The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 4 Perfect

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As a young boy, I saw it as a sign that in 1959, the year of my birth, the image on the reverse side of pennies was switched from wheat to the Lincoln Memorial. It signaled that I should memorialize my life. I suppose that’s what I’m doing now. Just to be clear, I never truly believed that Lincoln Memorial pennies had anything to do with me, not even back then, so it wasn’t technically a delusion. That would’ve been a gross delusion of reference—grandiose, even, and a little bit crazy. I made it up because I wanted my life to be significant, if not profound, something more than merely a material blip and then forgotten. People like me write books. I think more significant people built pyramids for the same reason.

Consider that children born with colic tend to grow up a bit more high-strung. “High-strung” is a nice way to say “neurotic.” It makes me wonder if my yearning to be significant and my having something that I needed to say was just this neuroticism. Still, it’s all part of my narrative, and I seemed to know intuitively that conflict made a good story. A near-premature birth, colic, existential self-destructive rumination, and religious zealotry were good ways to start a life story—though not so good a way to start a real life. I didn’t take my obvious insignificance well.

Christian Science preached that all of my shortcomings were my own fault for not understanding my spiritual perfection well enough or not having enough faith that it was true. My imperfection made me feel unworthy of love and belonging, and thus, it was something I needed to hide. I was afraid to talk about it, to reveal my dilemma to anyone else because almost everyone I knew at that age bought into the same delusion (which I can’t even technically call a delusion because it’s part of a recognized religion’s dogma). So it controlled my life the way secrets and shame tend to do. Of course, this all happened many years before I learned more about shame. Guilt is how we feel about what we’ve done; shame is how we feel about ourselves. Until adulthood, I carried more shame than guilt, and then over the decades, the emotions flipped as I accumulated accolades and mistakes. In a very real way, my religion—as practiced by my family—contributed to my developing the Chameleon Complex. This is not an uncommon dynamic in many religions. In future years, I’d explore other religions and philosophies, and I would treat religious leaders suffering from extreme impression management. Their perceived need to be perfect rather than authentic tripped up even the most generous of heart.

***

Now, let’s add in a father whose handsomeness, stoicism, and military bearing made him look as if he hadn’t any problems at all; certainly none that he would share. Well, it left me wondering what was wrong with me because, hey, I had problems galore! But nobody wanted to hear about my issues, and I was ashamed to have them, real or imagined. Often I created my own problems by speaking when the rest of the world wanted me to shut up. That still happens, by the way. This blog is just another example.

     Dad sometimes played the raconteur. Friends and family laughed at his anecdotes, which he finished with, “No brag, just fact,” a statement that left them to want more. Somehow, he pulled off the showmanship in an endearing way. So I copied him. I hoped my showmanship was endearing, too, and not arrogant. I wanted to be tough, as he was; I wanted people to laugh at my stories too. I wanted to be just like him, with no problems at all, or so it seemed to me as a boy.

But I learned that once my words were out of my mouth, that was it; the audience filtered them how it would. I struggled to get comfortable with sometimes being misunderstood. Dad simply said, “No brag, just fact,” eased back onto the log by the spark-spitting campfire, and raised his dark eyebrows. Now top that! his smirk suggested, and then no one could. He knew the deed was done and let it go, without overthinking it, without agonizing. He didn’t give a durn what anybody thought. He really didn’t. That’s how I wanted to be. But no, I’ve been cursed from birth with caring too much about what other people thought. It helps as a psychologist to imagine what people might be thinking, but it can be torturous outside of my office and on my own time.

Dad was good with mottoes too. I think that he wound up believing the mottoes he told. “Everything’s fine,” was his motto and it became one of my family’s favorites.

Here are my family’s mottoes:

* Everything’s fine.

* God’s perfect child.

* Know the Truth.

* Every dog for himself.

* All is well.

Dad was naturally a positive thinker, so it meshed well with Mom’s Christian Science, which often boiled down to the phrase “all is well.” There was even a hymn Mom sang around the house that went, in part, “all, all is well…” I think she was self-soothing, using the phrase as a mantra. My maternal grandmother did the same thing, but often added more local fare, such as, “Oh, fair New Mexico, we love we love you so…” Etc. Etc. Regardless, everything indeed seemed fine for Dad. All was well for Mom, too. Everybody at home and in the church was fine. But for me? Not even close. I struggled with the paradox between what I was told was true versus what I actually experienced with my own senses, thoughts, and emotions. The conflict was there from the get-go. That was pretty interesting, I suppose, but it left me feeling defective and alone. Sometimes I dug out that jackknife, held it to my heart, and wondered why I had so many problems, why I felt the way I did, and why was I alone when everybody else seemed not bored, not lonely, and not rejected. Others seemed content (unless they were expressing anger, which merely flashed and then quickly faded back into contentment and “everything’s fine”). They all seemed generally problem-free.

As a precociously self-aware boy born into a family obsessed with perfectionism, I became hyperaware of my shortcomings. I reacted by hiding my flaws, by changing my “color” to better camouflage myself in each environment in which I found myself. I remember thinking about it at the time, except I didn’t use the word “chameleon” then; rather, I tried to be what everybody seemed to want me to be, or what I thought I should be. Today, I caution others to be careful of perfectionism and those “should” distortions; they’ll rip you a new one if you’re not careful.

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