Greivous’ ship in Episode 3, he wanted to break off the attack to help save the clone pilots who were being slaughtered behind him. At every turn, Anakin demonstrated his core of fear and unreasonable goal setting. He repeatedly felt the need to save others and to prevent bad things from happening which were far outside his ability to control. As Anakin attempted to control these events, he experienced failure time and again. And in response, just as a “pervasive perfectionist” would, he increasingly responded with anger and ultimately rage. He perceived himself as having failed his mother by not saving her from the Sandpeople in time. Imagine the personal sense of failure when she dies in his arms. And in response to his perceived failure, he reacted with rage in an attempt to seek moralistic justice by killing an entire village of Sandpeople including women and children.
More failures continued. The clones he could not save during the assault on Grievous, prevented from sitting on the Jedi council, and being unable to marry Padmé were all repeated circumstances of failure, a lack of control, and a sense that his life was “unfair.” Over and over, ultimately culminating in an assault against his wife, Anakin failed to gain control over the things which he felt must be controlled. Every time he failed, his anxiety and fear increased. As Anakin’s fear increased, his anxiety escalated resulting in intensity in his desire for external control. This never-ending cycle is what led him down the path of the dark side. Yoda sums this process up in Episode I as he spoke to the young Anakin. “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. I sense much fear in you.”
Frank Gaskill, PhD, is a the founder of fatcatpsych.com, He co-authored Max Gamer: Aspie Superhero. Dr. Gaskill specializes in parenting, Asperger’s, and how technology affects children, teens, and families. Follow him on twitter (@drfgaskill).