Stranger than fiction: What role would you play in the story of your life?

Do you have main character syndrome or side character energy? The former is a viral meme trend dating to 2021, in which people are encouraged to view themselves as the stars of their own lives.

A “main character” type makes themself the centre of attention in most situations, as if all eyes were trained on them alone. These are the kinds of people that offer advice unbidden; take charge of situations that aren’t theirs to pilot; and romanticise the most routine moments of their lives. A person with side-character energy, by contrast, is supposedly relaxed and easy-going; able to thrive outside the limelight; content just to be part of the plot.

If this seems like a simplistic dichotomy, it’s worth remembering that for decades, people were classified as “Type A” and “Type B” , based on terms coined by two cardiologists in the 1950s, who were studying factors that raised the risk of heart disease. The Type A person, their nine-year study concluded, was overly expressive and domineering, and more likely to develop cardiac issues. Type B people were relaxed and easy-going, and less likely to develop cardiac issues.

What’s interesting is why these tags, both sets of them, emerged when they did. How seriously you take them can tell you more about yourself than which tag you choose.

Here goes. The Type A-Type B dichotomy emerged in a fast-changing corporate America that was becoming increasingly competitive. A heedless rush for wealth was driven by a resurgent Wall Street, in a culture that prioritised profits, wealth and status symbols in ways that would become epitomised by the lines “Greed… is good. Greed is right. Greed works”, mouthed by the corporate raider Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) in the 1987 film Wall Street.

What’s driving the popularity of today’s main character-side character dichotomy boils down to new definitions of self and of fame, says Sukriti Das, a clinical psychologist and learning and development head with the online therapy platform Betterlyf. “The idea of putting yourself first is no longer frowned upon, despite the risks of toxic positivity. Added to which, social media has made ‘public presence’ and ‘image’ more of a necessity for the average individual than at any point in history,” Das says.

The pandemic has contributed. “Lockdowns heightened the average user’s dependence on the internet in a range of spheres that include seeking friendship, companionship, approval and sense of self-worth,” Das says. “The looming sense of fear and uncertainty contributed to feelings of powerlessness.”

The idea of taking charge of one’s life again became encapsulated in a 2020 TikTok trend that took its hashtag (#maincharacterenergy) viral, sparking memes and Reels. In these posts, people “reclaim” control and advise others to do so too. “You have to start romanticizing 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,” says TikTok user Ashley Ward, in a viral post that depicts her reclining serenely on a beach.

As with most emotions sparked by online activity — the sense of achievement from Candy Crush, the sense of acknowledgement from a Twitter Like — the control and affirmation that comes from “having main character energy” is a hologram masquerading as the real thing.

The truth, adds counselling psychologist Divija Bhasin, is that just as with the tags of introvert vs extrovert, most personalities fluctuate along a spectrum.

The truth, also, is that there are no easy answers. Developing a fantasy self or a fantasy life is, at best, a distraction; at worst, it can lead to crises of the self and prevent the individual from addressing the real issues in their lives, says Phil Reed, professor of psychology at UK’s Swansea University, in an article titled The Trouble with “Main Character Syndrome”, published in the magazine Psychology Today in June 2021.

“If somebody needs to reinvent themself,” he adds in the article, “then there is more than likely something fundamentally wrong with their life and/or their living environment.”

Meanwhile, over time, as with the Type A and Type B definitions, the notions of main-character and side-character energy can lead the individual to embrace elements of the tag to their own detriment.

What starts out as ambition, motivation, even self-care, in main character syndrome, can evolve into personality traits linked to narcissism and eventually alienation, if not moderated by self-awareness, says psychotherapist Shanaya Boyce. “It could also manifest as an over-dependence on the opinions of strangers online, over the relationships and people in the room. Believing that you are a side character can lead you to stop exploring new avenues or challenging yourself,” adds Bhasin.

It would help to introspect with a whole different set of questions, says clinical psychologist Das. “A few key ones: Do you see yourself in the same light as you want others to view you? Do you have someone you trust to share your unfiltered thoughts with? How comfortable are you in your current reality? These questions help build a sense of self-awareness and foster self-compassion, and those are the things that keep you tethered to reality.”