Have you ever mouthed along to a sad song while gazing wistfully out of the window, thinking about an ex, as the rain beats down and feel like you could be the protagonist in a cheesy American romcom? Ever found yourself tapping away on your laptop while chaining cigarettes and feel just a bit Carrie Bradshaw?
It’s called main character energy and it’s all over TikTok. Like most things these days, the viral trend started in lockdown and, naturally, it kicked off online. Bored teenagers took to the video sharing app to escape the monotony of quarantine with ironic parodies of themselves as the stars of the show, or “main characters,” in mundane scenarios set to indie guitar music.
Now, Main Character Syndrome - not to be confused with imposter syndrome, which causes you to persistently doubt yourself and feel like a fraud - is a non-scientific term experts are using to describe a semi-narcissistic tendency to act like your life is a film in which you play the lead role.
The #maincharacter hashtag has been viewed 5.5 billion times on the app. Tik Tok user ramsey aka @lexaprolesbian, is credited with posting one of the first Main Character memes in May 2020 of her walking through her neighbourhood “to remind everyone in my neighbourhood that I’m the main character in this neighbourhood.”
“I pick a flower and I lay in the road,” she sings. “Give me attention, maybe, or don’t, or please do… Walking through my neighbourhood for the attention I didn’t receive in middle school.”
Then there was @ashlaward, lying on a beach, gazing up at the camera, surrounded by friends urging viewers: “You have to start romanticising your life. You have to start thinking of yourself as the main character, ‘cause if you don’t life will continue to pass you by and all the little things that make it so beautiful will continue to go unnoticed.”
Both have been watched three million times each, while Yasmine Sahid’s, aka @ladyyasmina1, “returning home in the holiday as the main character,” has notched up 4.8 million views.
It’s about unashamedly yearning to be noticed - something we could all identify with as a teen - it’s desperately longing to lock eyes with that guy on the tube, it’s strutting into a new school like you own it and performing to an audience that isn’t there. It’s the journey of life zhuzhed up.
The trend has evolved and now TikTokers are sharing the supporting roles they identify with most in life using the #NotTheMainCharacter hashtag (356 million views). Think the cool younger sister, sassy best friend or movie villain, all set to a version of Dancing Queen from the film Mamma Mia.
The main character trend is purposely corny and cliché, but also perhaps empowering. After all, is it really surprising that the trend for reinventing yourself as the lead character in a fictional scenario has taken off in a time when we’ve felt so little control over much of our everyday lives?
“Living in a fantasy world where we not only control the narrative but also get to be centre-stage can be particularly appealing when everything around us feels so completely out of our control,” says Alejandra Sarmiento, transpersonal psychotherapist at The Soke. “The original message of main character syndrome was to encourage people to be feel positive about their lives no matter what the reality of their circumstances, to focus on the beauty of the present and to find meaning in the moment so that life wouldn’t simply pass us by. I think this message resonated loud and clear with an entire generation who were unexpectedly forced to miss major milestones, such as graduations and proms, and who could only connect with their friends through a screen during lockdown.”
But while it began as a harmless TikTok trend, some have argued the syndrome is symptomatic of the effect of social media on its users and society at large and, more worryingly, may share traits with narcissism. Does it?
“Main Character Syndrome relies on its inherent need for conjured cheer from all the other characters in the storyline. It celebrates complete control and compliance from others and applauds perfection over authenticity. In short, it thrives on a loss of perspective and perception,” says Sarmiento. “However, the popularity of the self-deprecating response via #notthemaincharacter hints at a humorous coping mechanism and a healthy, helpful imagination.”
Narcissism, meanwhile, “exists on a spectrum,” she says. “A degree of self-love is healthy, natural and necessary for establishing self-esteem and self-worth. Manipulating your image and creating a fake story online can be creative and fun escapism. Problems arise when self-love tilts into self-delusion and this then leads to manipulative behaviours in order to maintain a self-created facade of power and perfection.”
An important distinction to make is that narcissism and empathy do not co-exist, she adds. “Narcissists have no sense of other people’s needs and desires. It would be more accurate to say that narcissists would suffer not from Main Character Syndrome but from Only Character Syndrome in their unrelenting quest for status and admiration.”
Got Main Character Energy? Cool, but keep it in check. Taken too far you could start to stray into personality disorder territory. For now we’re still enjoying the nostalgia conjured up by some of the razor-sharp memes of oh-so-relatable attention hungry teens.