The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 7 Despised

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I devised other ways to impress people. One was to pick up live bees by their wings. Neighbors’ eyes widened as they covered their mouths. I glowed as I held the helpless drones. But eventually people’s expressions convinced me that I should be fearful, too, so I stopped bothering bees and found something else.

It was the high dive at the Officers’ Club pool. I secretly jumped off a few times to convince myself that I could do it, and then I announced it to my family. They didn’t believe I had the courage. From my very beginning, they were convinced that I had poor character, and I then proceeded to act out their expectations of me. Another part of me wanted to dissuade them from their opinion of me. Part of my problem was that I interpreted silence as disapproval, so when everyone else was merely having a quiet, peaceful day at the pool, I was sulky at being rejected. So, to impress my family, I announced my intention to jump from the high dive, waited my turn at the searing chrome ladder, climbed up, poised on top of the platform…and totally chickened out. I imagined that my family expected me to fail to leap, which caused me to expect it of myself (similar to how I became fearful of bee stings). So I excused myself back down against the flow of complaints and returned, red-faced and hot-eared, to our patchwork of towels. The drama I’d staged with me as the hero became hubris, another burgeoning issue of mine because a tiny two-fisted part of me felt that I was better than how I imagined others saw me.

But it didn’t make sense that I’d back down off the high dive after having leaped off a few times, right? The thing was, it made perfect sense, considering that I had a young and fragile ego that still needed lots of external validation from others, especially from my family, because my world was so small then. The issue was that my family members were not particularly sensitive or communicative, so I projected my poor self-image onto them. I became sullen, they smirked, I responded with indignant huffiness, they mocked or ignored me, and the dysfunctional family dynamic became habitual for all of us.

There were five of us then. In descending chronological order: Dad, Mom, my brother—two and a half years older, burly, intellectual, and angry over the world’s mistreatment of him up to that point. Then came me, a scrawny kid with all the usual baggage implied when one finds oneself both scraggly and in the middle. My sister, five years my junior, was the sweetest one of us all. It’s fascinating how our birth order presented on a continuum: my brother, at one end of the continuum, was conservative, legalistic, and emotionally unavailable unless angry; and my sister was liberal, artistic, and emotionally complex on the extreme other end. My parents were similar to my siblings and polar opposites of each other, which meant my dad and brother clustered to the far right on the continuum, and the females clumped on the far left. That left me not only the middle child but also smack-dab in the middle of the whole “fam damily,” a mixture of all traits and both extremes, the holder of emotions and facilitator of balance, the truth teller, the bridge between very disparate individuals, and the catcher of shit from every direction.

***

My brother, whose chameleon color at the time was “Bub,” the muscly and angry intellectual, resented my frivolous approach to childhood. He would outgrow it—this was over fifty years ago, and we have all changed since then—but at the time, he ridiculed my attempts at significance. Our formative years were full of spiteful sibling rivalry. Wounded and lonely, he took his frustrations out on me, the little kid who wouldn’t shut up but couldn’t yet escape home. Half his size, I was no physical match, but I was always up for a scrimmage when I perceived disrespect. I lacked many positive character traits, but I somehow ended up with a heaping helping of resiliency. My brother was also a self-described genius—whereas I stretched just to reach average—so I was many IQ points lower than he was. But what I lacked in intelligence and size, I made up for in wiliness. I saw myself as the underdog on whom fortune would eventually smile, and my formative years were spent trying to prove myself to him. He despised my chameleon behavior—the performances I put on to hide how shameful and weak I felt—and eventually he convinced a part of me that I was indeed despicable; that other two-fisted part of me resisted the characterization. This resulted in a childhood filled with physical, verbal, and emotional abuse at a time when I was most vulnerable. Since he was so much bigger than I was, he got to hit down. So, I adopted a long-range, strategic, guerilla hit-and-run approach that looked like immature reprisals narrated with snarky slights. Often, to my delight, it enraged my brother.

Somebody should’ve intervened. But remember that typically my parents were unaware of the fraternal conflicts. Recall that they did not hover; instead, they pursued their own agenda, which only peripherally included their children. They were generally unconcerned; aggression between boys—even unevenly matched—was just the way things were in the 1940s, hardscrabble, survival-of-the-fittest, southern New Mexico where my parents grew up. So why not in 1960s northern New Mexico as well? On the occasions they witnessed a skirmish, they often only saw my retaliation (the way we so often see), which left them frustrated by my rascality. It appeared as if I’d poked the bear first—which I occasionally did, I confess—but I justified it as payback. I felt chronically slighted and figured that I needed to balance the karmic scales. This dysfunctional and hurtful dynamic was far less than loving. My suffering was minimized as merely histrionic and my own “hot-damn” fault.

