“You have to start romanticizing your life. You have to start thinking of yourself as the main character. Because if you don’t, life will continue to pass you by. And all the little things that make it so beautiful, will continue to go unnoticed. So take a second, and look around, and realize that it’s a blessing for you to be here right now”
So goes the trending TikTok statement by user @ashlaward, who says it with a soft, gentle voice over tinkling harp music played by @hannah_harpist. It’s a sweet sentiment that encourages listeners to start becoming the main character of their lives, inviting them to enjoy the little things. It’s all about finding and creating beauty from the mundane in the same way that the films of Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki artfully highlight the beauty of everyday activities.
It’s a generally healthy view of life that’s recently been plagued with a darker side in the form of what YouTubers, Twitter users, and TikTokers now like to call ‘main character syndrome’. To understand why main character syndrome gets such a bad rap, we need to go back to the roots of the trend. While it may have gotten popular on TikTok, it certainly didn’t originate there.
Tumblr and Miyazaki: Romanticizing Your Life
Tumblr users have a long-standing love affair with the works of Hayao Miyazaki. The famous animator rose to popularity due to his sentimental and fantastical films. You might recognize some of them: Spirited Away (2001), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), and My Neighbor Totoro (1988) are three of his best-known films with his animation studio, the equally legendary Studio Ghibli.
The hand-drawn animation and use of soft colors and light form what’s easily recognized as Ghibli’s signature visual style. More than that, what really makes a Miyazaki film is the pervasive sense of wonder that runs through it. Hayao Miyazaki transports his viewers to a world that looks like ours but is filled with spirits of nature at every turn. In his movies, a boat ride can take you to other realms and forest guardians stand with little girls at bus stops, holding an umbrella.
The entire appeal of Miyazaki’s films is that they romanticize daily life, giving you the chance to imagine yourself as the main character of your own life. It’s unsurprising that this “main character” mentality and approach to living resonates with so many people. For many, it really is a mental health boost that keeps them taking care of themselves and the world around them.
A few years later, the ‘romanticizing your life’ audio began to trend on TikTok after @ashlaward uploaded herself reciting the now popular ‘you have to start romanticizing your life’ quote. A slew of videos featuring TikTok users living their best main character lives filled news feeds all over the internet. Often, the videos feature guys, gals, and non-binary pals in their cutest outfits, eating fruit at a picnic during sunset.
While the cute Cottagecore-like aesthetic served as a soothing outlook at life for many, some raised concerns that the trend was giving young netizens the wrong idea: that they were the only main character. This ‘aesthetic narcissism’, as it’s been called, is known by the name ‘main character syndrome’.
What Is Main Character Syndrome?
What’s so bad about having main character syndrome?
For starters, the people who claim main character syndrome is a thing say that it’s narcissism with a pretty name. What started out as a yearning to find beauty in everyday life, as if you’re the main character of a Ghibli film, became seen as unbridled selfishness that turns everyone else in a person’s life into side characters.
Not everyone gets to be the main character, after all, so other people in a person’s life get shoe-horned into minor roles. The attractive co-worker or schoolmate isn’t their own person; they’re the romantic interest and they’re meant for you, the main character of this story. The person they’ve been in a relationship with for the past several years isn’t their best match, no matter if they’ve gone through life-changing events together, but you, because you’re the main character.
The same goes for your friends. When you have main character syndrome, you don’t have friends that are part of the LGBTQ+ community, you have gay friends whose only purpose in your life is to give you a makeover and send you off to your Prince Charming.
According to transpersonal psychotherapist Alejandra Sarmiento, main character syndrome is a coping mechanism used by people on social media to regain a sense of control over their lives. It’s another form of escapism and is similar to how fantasy is used to cope with trauma, another major theme of Miyazaki’s films.
“Living in a fantasy world where we not only control the narrative but also get to be center-stage can be particularly appealing when everything around us feels so completely out of our control,” Sarmiento explains, “I think this message resonated loud and clear with an entire generation who were unexpectedly forced to miss major milestones, such as graduations and proms, and who could only connect with their friends through a screen during lockdown.”
She’s not far off. A parallel trend, Cottagecore, skyrocketed in popularity during the pandemic for the same reasons main character syndrome did: it gave people a way to redefine life on their own terms.
Enjoying Life vs. Main Character Syndrome
So, can we ever win with our personal coping mechanisms or are we forever doomed to fall prey to the dreaded main character syndrome?
First off, enjoying the little things in life doesn’t necessarily mean that you have main character syndrome. ‘Romanticizing your life’ isn’t the only lifestyle trend to come out of the bowels of TikTok and subsequently get canceled. There’s Goblincore, which was canceled for supposedly being anti-Semitic, the E-girl aesthetic, which received flak for being overly sexual, and Angelcore, which has been criticized for being too puritan.
The internet is a constant ebb and flow of generally positive trends pushing against clap backs that claim they’re toxic. Main character syndrome is no different.
In fact, main character syndrome is just a trendy name.
Is Main Character Syndrome Real?
As someone who’s eaten the DSM-V for breakfast for five years, I can tell you that not once does ‘main character syndrome’ show up anywhere in the official list of mental illnesses and disorders peer-reviewed by the American Psychiatric Association. Despite the popularity of cancel videos and posts about how it’s toxic to be the main character of your life, there’s really no precedent or basis to call main character syndrome a syndrome.
But are there grounds for concern about the negative effects of main character syndrome on developing brains and society as a whole? Possibly. Social media (read: the internet Hogwarts houses of Tiktok, Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram) have been shown to correlate with higher levels of grandiose narcissism which give those that experience it unwarranted feelings of superiority over those they see as less than. While not all people with a superiority streak become full-blown narcissists, the risk of developing Narcissistic Personality Disorder is always present.
That being said, main character syndrome gets one thing right: it’s no one’s business to tell you how to live your life. As long as you aren’t causing anyone harm, damaging property, or doing anything illegal, anything that makes you happy is fair game. So, buy that dress, order that extra slice of strawberry shortcake, listen to the Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) soundtrack on your bus ride home from work.
Main character syndrome or not, we all deserve to live our best life.
Keen on living your life like you’re Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) or the magical Kiki of Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)? Check out Cottagecore: Beauty, Tranquility, and A Timeless Perspective on Labor and get a better sense of the nuances behind what we normally think of as simple living.