It is a sign of the times when a new idea of behaviour is described simultaneously as a pathological syndrome and as a character trait that separates the successful from the ordinary.
Main character syndrome (MCS) has become a pop culture phenomenon widely discussed among millennials, particularly on social media. While there is, of course, no formal diagnosis, it is generally considered to be when an individual believes they are the main protagonist in the fictional version of their own lives. A crucial characteristic of MCS is that rather than tucking intimate moments away into a private emotional memory bank, many such instances are recorded and shared on social media. While the term is not synonymous with narcissism, it shares some qualities.
On the surface, the defence of MCS – that we are all protagonists in our own lives – can sound empowering. It allows us not to be defined uniquely by how others see us, but by how we define ourselves. Proponents argue it is most certainly not selfish: It was recently espoused by OK! magazine as useful for dating (because who doesn’t love going on a date with somebody who just talks about themselves?), while Women’s Health created a checklist explaining how to harness the powers of MCS for good.
But we must resist the temptation to feel like mini rock stars in the music video of our own lives, because main character syndrome is, at heart, unhealthy. It recasts every situation into a performance worthy of applause or pity – and the validation of social media followers. MCS has created the spiritual brittleness that cultivates Instagram mosaics of highly filtered selfies, pseudo-confessional essays that reduce complex human relations into a binary of heroic victim and evil perpetrator, and a narcissism that can twist world events such as the war in Ukraine into a subplot of an unimpacted life
The irony is that instead of gifting the afflicted with self-love, MCS robs people of the ability to genuinely love anyone, including themselves. In Eric Fromm’s The Art of Loving, the philosopher defines love as an active concern for the life and growth of that which we love. He defines love as “an activity, not a passive affect”, which means that in order to love, an individual must take responsibility for the care of the beloved. But with MCS, the protagonist sees all human interactions through a transactional lens that only values relationships that can add something directly to Main Character’s life. Other people are not Main Character’s problem, but self-care certainly is.
Curing MCS is not simple. It requires an individual recognising that fulfilment cannot be achieved through an exhaustive, self-absorbed performance, but rather through finding purpose from belonging to a collective. It means putting down the mimosa for a few minutes and genuinely listening to another person at brunch without meaning to interrupt or turn the story back towards ourselves. Life is not a “journey” and human beings are not trapped in a hero cycle, with their friends cast in supporting roles. Life is meant to be boring. Sometimes those quiet, un-Instagrammable moments are all the more valuable – because we can hear the most authentic versions of ourselves.