I saw my theatrics as one of the more potent weapons in my arsenal. I was pretty stinkin’ good at imitating the screams and groans of a boy being beaten to death. To be clear, I never literally feared for my life; my brother’s physical assaults could leave no evidence—the rope would eventually have to be loosened; my hand, shoved into the toilet to humiliate me, would have to be released; my squeezed wrist would not be allowed to splinter. No, the goal was not to break my bones but to break my spirit, which meant that his rage had to be tempered with tight-jawed restraint and spread out over time. The combat-like tension with periodic explosions of anger was unbearable yet normal in our household, and it kept me hypervigilant and ready for action. So, no, it wasn’t the physical assaults that almost killed me but the verbal and emotional attacks that crippled my soul for many years and made my thoughts darker, more hopeless and self-destructive. So, yeah, perhaps I was a bit histrionic, but imagine what it was like to be a little boy despised in your own home by the big boy with whom you shared a bedroom and whom you so badly wanted to emulate, but who would not allow it because you, apparently, were despicable. We were instead adversaries. There was no safe place for me, so I learned to hurt with words, run like hell, and scream bloody murder.

When these tactics failed, I hid inside myself and shared only the minimum with my family—only what they wished to see or what I wished to reveal and not necessarily who I really was. It was necessary that I adapt in this way to survive emotionally, which resulted in a new chameleon color—blood red, I guess, because I became angry, too. As the youngest male, I was most vulnerable to household violence. I generalized that males were dangerous and mean-spirited, that they’d attack me, denigrate me, and ultimately reject me. On one hand, I withheld more of myself. On the other hand, I felt pressure to prove myself. Sometimes it looked like picking up bees by their wings. The high-dive fiasco was another example. But please remember, if nothing else, that I was resilient. I learned that even when I faced hopeless odds against me, as long as I drew breath I could rise up and try again. I became even more determined to resist the opinions of others and become someone.

***

Clearly, this interpersonal dynamic—this entire blog—is my point of view, my personal experience. I certainly don’t assume that any other family member necessarily experienced those years the way I did. How could a family dynamic so emotionally traumatizing for me go unobserved by others within my own household? Is this all a Tom Sawyeresque tall tale, or merely another Tays tale? Am I just a big pussy, a whiner? Am I so neurotic that I imagine I was traumatized when in fact I was not? Did I somehow implant false memories into myself? No. It’s true, all of it—or at least it is my truth, accurate according to my memory, and the consequences to me were real: I lived the first half of my life with an emotional limp and chameleonlike behavior to compensate.

We know that if two people are placed at the exact same stressful event, one may be emotionally traumatized by it while the other may remain unscathed. This is to say that a less sensitive boy than I was might’ve shrugged it all off. A less neurotic boy might’ve even looked back and laughed. A boy not wired to rise up might’ve hunkered down and stayed down to minimize the pain. Somehow, I never could stay down. I just never could. I always felt offended by life’s obscenities and absurdities, and I felt that I needed to call them out, to warn others, to share my story with others so that they didn’t feel like I did, alone with their pain. But I remember. My childhood agony not only inspired me to become a psychologist but it has made me a better psychologist. Today, I’m mostly through the old pain, and it usually manifests as empathy, meaning that it has evolved into something that has helped many other people heal—and made me a better man.

I believe we can all do better. I struggle over calling out offenders versus dealing with issues privately, keeping my issues to myself versus using my experience to help others via psychotherapy and in writing. So, I’m torn. In the end, I default to helping as many wounded and searching people as I can—to stretch myself to do the loving thing, the way I would like others to help and love me as we seek to be our best selves.

Seeking self-actualization seems selfish on the surface. But Abraham Maslow said that as we move toward self-actualization, we also become better able to help others. He said we should do both simultaneously: help ourselves as we help others. That makes sense, and I hope this blog helps others.

***

There are always reactions to abuse, and I flirted with becoming a “vulnerable narcissist.” These people are generally very sensitive and tend to be quiet or shy by nature. Yet, to disguise their chronic feelings of self-hatred and unworthiness, they overcompensate by putting on a grandiose mask, seeking to merge their identities with those of the people they idealize. They have an unshakable need to feel special about themselves. They are primarily motivated by fear of rejection and abandonment, their lives fueled by inferiority complexes stemming from childhood mistreatment, which is all nurture. In my case, the nature (genetic) piece is that I have a handful of relatives who just might be narcissists, and the fact is, I’m a million times humbler than they are. This means that I was predisposed at birth to be a narcissist. Whether it was potentiated, you can decide. I’m going to say it was not full-blown—but it certainly was potent enough to explain my scrappiness and cause me to embarrass myself. I won’t even get into the research regarding brain abnormality of the paralimbic system. Looking at the list of potential personality disorders, we see Cluster B, which includes antisocial, borderline, histrionic, and narcissistic personality disorders (they are clustered together based on descriptive similarities). Some diagnostic criteria have, to a degree, described me at different points in my life. To ground you, I do not—and never have had—a personality disorder. Another perk of being a psychologist is that I have tested myself with myriad psychometrics and always score in the normal range. Even my therapist friends don’t see narcissism in me. However, the fact that I’ve investigated this possibility suggests that I saw something in myself that I feared wasn’t normal (as I was raised in an environment that demanded perfection, by both the people and the religion, but was sent the overarching message that I was neither normal nor lovable—and even today, when under great stress, my emotional limp tries to reassert itself like a phantom limb). We often magnify things within ourselves—especially our fear, and especially my fellow neurotics and I do this—so I hope you’ll still take me seriously as I press ahead. Later, I’ll illustrate some of these features. There is value in recognizing these features in ourselves. With this awareness, we can adapt to something better, less psychopathological, less chameleonlike, and more authentic.

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