The Chameleon Complex—Introduction

I wasn’t purposefully raised to be a chameleon, but circumstances and human nature forced it upon me. This is not an excuse, but it is at least my explanation. I changed colors depending on the situation in which I found myself or the person with whom I found myself keeping company. A bit of adaptation is normal and healthy, but too much or too little becomes problematic.

     Early on, I presented as someone having average intelligence, poor judgment, and a worse-than-poor mental filter, in that I often spoke without considering the impact my words had on others. I also often spoke to purposefully create an image of myself in others’ minds about me being somehow special if not awesome, but usually just wild and revolutionary and avant-garde and not someone to mess with but someone to love. But typically I was not seen as somebody who would amount to much—certainly not somebody whom others might turn to for help. However, that was before the accumulating years allowed me to extract meaning from my life’s challenges and then make adjustments. Add to that a startling, wonderful peak experience, and my brain matured just a bit more. I gained a wider perspective and a deeper understanding of human nature and myself. I morphed into a more thoughtful, empathetic, and loving man. I became the kind of man who stresses authenticity and connects with people where they are in their lives, comes to understand them, and then helps them to get through loneliness and to heal. I became a clinical psychologist.

I’ve always found humans fascinating, selfish, lovable, self-centered, awesome, mean-spirited, inspiring, frustrating, and generally complicated. I’ve observed them acting out the particular images they wished to maintain at whatever point in their lives they happened to be. And then I held up a mirror to myself.

Even as a youth, I considered the impact that my own act had on others as I struck sparks off them. I realized that how interpersonal dynamics played out depended on who they were and who I wanted to be at the time: runaway, juvenile delinquent, freak, track star, laborer, soldier, teacher, psychologist, or novelist. I didn’t wish to be many things I feared that I was: a “pussy”; a shy, nerdy bookworm; a coward; a petty criminal; a bully; a raunchy vulgarian; or an incompetent fool. I had plenty to learn and plenty to overcome. But I always wanted to understand the craziness in others and the craziness in myself and then make adjustments.

Many years went by, and I discovered that I was neither as weird nor as cool as I thought I was; I fell somewhere in between, in the fat part of a normal curve. I was, indeed, mostly normal (i.e., conforming to a standard, usual, typical, or expected). I was only occasionally an outlier. However, consistent across all of my manifestations was my desire to write about how people revealed or hid their inner worlds and how I did the same thing as I strove to improve myself and find meaning in my life, which explains the existence of this blog and my passion to write it.

We all manage the impressions we make. Usually, we manage competence and likability—or what we believe passes for those qualities. But it can be any manifestation that we think will protect us, help us fit in, and move us toward our personal and existential goals. To an extent, we are all born this way, and then we react to our environments the way chameleons change color to hide. I was no different. Regardless of the colors I found myself changing into over the decades, my yearning to be competent and likable, to discover and share myself with others, to connect, to grow into significance, and to find meaning in my life was alive inside me.

I didn’t always see myself clearly, though, or accept myself as I authentically was. Still, I wanted to become someone better and get the most out of my flash of life. So, I changed into various chameleon colors to protect myself from feeling lowly, to act better than I felt, and perhaps even to be admired. You see, I feared I was too passive, too flawed, and too sensitive for the environment into which I was born. Sometimes it created conflicts, but today I’m grateful for the faux pas and even for the criticism, and I try not to lament past mistakes but rather to learn from them as I press ahead. My pain and various manifestations explain how I got here today, which is a very good place indeed.

I’m finally ready to tell you about my journey and to help you on your own.

So, I’m going to tell you what I’ve learned about impression managing and why we do it. I’ve learned about psychopathology, lived more of life, and practiced psychotherapy over the decades with hundreds of people—good people who also feared that they were not good enough. One thing I know for sure is that we all change colors. Remember: to adapt is normal; adaptability is a factor of intelligence. Much of our behavior is in the service of maintaining, either consciously or subconsciously, a particular self or social image. It’s necessary, and it’s for our own good. Adaptability helps us perform, get along in society, and thrive.

Perhaps you know someone who takes his or her adaptation to an extreme and who behaves like a chameleon to their detriment; this person experiences diminishing returns but still clings to the act. The person is probably unaware of himself or herself; to an extent, I was, which is ironic because I’ve always been very self-conscious. Sometimes the person’s chameleon behavior is obvious to everyone except that person. Sometimes it’s not so obvious, and we just accept the color the person presents to us as if that’s who they really are. It can be frustrating if you care about or are required to be around such a person. All you get is the act and not the real person, so it’s difficult to feel emotionally close to them. Imagine a method actor who stays in their role even off the set: how inauthentic they are, how difficult it is to relate to them, and how they remain a virtual stranger to us. The actor eventually wraps up the movie and ideally becomes who they truly are. Chameleons in real life can remain in their color situationally, for years, or even for a lifetime, but they are rarely, if ever, authentic. I was more the situational kind: I could be authentic one-on-one with select, safe people, but I defaulted to be a chameleon when I felt “onstage” and thought I needed to be seen in a particular way.

Authentic people have realistic perceptions of reality. They accept themselves and other people as they are. They are thoughtful and have a nonhostile sense of humor. They are able to express their emotions openly and clearly. They are open to learning from their mistakes, and they understand their own motivations. Authenticity is showing healthy, nondefensive functioning and psychological maturity.

