The psychology behind why we get “main character” syndrome on holiday
Life

The psychology behind why we experience “main character” syndrome on holiday

Nothing makes us feel happier, healthier and lighter than a trip away. But why does going on holiday make so many of us feel like the main character? Writer Amy Beecham investigates.   

I’ll start with a confession: I always start packing my suitcase at least two weeks before a holiday.

Yes, I am a bit of an organisation obsessive who would pull her hair out at even the thought of packing the night before a flight. But also because I genuinely need that much time to immerse myself fully into holiday mode.

For me, it’s not just about having the opportunity to wear my favourite floaty dresses and summer sandals, it’s about curating the person I’ll become as soon as we touch down on the runway.

You see, I think of travel not just as seeing the world and experiencing new cultures but also as a chance to experience new parts of myself.

Writer Amy Beecham says travelling always makes her feel like the best version of herself
Writer Amy Beecham says travelling always makes her feel like the best version of herself

I am categorically a better, funnier and more interesting person abroad. With bare legs, the sun on my face and something cold in hand, I am the best, most engaging and carefree version of myself.

It’s like travelling is a portal to all of the versions of myself I don’t usually get to explore while I’m in London. I smile more, not just because I’m relaxed and rested, but because in my bones I feel different. I’m lighter, flirtier and less of a perfectionist than I am day-to-day at home.

When I look back on my holiday pictures from years gone by, I don’t just remember the places I visited but the person I was in that place. How I charmed strangers over drinks in Valencia and felt grounded by the easy warmth and hospitality of Greece.

"When I look back on my holiday pictures from years gone by, I don’t just remember the places I visited but the person I was in that place."
"When I look back on my holiday pictures from years gone by, I don’t just remember the places I visited but the person I was in that place."

I’ve been privileged enough to experience some of the most beautiful places on earth: from the mountains of northern Spain to the great pyramids of Egypt to the crystal oceans of the Maldives. But it’s not just the vitamin D. I’ve never felt more wild and alive than a frosty New Year’s Eve spent in Berlin, and I transcended to a new level of refinement after taking in an opera in Vienna.

As vain as it may sound, when you’re on holiday it’s sometimes like the streets become a catwalk dedicated to you and your main character moment.

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Why do we experience main character syndrome on holiday?

“Holidays are often liberating. We’re away from everything familiar, in a new place, with new people. We often bring our best clothes and have more time to spend on personal grooming. But it’s more than just an external difference – it’s a chance to BE someone different for a little while,” explains psychotherapist Hannah Martin, founder of Talented Ladies Club.

“At home, we could be a mum or a partner or spouse; we’re a colleague at work, we’re a friend, sister, daughter… we have relationships that are entrenched. Over the years people have built up expectations about us and how we behave, and we usually obediently fit into these moulds.

“But on holiday, we lose those moulds. We’re not at work or in familiar environments with familiar people. And the people we’re on holiday with are going through a similar liberating experience, so our relationships with them can temporarily change.”

“Holidays are often liberating. We’re away from everything familiar, in a new place, with new people"
“Holidays are often liberating. We’re away from everything familiar, in a new place, with new people"

It certainly rings true. Whether you’re reading a book by the pool, sipping an Aperol alone at an Italian cafe or learning to zorba, you can find your mind wondering what you must look like to everyone else. How happy and mysterious and alluring you might seem.

Even in places I’ve felt myself swallowed up – the loud streets of Cairo or beneath the towering skyline of New York – there’s still a sense of excitement that fizzles and cracks within me. I like who I am so much more when I’m in the unknown.

“We feel freer without our responsibilities at home, and this enables us to dust off long-forgotten parts of ourselves, usually the more playful, adventurous parts that don’t fit into everyday life, and feel what it’s like to be that person again,” Martin agrees. And it’s a welcome confidence boost for many of us.

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“Think how little of your everyday life is spent doing what YOU want when you want to do it. Or even having adventures – deciding to do something without knowing where it will take you,” she continues.

“On holiday, we get to decide (almost) everything. We choose when we get up, where we go, where and when we eat, what we wear and what we do. We become the hero of our story. Life becomes unexpected, and we are in the driving seat. You’re not reliant on someone else to make decisions for you. And you’re not hemmed in by their expectations of who you are and what you will or won’t do. You get to experience the real you and have the chance to fall back in love with that person.”

“See your holiday as a chance to get perspective on your life, and consider what you like to change”
“See your holiday as a chance to get perspective on your life, and consider what you like to change”

But inevitably, this only makes the crash return to reality that much harder.

You board the cramped aircraft and gaze out of the window as the plane takes off, saying a silent goodbye to your fantasy self as you leave her behind. Then the holiday blues hit hard, your glow feels like it’s already beginning to fade and you soon find yourself searching for glimmers of hope in your next trip. So what does Martin advise if you’re looking to channel your holiday energy into your home self?

“Much of the magic of being on holiday comes from personal agency – being responsible and making decisions for yourself. If you feel like that is lacking in your life at home, then you have an opportunity to make changes.

“What would you love to do that you are not doing now? Are there activities you can take up that you would enjoy? Is your work fulfilling? Do you feel you are respected enough at work and in your personal life? And if not, what can you do to change that? Are there relationships that need to end? Or do you need to start instilling boundaries?

“See your holiday as a chance to get perspective on your life, and consider what you like to change. Maybe even make a list of changes you will make while you are away, with practical ideas to implement. Then use the motivation when you first come home to start making those changes. Don’t wait another year until you get the itch again!”

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Images: Amy Beecham