Illustration by Cathryn Virginia
In the movie that is life, everyone would like to be considered the main character: The center of attention, the person whom the action happens to, supported by a cast of minor players. Online (and off) this manifests as main character energy, the sort of social posturing that places the would-be protagonist in the midst of some narrative plot point, whether that be a trip to their hometown or a ride on public transit. The result is often a highly romanticized version of reality, a version where all eyes are on the person—the main character.
While not an actual condition, main character syndrome refers to someone who behaves as if they’re the main character in the movie of their life, but to the extreme. For example, your friend doesn’t just go on dates, they act like they’re on The Bachelor, treating every person they meet as the future love of their life versus a regular person with their own needs. Or the friend who uses every happy hour or group trip as an opportunity to act like they’re a Real Housewife and get in arguments with friends. This is a person who’s constantly at the center of drama, with everyone from their boss to their neighbors turned into one-dimensional villains. While the term became popularized on social media, main character syndrome is not someone who constantly posts on social media. Instead, when a friend treats others like props, is delusional about their own reality, and needs to consistently be the center of attention… that’s main character syndrome. Experts say this behavior can be used as a coping mechanism for someone who’s going through a hard time—playing into a fantasy can be easier than facing reality. However, main character energy can veer pretty close to narcissism if left unchecked. Those too wrapped up in their own narratives may have a sense of entitlement and feel like they are more important than others; they may only see their friends as secondary characters meant to support their narrative, and they may even exaggerate their own accomplishments and fame. Social media has helped normalize these behaviors, clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly told VICE, because it’s given ordinary people a platform and an ability to cultivate an audience. “Before, you would’ve been called egotistical, even narcissistic. It's the new normal to be the star of your show.”
All this romanticizing can have an impact on friendships. If a friend’s main character behavior persists, you might feel unheard or feel like you’re constantly getting roped into your friend’s adventures. “[If] we're going along with what everyone else wants, that also can cause harm,” licensed professional counselor Jessica Jackson told VICE. “Because if we’re not happy, we’re resentful of the other people whose lives we’re constantly supporting.”Rather than remain sidelined and disgruntled, feeling like a low-billed actor in your friend’s life, there are ways to address their main character syndrome without dulling anyone’s star power.
Before confronting a friend over their self-centered behavior, make sure that’s actually what’s going on. Maybe, over the past year, a friend has made some positive changes in their life—like leaving a toxic partner or starting therapy—and they’re feeling confident and happy in the world. If seeing a friend flourish results in jealousy and insecurity, the problem isn’t your friend; it’s you. It’s important to have enough self-awareness to identify your own self-doubt and envy. Therapist Marline Francois-Madden suggests asking yourself, Why am I uncomfortable with my friend being the main character? Perhaps seeing a friend who’s the life of the party at bars makes you question your own self-worth. A therapist or another friend can help you work through these insecurities to help you build your own main character energy (more on that later) so you don’t feel so diminished by someone else’s.
Make sure it’s really main character syndrome.
If your resentment continues to build, though, you might need to take a temporary step away from the friendship to bolster your own self-confidence, or to let the resentment fade. Francois-Madden said we don’t necessarily need to tell the friend about our insecurities, either. “You have to ask yourself, Is my friend going to be empathetic in their response? Is my friend going to critique me?” Francois-Madden told VICE. It’s fine to work through our own issues without telling a friend they’re the cause of them.
Sometimes, delusions and grandiosity can be a result of trauma, Francois-Madden said, and wild daydreaming can help people escape from their difficult home life or allow them to set goals. In this case, we should ask our friends how they’re really feeling under their main character facade and provide an empathetic ear. What need is at the root of whatever it is they are romanticizing, and how can we help our friend meet that need? “Maybe they felt like a main character five years ago,” Jackson said, but now they are feeling insecure, or like they are falling behind their peers. You can help your friend channel their more assured self by asking what about that time sticks out for them as being great. Why did they feel so confident? And how can they recapture some of that feeling now?So long as you’re not expending all of your emotional energy, it’s good to be a friend’s cheerleader from time to time—whether that’s helping them to create a plan to get out of their difficult home life or encouraging them to apply for that internship.
Try to get to the root of your friend’s behavior.
If a friend’s newfound personality shift leaves you feeling unsupported, unseen, and unheard, it’s worth saying something. Friendships are a two-way street, and it’s unfair for a friend to expect you to constantly show up for them, or worse, if they always shift the focus to their lives during inopportune moments (like during another friend’s birthday party, or when you’re trying to have a heart to heart). “Being that bitch doesn’t mean you have to be a bitch,” wellness practitioner Melanie Santos told VICE. “It doesn’t mean you’re the only person.” Even if other friends have noticed a similar pattern in the main character friend, keep the conversation between just two people; any more than that and the discussion will start to feel like a pile-on, which is unfair, regardless of how the other person has acted. Then, be as straightforward as possible, Manly said. Try saying something like, “I love you and value our friendship, but lately I’ve been feeling like I’m taking a backseat. I want to feel like your equal rather than someone orbiting around you.” A main character friend may not agree—which is their prerogative—or they might ask what they’ve done that’s made you feel relegated to a supporting role. Again, be honest and straightforward, mentioning specifics: “When we spend time together, I feel like an extra in your life when I see that you’re so focused on creating a narrative or ‘scene’ instead of catching up,” or “Sometimes I feel like you’re not being your authentic self when we’re in a group of people” or “I feel small when you refer to me as your sidekick,” or “I’ve been going through a rough time lately and I could use some support instead of us always talking about your life.”
Be direct about how you’re feeling.
“If we find that this individual is choosing to engage in behaviors that make us feel marginalized, we get to state our case, wait for a shift, and, if that doesn’t happen, choose to invest in relationships that feel more mutual,” Manly said.
While you may not be the main character in your friend’s story, you can make an effort to center yourself within your own story, while still lifting others up. “There’s a very thin line between being just the main character and also realizing as the main character, you’re also supporting everybody else in their roles,” Santos said. Sometimes main characters can’t be, or aren’t ready to be, talked out of their choices, in which case the only way to address the issue is to manage your own behavior and create healthy boundaries. That means you should prioritize your feelings and desires, and get more comfortable turning down hangouts or invites for events you genuinely aren’t interested in or that you know are solely for the benefit of inflating a friend’s ego. When you consciously remove yourself from the supporting role in other people’s lives and surround yourself with people who show up for you as frequently as you show up for them, your relationships will feel profoundly more balanced.Playing up our own main character energy doesn’t mean stealing the spotlight from others, either. A good main character knows when to spotlight others’ accomplishments without feeling small themselves. For example, you’re no less of a main character when you attend your friend’s art opening and foist compliments on them. “The truth is, we are all characters on the stage of life and we want to be able to move to the front when we need to be in the front, but we also need to be able to move to the back and to the side,” Manly said. “There’s definitely an art to be able to step forward when you need to, but to be able to step back and let other people have the limelight and have their main character energy and allow ourselves a rest from the performance.”If a friend gets agitated the second they aren’t the center of attention, we should ask ourselves what we’re really getting out of the relationship. “‘What are my core values when it comes to friendships?’” Francois-Madden said. “‘Can this person bring them to me?’” Feeling drained, anxious, and belittled when in the presence of a friend with main character syndrome are red flags and it may be time to end the friendship. After so much time with their voice as the primary narrator, it’s time to center your own.“That’s so important, to listen to ourselves,” Jackson said. “Some of us have been quieting ourselves for such a long time that people are not listening to their intuition—all they hear is everyone else’s voice for them. Our internal voice shouldn’t sound like our parents or our friends.”