How To Spot The Difference Between Main Character Energy and Full-Blown Narcissistic Behavior

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Sometimes, it’s hard to tell the difference between two very similar things, like, for instance, an impulsive reaction versus a self-regulated response. While these modes of communication certainly have similarities, they are indeed different things and can have distinct effects on a relationship. In much of the same way, the line between main character energy (which is essentially a highly self-focused attitude) and narcissistic behavior can often seem blurred. So, how can you tell when someone’s apparent self-centeredness is actually treading toward narcissistic territory? According to one expert, the presence of empathy is what separates main character energy from its more nefarious counterpart.

Experts In This Article

Defining this distinction is the subject of the most recent episode of The Well+Good Podcast, which breaks down both the condition of narcissism and the concept of embodying main character energy in practice. (If you’re unfamiliar with the term, “main character energy” started as a trend on TikTok, where users were encouraged to see themselves as the main character in the “movie” that is their own life. The "self-first" implication can, then, explain the inherent connection to narcissistic behavior.)

In the episode, clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula, PhD, says that while she wouldn't necessarily frame main character energy as an ideal, it’s also mostly innocuous—so long as it doesn't involve essentially being a villain (aka a jerk). By contrast, however, because one telltale sign of a narcissistic personality is a lack of empathy, there isn’t a way to be a nice narcissist. Starring as a good main character in your life, then, requires taking certain precautions, which social media influencer Raeanne Langas shares in the episode, too.

Listen to the full episode here:

“Main character energy is just understanding your value and that you are worth having good things come to you and having good things happen to you,” says Langas. “It is just living life to the fullest and knowing that…you deserve to fall in love. You deserve to get the raise or the job that you want to have.”

According to Dr. Durvasula, even someone with the strongest main character energy can have caring characteristics and be empathic, largely safeguarding them from classic narcissistic behaviors (which, it's worth noting, can be less severe than clinical narcissism.) “But if that main character energy is such that they're invalidating other people and using other people to be props in their life with no consideration for who they are…that could be leaning into more of a narcissistic style,” she says.

“If that main character energy is such that they're invalidating other people…that could be leaning into more of a narcissistic style.” —Ramani Durvasula, PhD, clinical psychologist

In large part, narcissists are folks who are constantly seeking validation as well as admiration; their focus is on themselves and themselves alone. As a result, they're mostly or entirely unconcerned with the experiences, feelings, beliefs, or values of other people, exhibiting "low levels of empathy or really inconsistent empathy," says Dr. Durvasula, in the episode. "And, when there is empathy, it's insincere empathy."

main character energy vs. narcissistic behavior

So, how might you determine, in a real-life scenario, when someone’s embracing their main character energy versus being narcissistic? It’s all about how their actions make you feel. “When they're around a narcissistic person, people often say, ‘I felt it in my body first. I sort of felt uncomfortable. It reminded me of other uncomfortable relationships I've had.’ You don't feel heard, you don't feel seen. You feel, over time, that this is a person who's a bit of a powder keg,” says Dr. Durvasula.

Another way to identify a narcissistic person from someone embodying main character energy is by paying attention to how that person reacts or responds when you bring up one of their wrongdoings.

For instance, let’s say you've noticed that you’ve been more of a supporting character in your friendship with this person than you’re comfortable with, or your needs aren't being met. You might bring that up to the person by saying something like, “Your behavior is making me uncomfortable, and I don’t want that to be the experience we have in this relationship,” suggests Dr. Durvasula. “If that person responds with, ‘I am so sorry I wasn't listening. I should have been listening. I can see I hurt you,’ and you see their behavior change, you're probably not dealing with someone narcissistic,” says Dr. Durvasula. “But, if this person turns around and says, ‘I actually think you're the one with the problem.’ Or, ‘let me tell you all the bad things you've done,’ so as to completely deny your experience, you're probably dealing with somebody who has more narcissistic traits.”

All that said, whenever someone’s main character energy leaves you wondering whether they’re bordering on narcissism, ask yourself if you can sense an air of empathy coming from this person, or if they seem to understand your side of the story. If they’re able to see where you’re coming from and adapt their behavior accordingly, it’s likely that they don’t fall into the narcissistic camp. If, however, there’s any level of gaslighting, manipulation, or invalidation of your experience, you may be wise to steer clear of future interactions with them.

For additional details on identifying whether someone’s simply a confident main character or narcissistic, listen to the full podcast episode here.

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