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Sweat pours down my face. My thigh muscles ache as my sneakers pound the pavement. I want to give up, but I don’t. I can’t. So, I put on “Breathe” by Michelle Branch. By the time the chorus reaches its pinnacle—“If I just breathe…everything will be all right”—I’m in a full-out sprint. I’m the star of my own early-aughts rom-com in which, after the requisite heartbreak, self-discovery, and tear-filled reunion, everything really will be all right.
It’s both a privilege and a too-oft-untapped power to believe that it’ll work out—happily ever after—but having faith in the outcome allows me to have faith in my ability to get there. Now, whenever I run to a song that allows me to tap into what’s called “main character energy,” I feel myself increasing speed, improving form, even smiling between breaths. And all because I think, If I had an audience, what would I want them to see?
I’ve spent enough years navel-gazing, both at the personal and the professional level, that when “main character syndrome” started trending on TikTok and Instagram in 2020, I wasn’t surprised that a term had emerged to define this tendency. I only wondered why it took so long.
What is main character syndrome, exactly?
From a psychological perspective, main character syndrome (MCS) is an “intentional way that a person thinks of themself as the key player in their life and views it through a storytelling lens, like a movie or TV show,” says clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula, PhD, a professor emerita of psychology at California State University at Los Angeles and the author of Don’t You Know Who I Am?: How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. In other words, to be the main character is to see everyone else as a potential sidekick or nemesis. Either way, they only matter in terms of their connection to you.
Meet the Experts:
Ramani Durvasula, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, professor emerita of psychology at California State University at Los Angeles, and author of Don’t You Know Who I Am?: How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility.
Minas Michikyan is a researcher at the Children‘s Digital Media Center at California State University at Los Angeles. He is currently completing his PhD in Human Development and Psychology at UCLA.
Allycin Powell-Hicks is a Los Angeles-based mental health and relationship expert and the founder of the DOUX Consulting Group, which integrates mental health and media.
Though deemed a “syndrome” by the court of public opinion, MCS isn’t a formal mental health condition or disorder. There’s no diagnosis beyond the armchair variety, which is to say: You know it when you see it. If you’ve been on social media in the past two years, you’re likely seeing it more than ever. It often takes the form of someone celebrating their friend’s birthday by sharing a photo where they obviously look better than the bday girl, or posting a criminally long selfie video at a concert (complete with a “Sound On” IG story sticker).
Why are the potential pitfalls of main character syndrome?
Before you can harness main character energy for good, it's key to understand its risks so your sparkly self can avoid 'em.
1. Empathy exits stage left.
When a person is overly focused on their main character–ness, “empathy can start fading away,” says Durvasula. Soon, they see friends and family members as useful based solely
on how they facilitate their narrative. When someone suddenly doesn’t fit in, the relationship ends up on the cutting room floor.
2. Entitlement makes a grand entrance.
“There’s something quite grandiose about always needing to have a starring role,” says Durvasula. That outsize sense of self, combined with decreased empathy, is “consistent with narcissism,” she adds. Not exactly cool!
3. Authenticity attracts its opposite.
People in marginalized communities may find a “sense of agency in ‘being the main character’ by presenting one’s narrative on social media,” says Minas Michikyan, PhD, a researcher at California State University at Los Angeles. That self-empowerment can bring out the haters, because challenging negative stereotypes and reclaiming minority voices not only spreads awareness but shakes up established norms (the best use of main character energy!).
What are the potential benefits of main character syndrome?
It would be too easy to write off people who exhibit main character syndrome as self-absorbed, shallow, and status-seeking. But in healthy doses, viewing yourself as the protagonist in social contexts, both on- and off-line, is a natural and essential part of navigating emerging adulthood, a life phase from ages 18 to 29, says Michikyan. (FYI: While main character syndrome is most prevalent among that age group, anyone can exhibit this behavior. Take, for example, the future MIL who thinks her child’s wedding is all about her.)