Unfortunately, there are many inauthentic people who behave toxically. We feel like lashing out at them. Or we conclude that it’s unwise to be vulnerable around them, and so we shut them out of our lives. I don’t totally blame them any more than I totally blame myself for past indiscretions. I own what’s mine to own, forgive myself, and move on. I mean, I own my part in the interpersonal dynamic, but I didn’t always know when I transgressed upon others, nor did I understand the impact it had on them. I had to learn more about authenticity on the streets and from books in order to make it explicit in my mind, as it wasn’t adequately modeled for me when I was young—or when it was, I ignored it in my mad pursuit to be someone. So I understand how it can be confusing or even scary to be authentic if we’re uncomfortable with or unaware of whom we actually are. What saved me was that I’ve always been motivated to figure myself out and then do the right thing—that plus good fortune and the grace of special others.

When I became a psychologist, I looked at the construct of impression management and how, in popular culture, extreme impression managers are often called chameleons. They can be too malleable to please others, too rigid to keep others from truly knowing them, or possess degrees of either style; none of it is authentic or emotionally intimate. When you wonder what motivates them, always consider that they’re either hiding shame about who they are or that they’re trying to get something. Again, sometimes this is done consciously and sometimes subconsciously. I’ve always wondered about this dynamic, both with others and with myself.

Being a chameleon when I was young did not disqualify me to become a psychologist; on the contrary, it made me a better psychologist after I grew older because I learned from my experiences. Even back when I was young, I wondered why we changed into our particular colors, what motivated our behavior. I filtered what I learned through the perspective of my own life and my clinical experience; now I place it into layperson’s terms to better help my clients and readers. What follows is my personal journey—with writing as my vehicle—from chameleon to authenticity as I strive to be the best human being that I can be. We don’t need to be fearful. We don’t need to protect ourselves from our pain and from toxic people by being inauthentic; we just need to set appropriate boundaries. The model below—adapted from my colleague Marilyn Murry’s Circles of Intimacy—illustrates where to set personal boundaries depending on the relationship we have with each individual. The lines between levels represent boundaries, or limits, to what we share of ourselves.

Levels of Intimacy

Greatest Transparency/Deepest Level of Emotional Intimacy

Level 1: Core Self

Level 2: Spouse or Significant Other

Level 3: Children

Level 4: Relatives

Level 5: Friends

Level 6: Colleagues and Acquaintances

Level 7: Strangers

Level 8: Toxic People

Least Transparency/Shallowest Level of Emotional Intimacy

     People don’t like to have boundaries or limits set on them; they don’t like hearing no. On the other hand, people with poor boundaries are too exposed and vulnerable and suffer as a result. So, appropriate boundaries for each relationship make sense. Be prepared for their reactions to your boundary-setting; it can be aggressive or a reciprocal pulling away from you. Remember: the goal is your well-being, your authenticity, and greater emotional intimacy with the safe people of your choice. This is not about surface popularity; it is about depth of connection. Paradoxically, you may attract more people to you with your increased authenticity and by loving yourself enough to enforce good boundaries.

My goals are to facilitate increased emotional intimacy between people and to promote growth toward self-actualization, the fulfillment of our talents and potentialities. It’s a drive or need that we all have. We need other people to accomplish these goals—it’s just the way people are; it’s in our nature to be social, to look at ourselves relative to others, to measure ourselves against others. When I talk about boundaries, it will sometimes mean pulling away from people defensively. Other time, it will mean nondefensively and lovingly letting others close to us within the parameters of safety and reasonable risk. Boundaries can help us to connect deeply to others as we grow toward self-actualization. I always felt that this dynamic—pulling in for safety and reaching out for growth—was true in my life. Eventually, my instinct was intellectually confirmed when I studied the work of the famous psychologist Abraham Maslow, who recommended achieving a balance between the two.

I’m going to tell you specifically—and show you—why I became a chameleon in the first place. I’ll also describe how I did it and what it looked like from the outside, now that I can look back. I’ll also describe how I really felt on the inside at the time. I’m going to model transparency. I’ll tell you how I overcame my chameleonic beginning and how overcoming it made me a better husband, father, friend, psychologist, and eventually even a better writer.

Listen, I’m not holding myself up as any paragon of perfection; actually, as just the opposite of that. We can be OK—or even better than OK—when we’re less than perfect and still be seeking excellence, as long as we are real. It feels a lot healthier than phoniness, extreme defensiveness, or people-pleasing does. People enjoy us more, and we feel better when we are authentic. Begin to listen; you’ll hear the ubiquitous message that people admire authenticity. We seek out fearless voices. My personal path to awareness and then to authenticity has been unfolding for almost sixty years now, and it continues to surprise and fulfill me.

I’m also going to tell you about some of the most basic aspects of human nature and of the mammalian bodies and brains that we inhabit which are either positively or negatively reinforced. Don’t worry; I’ll keep it light. Sometimes it may sound cynical, but I intend it to be clear-sighted, empowering, and reasonable, as we are all at different points on the same journey. I believe that love and our minds can override many of our beastlike instincts and help us to evolve into our best selves.

I hope that my personal and professional life of observing chameleonic behavior is captured within this blog and serves as a shortcut for you. I hope my journey will strike a  chord in you, and you will find authenticity, connection, greater self-actualization, and meaning in your life.


2 thoughts on “The Chameleon Complex—Introduction”

    1. Oh, there will be more, for sure. Much, much more! I’m going to tell you, and show you, how to spot a chameleon, and more importantly, I’m going to illustrate via personal example the downside of being a chameleon, how to get over it, and how to be more authentic and connected deeply and emotionally to safe people. Thanks for the follow!


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