Why are we so obsessed with being the 'main character'?
I remember the long drives home from day trips out as a child, my eyes heavy as I sat slumped on the backseat.
My head would rest against the window as the sun set on an amber sky, the shadows from tree branches dancing against the window’s reflection.
Soft music would play from whatever easy-listening radio station my mum had on, and I would gaze out the window, pretending I was front and centre in a music video.
It’s a habit I eventually grew out of, but I still have those brief, fleeting moments where I picture my life as a screenplay; when I grab a hot chocolate after a run, when I march to the station to get my train to work – hell, even as I write this, I’m guilty of indulging in ‘main character syndrome’.
But it’s not just me (thankfully) that occasionally pictures myself as the protagonist of my own personal psychodrama – ‘main character syndrome’ has become increasingly prominent in today’s discourse, with more and more of us wallowing in brief seconds of solipsism.
‘Main character syndrome is basically when one person believes they are destined to be “the main character” in a scenario, or are already the main character in their life and everyone else is simply an extra to that,’ dating and relationship expert Sarah Louise Ryan explains. ‘The person experiencing the syndrome has a narrative about their life which means they have a specific way in which they want things and people to fit into that narrative.’
This sort of thinking is not new, or even particularly unusual, according to psychotherapist Sally Baker.
‘It’s always existed,’ she says. ‘I moved to London when I was 21, and every six weeks, I’d let all my friends in Birmingham know I was coming home, so we’d all be in the same pub that I was “appearing” in.
‘I felt that, because I’d left, I’d gained much more status compared to everyone else who stayed.
‘But it’s just a construct in someone’s head. That “status” that we think we have isn’t recognised by anyone else.’
‘Main character syndrome’ is being more widely discussed online, in part due to a TikTok trend that proliferated in popularity in June last year.
The #maincharacter tag, which initially poked fun at tropes and cliches of coming-of-age films, now has over six billion views.
But the phrase has bled into popular lexicon, with people repeatedly describing themselves as ‘the main character’ on Twitter – and not in an ironic way.
Sarah Louise believes that it’s because of social media platforms that ‘main character’ syndrome has become more popularised, with every action being put under the microscope.
‘Main character syndrome is more prominent today than it ever was, as self-promotion on social media platforms becomes front and centre of the lives of so many,’ she says.
Sally adds that the coronavirus pandemic, and the cyclical repetition of most of our lives during lockdown, means we’re looking to put extra emphasis and importance on some of the more mundane daily tasks.
She tells us: ‘We’ve had such a horrific 18 months, so the things we’ve put in place that make us feel special, or successful, or even competent as adults have become even more important: like getting a Starbucks, getting a sandwich at lunchtime, having a drink after work.
‘We’ve been in trackie bottoms for 18 months, and it’s been grim. We judge our self-esteem and who we are in the wider world, which means that we have to be visible in the wider world.’
But while romanticising our daily existence might seem like a lovely idea, there are risks to this way of life.
If we see ourselves in an entirely selfish light, where we’re the main characters on centre-stage, we may start seeing others around us as bit players, supporting artists to our main show.
And taken to the very extreme, main character syndrome could lead to full-blown narcissism.
Sarah Louise says: ‘Narcissists tend to have a lack of empathy for others, which means if you are a friend with a narcissist sometimes you feel they lack genuineness that cements that friendship or empathy to help you in difficult situations – you may be doing all the relationship legwork. That might also be the same in romantic relationships.
‘The person who has main character syndrome will also have an inflated sense of ego, which goes hand in hand with being arrogant, so they will always want to be seen the most, heard the loudest and their opinion to be the final and most prominent in most scenarios.
‘As a friend to this person or a romantic partner this may have a detrimental effect on self-esteem or confidence as they take the limelight in the relationship and you take a “back seat” so to speak.’
She continues: ‘A narcissist may also seek the perfect partner, or romanticise the perfect relationship and so there may be a pressure to perform romantically that comes alongside dating or being in a relationship with a narcissist.
‘The problem with this is doesn’t leave much room for the human element and for life unexpected ups and downs which mean the main character may be stuck in their ways and their narrative.
‘A lot of things may be and seem superficial, lacking in substance and just for show for the outside world. This may lack connection and the deep rooted foundations a relationship needs to run the distance.
‘There may also be an envy of others meaning their life never quite lives up to what they’d like it to, comparing their superficial assets to that of others, creating a peer pressure in the relationship too.’
This doesn’t necessarily mean that people who lapse into ‘main character syndrome’ are doomed to have selfish, and self-involved relationships.
‘Being in a relationship with someone who has main character syndrome can bring so many lessons for the person who is partnered with them,’ Sarah Louise says. ‘They can begin to understand what boundaries are, lessons can be taken in hindsight about communication, resilience and grounding into a quiet confidence.
‘It isn’t a recipe for disaster as long as the other people in those relationships are grounded, are strong in their boundaries and know themselves well. Those partnered people or friends align and communicate their needs, wants and values at all times and remain strong on their boundaries.’
For the most part, momentarily pretending to be the ‘main character’ in the drama of your life is harmless.
As long as it doesn’t utterly dominate your life, then there’s no problem if listening to Olivia Rodrigo while you’re on a walk sometimes makes you feel like you’re in a starring role.
‘It’s mostly a game, an internal paradigm,’ Sally says. ‘You’re not actually telling anyone you’re the main character, you’re just enjoying the feeling of it.
‘But the reality of it is that gets rubbed off pretty quickly. You might feel you’re absolutely in your zone, but everyone has their own shtick to be getting on with.
‘It may be a fragile, ego-driven thing, but at least you’re punching up. Some people, and women especially, spend so much time punching down on themselves.
‘So actually, even if it’s just a fleeting thought that you are “the main character” in your life, it can be a damn good thing.’
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