In fact, on social media, some aspects of having MCS, such as presenting positive qualities that reflect your authentic self, including compassion, empathy, and mindfulness, are part of our adaptation to the way social ties have changed with technology, he says. When you share something in person, the goal is to express yourself and fulfill your need for emotional intimacy. But the very nature of social media has turned being yourself with a few friends into presenting your best self to a virtual audience of hundreds, or even thousands. The stakes feel higher; the person you project has to be better.
Still, without data on “main character syndrome” or “main character energy,” people should exercise caution, Michikyan says, when interpreting these behaviors in relation to psychological well-being and mental health.
More research needs to be done, but experts agree that viewing yourself as the protagonist of your life is a necessary part of growing into the person you want to be. So, is it any surprise that, in homage to quintessential perpetrator of main character syndrome Carrie Bradshaw, I couldn’t help but wonder, “If I’m not the main character of my story, who am I supposed to be?” And, to flip the script—who are you in yours?
While main character syndrome gets a bad rep, here's how to harness elements of this energy for good:
1. Go audience-free.
One of the inherent problems of MCS is that posting to social media is, at its core, attention-seeking behavior. People are dissatisfied when they’re not seen, says Durvasula. That desire isn’t bad in and of itself, but “when they’re not getting the attention they want, they start to deflate,” she says. If you set aside the need for external validation, then seeing yourself as the main character becomes simply believing in yourself, says Durvasula. (For example, I’m still damn proud of myself when I finish my main character runs, no sweaty selfies needed to prove my athleticism.)
We’re not saying you’re never allowed to post to social media again, but in-person interactions can release oxytocin, a bonding hormone, whereas that type of positive reinforcement via “likes” can release dopamine, which is connected to the addictive pathway, says Allycin Powell-Hicks, a Los Angeles–based mental health and relationship expert. Next time you have awesome news, meet up with a friend or family member and notice how you feel at the end of the convo compared with how you feel waiting for a virtual audience to react to your latest (not-so-)humblebrag. Different, right?
2. Know when it’s time to guest-star.
“If you really believe you’re the main character, your story will take precedence over everyone else’s,” says Durvasula, but real relationships require give-and-take. “The ‘main character’ may respond to that situation with anger, frustration, or even a lack of empathy, like, ‘You’re messing up my plot,’ ” she adds.
Just as heart rate variability indicates good physical health, “personality variability”—being able to transition from center stage to waiting in the wings—is key for mental health, says Powell-Hicks. To practice this in group settings, allow someone else the spotlight while listening with patience and curiosity, she suggests.
3. Don’t try to control the narrative.
Remember: You’re not the author. You can’t control how the world receives you; all you can control is how you show up every day and how you react to setbacks. But that can be difficult to reconcile with the picture-perfect way those with main character syndrome tend to present their lives on social media. (By controlling what you share, you control what the audience sees.)
Instead, it’s important to confront obstacles–whether that’s missing the mark on a career-making meeting or getting blindsided by a breakup—with “narrative flexibility,” says Durvasula. “The ability to be flexible in the face of sudden change, especially when it involves disappointment, is a sign of a healthy human being.” Say you had an important job interview that got canceled. A typical main character move might be to show up anyway with a plan to razzle-dazzle the interviewer. That seems charming in a movie, but IRL, it’s the epitome of entitlement. Having narrative flexibility may lead you to ask for a different date, if available, or to realize that this job wasn’t meant for you, but the next one might be.
4. Focus on intention.
If you use MCS as a means of taking the steps to become your best self, experts are on board. “To me, main character energy means that somebody values their own goals,” Durvasula says. “Many people, sadly, get the message that their aspirations aren’t important or that someone else gets to do them.” Main character energy can help us realize we have the right to go after our ambitions and give ourselves permission to pursue them. (Hi, moms and other caretakers—talking to you!)
But “affirmation without behavior is nothing,” says Durvasula. You have to do the work—sans music montage, sorry!—such as taking a skills class or huffing and puffing your way to a new PR (yes, back to me again). To stay motivated, remember: Your accomplishments exist, whether or not other people are cheering you on.
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