8 Jan 2024

Main Character Syndrome

"All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.”
William Shakespeare, As You Like It

Are you the protagonist in your own life “movie” and do you see everyone else as playing merely supporting roles? You might be suffering from “main character syndrome”, a TikTok trend that originated during the Covid lockdowns and has rapidly become a shorthand for a certain kind of narcissistic behaviour.

Main characters are self-centred and self-absorbed, indifferent to collaboration and unable to take criticism or laugh at themselves. They may be prone to over dramatic behaviour, or likely to fish for compliments and positive feedback. They will tend to see themselves as the self-appointed “queen bees” in their group. Their sense of entitlement makes them unable, and unwilling, to provide support and sympathy to the “lesser” characters in their life story, who they may see as mere bit players or avid fans.

This form of reinvention and self-projection finds its true home on social media, where aspiring protagonists can use carefully curated images and postings to create a rose-tinted vision of perfection. This is frequently misleading and dishonest, but main characters will find any criticism of their persona or scepticism about their fantasy world extremely offensive.

This tendency may be rooted in a sense of disappointment and disillusionment and can reflect a desire to capture control and agency over circumstances. Ultimately, it may contribute to feelings of self-worth and self-confidence, though undoubtedly this will be at the expense of other people.

If you have a friend who suffers from main character syndrome, you have a simple choice. You can consent to play a supporting role and usher them on to the centre stage. It might be that you find the spectacle enjoyable and entertaining and, if you are not particularly vulnerable or needy, you might naturally gravitate to being a semi-detached observer on the side lines. If, on the other hand, you expect more from your friends than projection and performance and feel that you need support, care and attention, you may well be advised to reconsider your friendship priorities and look elsewhere.

Main Characters in the Office

Dealing with a self-obsessed and recalcitrant main character in your social circle has its own challenges, but the problem becomes much more intractable in a professional context. You may well find yourself working with such a person. If you think you have spotted a likely candidate, ask the following questions:

•Does this person thrive on being the centre of attention?

•Do they think they are smarter than everyone else?

•Do they complain that they are underappreciated and under-rewarded?

•Are they prone to claiming other people’s achievements as their own?

•Are they liable to blame colleagues to keep their own reputation intact?

•Are they non-team players, who prefer to work alone and find collaboration difficult?

It is easy to see that all these characteristics are difficult to manage in the workplace and may well create a toxic environment, where resentment and grudges thrive. Managers need to be very wary of main characters, as a tendency to praise or reward them will bring simmering resentment amongst their colleagues to a head. On the other hand, their self-confidence and self-belief might reap benefits: they may well be willing to take risks, think big and pursue ambitious goals – as leaders, it is possible that they will sweep all before them, but the question is will they do so with the willing compliance of their colleagues?

If you find yourself being forced to work with a colleague who suffers from main character syndrome, you will need to fight back and assert yourself, or you will be consigned to the chorus and never find yourself in a leading role. You must explain, explicitly, why you find their behaviour difficult, obtuse and offensive, and straight talking might break through their armour-plated belief in their own aptitude. If that doesn’t work you must, as with all complaints related to colleagues, document their behaviour, and if necessary talk to co-workers, team leaders or human resources.

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