Move over, Tom Cruise. There are new superstars in town, or at least, in our imaginations. Us—You and me. Okay, we may not be shooting down enemy planes or blowing up restaurants and running out in slow-motion, but we still have central casting in the movies constantly running in our heads. Our ability to see the world entirely from our own perspectives is very human. But, thanks to modern communication methods, especially social media, we’re now turning into a much more self-absorbed and narcissistic lot—an ailment the urban dictionary has aptly named “Main Character Syndrome (MCS).”
I don’t care what you think unless it is about me ― Kurt Cobain
The Museum of Me
In 2011, the chip-manufacturing giant, Intel, embarked on a novel way to demonstrate the power of their then cutting-edge product, the Core i5 processor. (Yes, the i5 was big news in 2011.) The company created a virtual modern-art exhibit titled The Museum of Me.
The platform used the data on users’ Facebook profiles—photos, videos, selfies, links, posts etc.—to create personalized videos. The resulting “movies” rivaled Hollywood productions.
Literally, at the touch of a button, users could view often glamorous portrayals of their own lives, set to custom music tracks, complete with galleries and admiring imaginary crowds.
To say the digital initiative was a success would be to understate the buzz The Museum of Me generated when it went live. According to Stephanie Gan, then an advertising and digital programs manager at Intel, “It was supposed to launch officially on June 1, but the team did a test pilot on May 31. Within 5 minutes, there were 36 likes. Within 5 days, there were 1 million hits.” The popularity only grew. Millions more continued to create and share virtual museums of their lives.
Who is it about?
In retrospect, the success of The Museum of Me project is hardly surprising, isn’t it? A movie that makes us central protagonists and amplifies our otherwise ordinary life moments? Sure. Add adoring onlookers and a background that rivals the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Sign us up!
The desire to spin our own stories, and direct and star in our own movies in inherently human and goes back to our hard-wired survival instinct. Because, after all, if you are not the main character in your own story, who else is? Trouble brews when the boundaries blur and we think of ourselves as main characters in other people’s stories, too. That’s when we become worthy of the ‘Main character syndrome’ tag.
Main character syndrome
For starters, Main Character Syndrome isn’t a formal psychological condition. It’s a TikTok fueled, sardonic, pop-culture reference to the self-importance we attribute to our thoughts feelings and make ourselves the central character of all stories.
Referring to someone as a #maincharacter is just a euphemistic way to say “not everything is always about you.”
What Main character syndrome looks like
Last year, on a visit to see one of the world’s most renowned sculptures, Michelangelo’s The Statue of David, I couldn’t help notice (and be distracted by) a fellow tourist. This woman spent the entire 45 minutes live-broadcasting into her cellphone camera, focusing entirely on camera angles that made her look good, and gushing to her presumed audience about how excited she was to finally be in front of one of the greatest pieces of art the world has ever seen. Poor David, even in all his glory, didn’t stand a chance at getting any airtime.
And I wasn’t the only one being judgmental. There were other shaking heads and rolling eyes, too.
But what we saw on display that night, besides exquisite art, was a quintessential exhibition of Main Character syndrome.
It is easy to recognize main characters. They come across as deluded and grandiose.
They are the ones who post pictures from a friend’s birthday party where they look good, but the friend is indistinguishable from the background. Or, they arrive late to a party and interrupt ongoing conversations to provide unnecessarily long explanations of why they were late. Or, the ones who tag every other social media post with #storyofmylife.
We know and recognize the main characters. The wisdom is in not becoming one of them.
Empowerment or Narcissism
When MCS initially gained TikTok popularity, it didn’t carry the negative connotation it does now. Because to be self-empowering has always been, and will continue to be, a good thing. The more we can advocate for our own happiness and stop relying on external validation, the better our lives will be.
But empowerment unchecked, can lead to narcissism.
By all means, you can channel your inner Kate Winslet and stand Titanic-style with outstretched arms at the edge of your apartment’s balcony, if that kind of thing makes you happy. Just don’t expect to post a selfie-video of that moment on YouTube and expect people to drop everything and spend their time singing your praises.
How to avoid Main Character Syndrome
Avoiding MCS does not mean we should turn into wallflowers. It means knowing when to lead and when to follow. Here are some ways:
Don’t steal someone’s thunder
The phrase to steal someone’s thunder originated from theater. Instead of using various devices to simulate the sound of thunder in theater plays, literary critic John Dennis invented a novel method to mimic the noise produced by thunder. In the following months, the theater shutdown Dennis’ own play for lack of attendance but continued to use his innovative thunder-noise generating method for other plays such as Shakespeare’s Macbeth. And so, an upset John Dennis, is said to have used the term quite literally, as a rebuke: “Don’t steal my thunder” (when you don’t showcase my plays.)
The expression has continued to stay relevant in the English language, especially so in the context of our current discussion on avoiding MCS.
The bottom-line is this: Allow others their share of limelight. It is healthy and keeps people happy.
Practice active listening
Main characters typically like to talk. A lot.
When we speak less, we hear more. Sometimes, our own voices are like drones drowning out the environment. One of the primary reasons for communication breakdowns is because, instead of hearing what someone’s saying, we’re too busy already formulating our responses and end up missing the plot.
There is no need to always tell a grander story, or recount a sadder anecdote, or have the last word. Recognize and refrain from one-upping to avoid sounding like a main character.
Here’s a Dilbert comic strip that proves the point about one-upmanship.
Know when to be a protagonist and when to be a guest star
If you are the main character, you know what that makes everyone else around you? Sidekicks. Certainly not how they would like to describe themselves. And most certainly not how you’d want to always be portrayed in everyone else’s movies.
Lead, when required, but more importantly, step back when appropriate.
For the most part, it’s not all about us. And definitely, it’s not all about us all the time. Knowing when to be a protagonist and when to guest star is the definition of wisdom.
Being a main character is great when warranted. Having Main character syndrome, on the other hand, is just cringey.
Half the pain in human life comes from gazing in mirrors — Marty Rubin