If you’re reading this you’ve probably heard of the phrase “main character energy” or MCE. It’s a term GenZ popularized with a particular Tiktok audio that encouraged people to romanticize their lives and live unapologetically. After hearing it for the first time, I quickly fell in love with the concept. I wanted to explore it further (hence this blog) to really understand how to become the protagonist of my own life and radiate the energy that would benefit my overall well being. After some research and thinking, I found it best to start with something foundational — our values.
To be the best version of ourselves and exude MCE, we need to take a critical examination of our attitudes and what we care about. We need to understand where they originated from, how they manifest in our behavior, and how they change over time.
Everyone has different values. We’ve all been raised in our own unique ways, carry our own unique childhood traumas, and experience our own unique internal and external pressures. Our values help us to define who we are to ourselves, it’s the basis for how we behave and how we view the world. When it comes to these values, whether that’s the importance we place on academics, specific hobbies, friendships, habits, etc., we should question whether they’re coming from a healthy place of growth or from a negative source of self destruction. Only through this critical examination of our values and behavior can we really start to authentically become the main character. One way we examine our values and how they have developed overtime is through a deeper understanding of cognitive dissonance.
Every now and then, we get into these moods where we don’t feel like ourselves. We sense a disconnect between what we’re doing and who we want to be, which results in anxiety, discomfort, regret, and sometimes, shame. In psychology, this is referred to as cognitive dissonance. And while you’ve probably heard of this term before, there’s more to it than just the mental discomfort you feel when your actions are misaligned with your perceived values and identity. Someone in cognitive dissonance might sense a level of inconsistency with how they perceive themselves and how they behave, realizing that they’re not living up to their own expectations. The stronger the value, the higher the level of dissonance.
This can be both harmful and helpful depending on the situation. On the positive, cognitive dissonance can help you grow. Identifying areas where your values are misaligned with your actions can refine your decision making and help you better understand your values and what you stand for. Here, cognitive dissonance is good. However, in most cases, our reaction to cognitive dissonance has the complete opposite effect and can be harmful to our long term character development if not handled carefully.
Feeling dissonance will naturally cause you to change your thoughts and actions to maintain a sense of consistency and harmony with yourself. Take for instance, a scenario where you value practicing a healthy lifestyle but over time you’ve become lazy and put it off. Instead of using your time to exercise or eat healthy, you use your time to watch shows and play video games for hours on end. You feel dissonant because what you value is not aligning with your behavior. In these situations, you’re likely to act in one of three ways:
- You double down on your values to reduce the dissonance. To reduce the discomfort, you admit that you haven’t been “yourself” and change your behavior. In this scenario, you jumpstart yourself back into a lifestyle of healthy eating and daily exercise. We’d all like to believe that this is what happens but it usually isn’t the case.
- You reduce the cognitions that threaten your self esteem. You might convince yourself that your negative behavior is less important. You reduce the importance of that attitude which ultimately lessens the dissonance. You convince yourself that perhaps, with everything going on with your life, that you don’t have the time to exercise or eat healthy even if you wanted to because it’s out of your control. You simply lower your self expectations to match your moment’s inability to meet them. When you’re trying to be the protagonist, that’s hardly ever good.
- You’ll try to reduce “postdecisional dissonance” by focusing on the positive aspects of your chosen decision. You’ll lean into your decision of playing video games instead of working out and change your previous values to align with your current behavior. In this case, you convince yourself that playing video games, since you’re relaxing, is enough for a healthy lifestyle. Of course, it isn’t but doing so creates new consonant conditions and restores attitude consistency.
And lastly, in tandem with all of these reactions, what is often the case is that you begin to hide your beliefs and values from others. To reduce your feelings of guilt — in this case, the guilt that comes from not going to the gym or eating healthy — you might hide your true self and create a facade that you no longer believe that being healthy is important.
The problem with that is, the more you keep telling that to others, the more it becomes a reality for you.
As you can imagine, moments of cognitive dissonance happen all the time; whether it’s through peer pressure, lingering effects of previous events, or just actions on a whim, we sometimes act in ways that don’t “feel like us”. Having these moments are not necessarily a problem, but it’s how we react to this dissonance that could dramatically affect our long-term wellbeing and identity.
All this to say, when you reflect on your values and how you behave, try to really understand where they come from. Similar to how we might look at others’ actions to determine their values and attitudes towards a particular subject, we will naturally look at our own actions to determine our ownvalues. This happens because of self perception, the act of using our own behavior as a guide to help us determine our own thoughts and feelings.
If we want to grow from our behavior, we need to first learn how to identify these moments of dissonance and tolerate them long enough so we can examine the situation with clarity and with an unbiased point of view. Doing so will ensure that our values continue from a healthy place instead of one that folds into discomfort and anxiety.
Using this approach, let’s look back at our example. Instead of convincing ourselves that this is our new found identity, knowing what we know now on how we naturally reach, we can endure the discomfort long enough to create a new identity of someone who prioritizes their health but still finds the time to enjoy video games and TV shows.
“With our natural desire to feel consistency in our values, we might be unaware that we spend more energy convincing ourselves that we are good people than we do thinking of ourselves accurately.“(Source)
Looking critically at how we behave and what we value at this present moment, we need to ask ourselves if they come from prioritizing our health or if they’re values we’ve convinced ourselves to have because overtime it was the comfortable thing to do. These are the hard questions we need to ask ourselves.
Because it might be hard to understand where to begin, here are examples of where I personally need to reassess my values and where they come from. Hopefully it sparks ideas of where to begin for your own life.
- When thinking about rest, I ask myself… Why don’t I prioritize sleep? For the longest time, all I’ve done is work work work. Why don’t I value my rest and mindfulness as much as I value making a boss at a corporation proud? Where is this value from and is that how I want to continue my life?
- When thinking about relationships with others, I ask myself… Why do I care so much about satisfying other people? Have I convinced myself that I’m being nice when I’m really just trying to get their approval? Where does that come from and how can I better understand its origins?
- When thinking about my self esteem, I ask myself… Am I a bad person because I do X? Or do I do X because I’ve convinced myself that I’m a bad person? How have I categorized myself? And how does that affect my future actions? And how does that affect how I categorize myself?
In order for us to be our life’s protagonist, we need to understand our values. We need to understand that more often than we might assume, our actions dictate our attitudes, not the other way around. Our behavior justifies our identity which in turn affects our self esteem which in turn affects our actions. Only with an understanding of how we naturally react to these moments of dissonance can we stop ourselves, pause, respond with a clear mind, and continue to be the person who we truly want to become.
Good luck, and Cue Protagonist!
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