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On Being the Main Character of Your Own Life

Allowing others to be the main characters of their lives.

It’s far from uncommon to imagine that you are the main character in your own life. Indeed, it seems fairly widespread for people to act as if they are the main character in all of human history, the crowning achievement of evolution and the culmination of God’s inscrutable plan.

And why shouldn’t you think so? There’s plenty of evidence to support this view. After all, if you see a movie that has a particular actor in every single scene, and if that actor is also doing the storytelling voiceover in moments of silence and even often when other characters are talking, it’s natural to conclude that the actor is playing the protagonist. In your own life, you too appear in every single scene, the voiceover is in your own voice, and the movie doesn’t end when other people die, only when you do.

Problems develop between people (and within, but that’s another story) when their narratives clash, like the couple who were having a perfectly amicable divorce until they broached the topic of whose fault it was. Or you think your romance is a story about taming the dangers of your partner’s wild oats; your partner’s story is about you turning him or her into a zombie. Your story is about the can-do junior executive; your team’s story is about the whippersnapper trying to make them look bad.

One of the major ways that narratives clash has to do with the question of whose story it is in the first place. Lately, psychologists have been using the term "theory of mind" to describe the experience of others as having the same kind of mental states that you do, although I don’t like this term because it’s not a theory and there is no mind; I prefer analogic thinking (of the sort that suggests to the thinker that Muslims may feel about their holy objects roughly the way the thinker feels about his or her own). Many people (i.e., those with personality disorders) may say that they understand that other people have their own lives, but they act almost always as if other people are minor characters to their own protagonist. When you get two people with personality disorders in the same room, it’s unpleasantly amusing to watch them vie for center stage. Treatment of others as if they are playing bit parts is why a therapist’s attunement is not enough to change a personality disorder; without an intersubjective sensibility, it recapitulates the patient’s sense that he or she is the only person that matters.

As much as we like being the main characters of our stories, we react with anger when we are subordinated to a minor role. Of course we are capable of cheerfully fulfilling a minor role in any particular scene, but we balk at the message that our overall life is a minor one. This is what I mean by saying that relational pathology is annoying and that making allowances for it enables it—treating a diva like a diva makes it worse. Anyone is capable of getting irritated with you when they realize you think this is your scene and not theirs, or when they get a load of the fact that your agenda does not mesh with theirs. People with personality disorders rarely allow it to be your turn; they also threaten to end the relationship when they sense you have an agenda of your own.

Recognition that everyone is the main character of their own story can lead to a sense of ensemble, by which I mean a devotion to the quality of the experience rather than to one’s role in it. Many people approach each situation like an actor who reads a script only to count the number of lines he has and how long they are. Classrooms are often more fun for the teacher than for the students for this reason. A teacher who recognizes that each student is on his or her own path allows the non-disordered students to play a minor character in the classroom without having to act as if their whole life is unimportant.

In an egalitarian ensemble, such as the comedy series Friends, it’s impossible to say who is the main character. This setup reflects an ideal dinner party, or an ideal classroom, where people speak to improve the conversation, not to show off. In other ensembles, a scene may be one character’s or another’s, but there is a sense of fluidity about whose scene it will be. When elderly people drone on in apparent disregard for their listeners, it may have something to do with their having outlived a lot of or all of the people they are used to sharing scenes with. It may also be a function of their having slowed down in terms of improvisational abilities, so that reciting lines is the only kind of participation they can still muster. As with other biologically-based annoyances, we extend courtesies to the elderly on this score that would merely be enabling if extended to personality pathology.