The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 51 Cheese

From my very beginning, I had to be careful about being cynical. I thought of it as intellectual, but really it was just kind of a bummer. In grad school, they taught us to be cynical. They told us always to consider what each individual has to gain to determine what motivates his or her behavior. Acceptance by other humans is a payoff; it’s reinforcing, as cheese is to rats. In a social situation, we want to be reinforced, and we usually won’t spend our time with another person unless there’s something in it for us. I understand that kindness and the how-are-you-I-am-fine stuff is social lubricant—it shows interest in the other person even when it’s faked—and is civil, which is overall nice and good for society. But sometimes at parties, I yearn for a second glass of wine to make chameleons more interesting. It’s too superficial for me. I feel as if I’m wasting my time, and that balloons into wasting my life. And if I know it’s unlikely that I’ll see the person again, it’s even worse, because I’m not investing in a relationship. There’s just no payoff for me. Oh, I’ll hang in there; I always try to be nice and respectful. I think I’ve finally learned the prerequisite young-man lesson about saying positive things or remaining silent. But open honesty is still way more interesting to me; it’s good cheese. I’d rather be alone than be in a boring conversation. Sometimes I stay home from parties. None of this is only true about me; we are all wired somewhat similarly to rats and other lower-functioning mammals. We just have different degrees of tolerance for superficiality and how enjoyable it is to talk to strangers. On airplanes, you’ll find my nose deep within a book. And yes, I’m an introvert who merely learned to fake extroversion and to practice better social skills.

      Rats can be easily manipulated with cheese. If we don’t have cheese, then they don’t give their own ass about us; they just want to be safe from us. But they’ll like us—or at least tolerate us—if we feed them and don’t hurt them. We need to positively reinforce other people if we want them to hang around. When people give material gifts, I see cheese in the gesture. I also see cheese—positive reinforcement—in self-disclosure. Giving parts of ourselves is riskier than giving a chunk of cheese, but it works even better than really good cheese under the right conditions. If we give plastic cheese, people won’t be reinforced for long and will eventually leave, because it’s not nourishing. The same goes for blather versus emotionally intimate conversation.

      Sometimes, even when we offer up the best parts of ourselves, the other person may not value it. Perhaps he or shewants something else from us: money, sex, labor, food, drugs, alcohol, praise, attention, entertainment, companionship, and so on. It hurts to be used, but it’s so terribly common that it’s normal. So we play the roles of giver and taker, and we decide whether the relationship is reciprocal enough—if the relationship is worth it—and we either continue to seek reinforcement, or we back away and put up a boundary or a limit. When we find ourselves in the role of giver, we will most likely need to be the one to set the boundaries, because people in the taker role have little motivation to stop taking—they are reinforced to continue in that role. Fortunately, many people aspire to be better than their corporeal and psychological inheritance would suggest. I like that about humans. It inspires me to be better than merely another mammal behaving naturally.

      Behaving like a chameleon—offering plastic cheese—too acutely or chronically literally makes many people mentally ill because it emotionally isolates them. Long periods of isolation don’t work out well for human beings, as we’re social creatures, not terribly unlike rats, dogs, and chimps. Even emotional isolation is harmful in the long term, like being lonely in a crowd. I’ve stayed busy in my practice because so many people are afraid to be real. They’re more concerned about selling themselves than buying into authenticity. Often, they’re not even aware of their role in their superficial interpersonal dynamics; I have to educate them to awareness. Even then, frequently their anxiety prevents them from revealing their true selves to others. They’re too afraid to be real. Then we have to explore the root of their fear, how they’re afraid that they aren’t good enough, and work toward greater self-acceptance.


Inauthentic people are self-deceptive and unrealistic in their perceptions of reality. They look to others for approval and to feel valued. They are judgmental. They have a hostile sense of humor. They don’t express their emotions openly and freely, are not open to learning from their mistakes, and do not understand their motivations. Would you rather spend your time with an inauthentic person who presents him- or herself as seemingly flawless and as two-dimensional as a TV character or with a flawed, three-dimensional human being with a history of struggle and passion (similar to all of us)? I used to be inauthentic too frequently when I was young, so as I write this, I’m coming from a place of understanding and empathy but also from the perspective that we can understand ourselves, forgive ourselves, and move toward ever-greater authenticity while we remain safe, which is part of self-actualizing.


We must always consider the art of what we say and what we keep inside. Those who are not trying to figure it out—people who are not self-aware—are typically the most boring or the most abrasive among us. Who’s safe and who isn’t? Do we tell anyone, or should we keep it inside and only tell our psychologists? What would people think of us? Should we have no critics and consequently no civility? Many people are so fearful of offending others and being rejected that they shut down entirely and have nothing that they dare to say; others seem to have no filters at all. I know that I used to fluctuate between these poles—between being shy and spacey and shutting down and being the maniacal runner and wannabe literary icon.

      We all share the human condition; we just have different experiences of it. We experience life from our limited, subjective point of view, like looking through that toilet-paper tube. We learn about each other’s life experiences by reciprocallyopening up and honestly sharing about ourselves. When we offer each other good cheese, it can be healing, and we no longer feel so alone.

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