Do You Have Main Character Syndrome?

"You have to start romanticizing your life," TikToker Ashley Ward urges in her most popular video, her lo-fi voice resembling a protagonist in an indie coming-of-age movie.

She warns: "You have to start thinking of yourself as the main character, because if you don't, life will continue to pass you by."

Depending on who you ask, the video is symptomatic of the best, or worst features, of a state of mind known as main character syndrome. Viewed over three million times on TikTok and carrying the hashtag "main character," it shows her reclining slowly on a towel at the beach and putting on a pair of sunglasses as the world rushes on around her.

@ashlaward

Take a second and listen #fyp #foryou #aesthetic #lovelife #drone background song: @hannah_harpist

♬ A Moment Apart - ODESZA - Ashley Ward

There is no set definition of main character syndrome, and it's not a medical syndrome in the traditional sense. Broadly speaking, it describes people who act as if life is a movie and they are the central character.

In this way it is comparable to narcissism, and can be detrimental to others who are seen as little more than extras. If this sounds familiar, you probably have it (or know someone who does).

This type of egocentric behavior, which psychologists told Newsweek has been around since time immemorial, has found new life and a name on platforms such as TikTok, Twitter and Instagram.

The "main character" tag has been viewed over 5.3 million times on TikTok, "main character syndrome" almost 215,000 times, and "main character complex" over 36,000 times. On Instagram, #maincharacter features alongside 76,000 posts.

For some like Ward, being the main character simply means slowing down to take in the little things in life so they don't go unnoticed. Her video has inspired others that feature her voice over movie-like clips from their lives, showing people kissing in the rain or swirling their fingers out of a car window as the sun sets.

Another fun iteration, viewed 324 million times on TikTok, is the 'main character challenge' where people, often in sweats, lip-sync to Miley Cyrus' version of the Arctic Monkeys' song 'Why'd You Only Call Me When You're High?' before they transform into a rock star version of themselves, singing like they're on stage.

@jonysios

pov : Heather pushes you on stage to ✨hvmiIiate you✨ but you decide to become the Main character... 🎤😈 #mileycyrus #transformation #boysinmakeup

♬ MAIN CHARACTER CHALLENGE miley cyrus - Call me Jony 🤓

Others use the "main character" trend as a way to poke fun at their delusions of grandeur, by fake-romanticizing a regular train journey or joking about reading a book while walking to seem smart for an audience that isn't there.

@james_ikin

Tote bag ✅ Knees pulled in ✅ Camera ✅ Staring out of the window ✅ #fyp #xyzcba #lanadelrey #london #overground #comingofagemovie

♬ Mariners Apartment Complex - Lana Del Rey

On Twitter, it's a tongue-in-cheek hashtag for acknowledging unbridled narcissism in yourself and others.

"I know I have main character syndrome but I think my landscape man has a crush on me," one Twitter user wrote recently.

Another admitted: "I'm guilty of having main character syndrome lmfaooo. like of course other people matter but in my head i really be the star of my own world."

Psychologists who spoke to Newsweek said it's no coincidence main character syndrome is being explored so widely on social media. These platforms encourage us to see ourselves at the center of a narrative of our own making like never before, by capturing and curating moments of our lives for an audience, and cultivating a personal brand in the content we share and even how we describe ourselves in our bios.

To clinical psychologist Dr. Michael G. Wetter, main character syndrome is "the inevitable consequence of the natural human desire to be recognized and validated merging with the rapidly evolving technology that allows for immediate and widespread self-promotion."

Wetter said people have always been the "main character" in their own life, the difference now being that we have immediate access to a global audience.

He went on: "Those who exhibit characteristics consistent with the experience of main character syndrome tend to want to create a narrative that is dependent on an audience to validate their story. What good is a story or movie if there is no audience?"

So, is it all bad if one sees the traits of main character syndrome in their own behavior?

For professor Phil Reed of the Department of Psychology at Swansea University, U.K., the darker elements of main character syndrome shouldn't be ignored.

Asked if main character syndrome could be seen as akin to mindfulness in allowing people to center themselves and live in the moment, Reed said this idea is interesting but wrong.

"Mindfulness is about being aware of the realities of your present, noticing your environment, and freeing yourself from past influences," he said. "In the case of main character syndrome, you are removing yourself from the reality, by imagining it to be different than it is—or, at least, presenting yourself to be in a different reality than you are."

Wetter suggested sharing those more serious "main character" videos on social media can perpetuate a cycle of comparisons, as viewers wonder why they don't look like the people in the clips, or aren't that happy—even though what they are viewing is highly curated. Wetter says this encourages others to create their own personal narratives to rival or keep up with the stories presented by others.

But professor Michael Karson of The University of Denver's Graduate School of Professional Psychology takes a different view. He said the trends he had seen were "delightful."

"The serious side promotes a sense of importance and the fun-poking is an ideal way of constraining one's sense of importance," he said.

And although main character syndrome is comparable with narcissism, Karson said that is not necessarily all bad.

"Healthy narcissism is a realistic appreciation of oneself without getting a swelled head about it, rather like parents who think their kids are pretty wonderful without sending a message that they are superior to all other children," he said.

"Unhealthy narcissism is behaving as if others are minor characters in one's own drama rather than main characters in their own intersecting dramas," he added.

Karson said: "My view is that it is healthy to see oneself as the main character of one's own life, and it is also healthy to realize that one is not the main character of all humanity."

main character syndrome, narcissism, getty
A stock image shows a woman pointing a finger towards herself. Narcissism and main character syndrome have paralels, according to experts. Getty Images