Sweat runs down my face. My thigh muscles ache when my sneakers hit the pavement. I want to give up, but I don’t. I do not can. So I put on “Breathe” by Michelle Branch. By the time the chorus reaches its climax: “If I just breathe…everything will be alright,” I’m on a full run. I’m the star of my own early rom-com in which, after the requisite heartbreak, self-discovery, and tearful reunion, everything really Will be okay
It’s both a privilege and too often wasted power to believe it will work, happily ever after, but having faith in the outcome allows me to have faith in my ability to get there. Now, whenever I listen to a song that allows me to tap into what’s called “main character energy,” I feel my speed pick up, my form improve, I even smile between breaths. And all because I think If I had an audience, what would I want them to see?
I’ve spent enough years of navel gazing, both personally and professionally, that when “main character syndrome” started trending on TikTok and Instagram in 2020, I wasn’t surprised that a term had sprung up to define this trend. I was just wondering why it took so long.
What exactly is main character syndrome?
From a psychological perspective, Main Character Syndrome (MCS) is an “intentional way in which a person sees themselves as the key player in their life and views it through a narrative lens, like a movie or a TV show,” says clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula. , PhD, professor emeritus of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles and author of You Don’t Know Who I Am: How to Stay Sane in an Age of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. In other words, being the main character is seeing everyone else as a potential partner 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 emeritus of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and author of You Don’t Know Who I Am: How to Stay Sane in an Age of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility.
Minas Michikyan is a Research Fellow at the Children’s Digital Media Center at California State University, Los Angeles. She is currently completing her PhD in Human Development and Psychology at UCLA.
Allycin Powell-Hicks is a Los Angeles-based mental health and relationship expert and founder of DOUX Consulting Group, which integrates mental health and media.
Although considered a “syndrome” by the court of public opinion, MCS is not a formal mental health condition or disorder. There is 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, chances are you’re seeing it more than ever. It often takes the form of someone celebrating his friend’s birthday by sharing a photo in which he obviously looks better than the birthday girl. or posting a criminally long selfie video at a concert (complete with a “Sound On” IG story tag).
What are the potential dangers of the main character syndrome?
Before you can harness the main character’s energy for good, it’s key to understand their risks so your brilliant self can avoid them.
1. Empathy exits stage left.
When a person focuses too much on their main character, “empathy can start to fade,” Durvasula says. Soon, they see friends and family as helpful based solely on
about how they facilitate their narrative. When someone suddenly doesn’t fit in, the relationship ends on the cutting room floor.
2. The right-hander makes a great entrance.
“There’s something pretty great about the need to always have a leading role,” says Durvasula. That heightened sense of self, combined with decreased empathy, is “consistent with narcissism,” she adds. Not exactly great!
3. Authenticity attracts its opposite.
People in marginalized communities can find a “sense of agency in ‘main character’ when presenting their narrative on social media,” says Minas Michikyan, PhD, a researcher at California State University, Los Angeles. That self-empowerment can bring out haters, because challenging negative stereotypes and reclaiming minority voices not only raises awareness but shakes up established norms (best use of main character energy!).
What are the potential benefits of main character syndrome?
It would be all too easy to dismiss people who exhibit the main character syndrome as self-absorbed, shallow, and status-seeking. But in healthy doses, seeing yourself as the protagonist in social contexts, both online and offline, is a natural and essential part of navigating emerging adulthood, a phase of life between the ages of 18 and 29, Michikyan says. (FYI: While lead character syndrome is more prevalent among that age group, this behavior can be exhibited by anyone. Take, for example, the soon-to-be MIL who thinks her son’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 satisfy 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 need to be careful, Michikyan says, when interpreting these behaviors in relation to psychological well-being and mental health.
More research is needed, but experts agree that seeing yourself as the star of your life is a necessary part of becoming the person you want to be. So is it surprising that, in homage to the quintessential lead character syndrome author, Carrie Bradshaw, I couldn’t help but wonder, “If I’m not the lead character in my story, who am I supposed to be?” And, to flip the script, who are you in yours?
While the main character syndrome gets a bad rap, here’s how to harness elements of this energy for good:
1. Go without an audience.
One of the inherent problems with MCS is that posting on social media is, at its core, attention-seeking behavior. People are dissatisfied when they don’t see it, says Durvasula. That desire isn’t bad in and of itself, but “when they don’t get the attention they want, they start to deflate,” he says. If you let go of the need for external validation, seeing yourself as the main character becomes simply believing in yourself, Durvasula says. (For example, I’m still super proud of myself when I finish my main character’s runs—no sweaty selfies are needed to prove my athleticism.)
We’re not saying you’re never allowed to post on social media again, but in-person interactions can release oxytocin, a bonding hormone, while that kind of positive reinforcement through “likes” can release dopamine, which is related to with addiction. way, says Allycin Powell-Hicks, a Los Angeles-based mental health and relationship expert. The next time you have amazing news, get together with a friend or family member and see how you feel at the end of the conversation compared to how you feel waiting for a virtual audience to react to your latest (not so) humble bragging. Different, right?
2. Know when it’s time to guest star.
“If you really believe you are 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 ruining my plot,’” he adds.
Just as heart rate variability indicates good physical health, “personality variability”—being able to go from center stage to waiting in the wings—is key to mental health, says Powell-Hicks. To practice this in group settings, allow another person to be the center of attention while you listen patiently and curiously, she suggests.
3. Don’t try to control the narrative.
Remember: you are not the author. You cannot control how the world receives you; all you can control is how you present yourself each day and how you react to setbacks. But that can be hard to reconcile with the perfect way people with main character syndrome tend to present their lives on social media. (By controlling what you share, you control what your audience sees.)
Instead, it’s important to face obstacles, whether it’s missing the mark in a professional development meeting or being surprised by a breakup, with “narrative flexibility,” Durvasula says. “The ability to be flexible in the face of sudden change, especially when it involves disappointment, is a sign of a healthy human being.” Let’s say you had an important job interview that was cancelled. A typical move for the main character might be to show up anyway with a plan to wow the interviewer. That looks charming on film, but in real life, it’s the epitome of entitlement. Having narrative flexibility may lead you to request a different date, if available, or realize that this job wasn’t for you, but the next one might be.
4. Focus on the intention.
If you’re using MCS as a means to take the steps to becoming your best self, the experts are on board. “To me, the main character’s energy means that someone values their own goals,” says Durvasula. “Many people, unfortunately, get the message that their aspirations are not important or that someone else can do them.” The main character’s energy can help us realize that we have the right to pursue our ambitions. Y give us permission to pursue them. (Hello moms and other caregivers: talking to you!)
But “assertion without behavior is nothing,” says Durvasula. You have to get the job done—no musical montage, sorry!—like taking a skills class or huffing and puffing your way to a new public relationship (yes, back to me). To stay motivated, remember: Your accomplishments exist whether or not other people are cheering you on.
Lindsay Geller is the Love & Life editor at Women’s Health, specializing in entertainment news and cultural coverage. With over 6 years of professional writing and editing experience, she has reported on everything from the latest dating trends to the impact of confirmation bias on mental health.