- Given all of the positive traits associated with "side characters," many have adopted this persona in their digital expressions and interactions.
- A side character tends to be untroubled, self-assured, and content with their role.
- There is little research conducted on "side character" in psychology as it relates to social media.
Social media platforms, like TikTok, constantly generate new phenomena–maybe some of these identify real ideas and concerns emerging in this new digital age, maybe some are reincarnations of pre-digital issues transposed into the social-media world, and undoubtedly some are made up to sell advertising.
The latest of these new trends is a term popularized by social media known as "side character syndrome," and many people are now trying to harness their "side character energy." This term is a counter to another popular social media term, "main character syndrome," and should be understood in that light.
The issues for many who follow social media trends are: what is "side character" energy, how can I get it, and what would it do for me?
For psychologists, the issues are whether this could be a real phenomenon, whether we have known about this before in another guise, and whether research tells us anything about its pros and cons. We can learn much about these digital presentations of self from a surprising source–the work of Carl Jung on archetypes.
Most people who have watched a sitcom, romcom, or action/adventure movie, will be familiar with the "best friend" or "sidekick: character–Robin to Batman, Edward to Bella, or, if you are older, Eve Arden’s character to almost anybody else in the movie. These side characters offer support to the main character.
Supporting characters tend (but not always) to have a more stable personality than those in the spotlight and do not necessarily go on a journey into unexplored territories or self-discovery. The side character tends to be untroubled, self-assured, and content with their role.
Regarding social media self-presentation, "side character" was termed by Lola Okola, who noted:1 “…embracing your inner side character means living ‘with great outfits and funny one-liners,’ basically, it's a way to live life by being ‘funny and sexy.”
Sadly, there is little research conducted on "side character" in psychology as it relates to social media, so it is hard to know whether these media-lead suggestions of the benefits of side character energy are accurate. They seem to have certain face validity based on common sense.
Some studies on the psychological characteristics of "best friends" in real life might offer some insight. One study examined the perceived traits of best friends by interviewing adolescents and children.2 The results seem to resonate with the suggestions made about digital side-characters, in that some traits associated with being a best friend were: companionship, fidelity, trust, help, and positive emotions.
Given all of the positive traits associated with "side characters," many have adopted this persona in their digital expressions and interactions. This can be seen as a reaction against "main character syndrome," which sees people behaving as if they are a star in their own life–an odd concept in many ways–but one associated with being in the limelight, narcissism, entitlement, and potential delusion.3
Stepping away from the limelight has suggested a much more psychologically adaptive and healthy way to present oneself–a place where you can focus on yourself and not need to present a false impression: “Far from living a small life, the freedom afforded to those outside of the spotlight means that the sidelined cast usually live fuller, more contented lives.”4
However, as with most digital new fads, the presumed benefits of adopting "side character energy" may not be as clear-cut as many have suggested in the first flush of trending.
Several psychologists, such as Abby Rawlinson,5 have highlighted several psychological dangers of over-adopting "side character energy" and have warned against tendencies of "people-pleasing" and "futile attempts at rescuing others."
These dangers are probably more of an issue for people "adopting" this strategy on social media and whose personalities in real life do not fit easily within this role. The dangers of adopting different personae in the digital and real worlds have been the subject of other blogs,2,6, and are not the concern here. It is of concern whether people whose personalities lend themselves to this digital way of being gain the things predicted.
Jung’s work on archetypes7,8 originated some 100 years before "side character syndrome," but it may help understand the nature of supportive people. Archetypes are broad personality types that, according to Jung, are evolved ancestral memories–universal, primal symbols deriving from the collective unconscious, reflected in art and media9 (so it should come as no surprise that they are seen in digital media).
There are 12 archetypes (Innocent, Orphan, Warrior, Caregiver, Seeker, Lover, Creator, Destroyer, Ruler, Magician, Sage, and Jester). The one of most interest, when considering "side character energy," is that of the "Caregiver" (in less gender-enlightened days, called the "Mother"). If you are keen to know your character, then you can try the Pearson-Marr Archetype Indicator®, a 72-item questionnaire assessing the strength of these 12 different archetypes in your personality.
Those with the Caregiver archetype tend to be selfless and self-sacrificing–offering support to their main character. So far, so good in analyzing the benefits of "second character energy." However, they also tend to self-neglect (not to say martyrdom) and can become a serious burden for those around them if this is pushed too far. Far from allowing self-development, adopting "side character energy" may lead to a neglect of the self, as too much energy is focused on others. This seems much more in line with the concerns expressed by Rawlinson.5
A study using the Pearson-Marr Indicator found that Caregiver-archetype traits are positively correlated with experienced stress, and those who score highly reported more stress than those scoring lower in these traits.10 Thus, the advantages of adopting "side character energy," in preference to "main character energy," may have been overplayed. Unless it is a role with which you are very content, it will not allow you to develop the self but will make you stressed.
As with all things digital, the rush to embrace a new concept runs ahead of our understanding. Previous seminal work by Jung suggested that such a "side character" strategy will only fit those with such a trait already. Far from helping the self to develop, an overfocus on others could be harmful to the self–especially if it’s not in your make-up.
If this isn’t bad enough, I’m still troubled by the term "adopting," which is widely used in this context. Of course, we can alter our personalities–but why adopt a digital persona when you have a perfectly good real personality?
1. Malivindi, D. (27.6.22). TikTok can't stop talking about 'Side Character Energy', but what exactly does it mean? Elle. Side Character Energy TikTok Trend: What Is It & How To Do It | ELLE Australia.
2. Greco, C. (2019). How is a best friend? Friendship’s characteristics in Argentine children. Actualidades en Psicología, 33(126), 69-82.
3. Reed, P. (21.6.21). The trouble with "Main Character Syndrome". Psychology Today. The Trouble with "Main Character Syndrome" | Psychology Today United Kingdom
4. Beckett, T. (5.7.22). The case for embracing side character energy. Stuff. The case for embracing side character energy | Stuff.co.nz
5. FreeTNP (8.3.22). When does ‘Supporting Character Energy’ go too far? When Does 'Supporting Character Energy' Go Too Far? - freetxp
6. Reed, P. (28.6.21). Would your main character phub you? Psychology Today. Would Your Main Character Phub You? | Psychology Today
7. Jung, C.G. (1921). Psychological types. The collected works of CG Jung, Vol. 6 Bollingen Series XX.
8. Jung, C.G. (1947). On the Nature of the Psyche. London: Ark Paperbacks.
9. McLeod, S.A. (2018). Carl Jung. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/carl-jung.html
10. McPeek, R.W. (2008). The Pearson-Marr archetype indicator and psychological type. Journal of Psychological Type, 68, 52-66.