The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 70 Doctoral Student

After our Vermont year, we moved across the country again so Renni could begin her anesthesia residency at Stanford, and I entered the doctoral program at Pacific Graduate School of Psychology (now Palo Alto University). I again set my writing aside, this time for three years as I reentered my role as a graduate student. I studied all day, every day. Literally. I had a lot of catching up to do as a reformed English major. Although I knew that some people from university-based programs looked down on professional schools, I felt fortunate to get in at all. Remember, I was the guy who didn’t know his own phone number in junior high. I was the jock who rolled a lid into individual blunts to resell. What business did I have at the doctoral level at all? But what were people like me supposed to do? Give up? Not pursue our aspirations? I wasn’t sure if I was intelligent enough, but I was certain that I was determined enough. But would that be enough? It hadn’t been enough for me to become an elite runner or a published novelist. So I was intimidated. Perceived status intimidates many people, not just me, so they don’t even try, and then they never realize their dreams. I see that a lot. I guess I never wanted to be one of those people. I’d done scarier things, just not at such a high academic level.

      By then, I was a thirty-four-year-old ex-teacher with a master’s degree, so I thought I should be an academic leader. The thing was, I didn’t have it in me. I’d risen to my level of incompetence. Graduate school encouraged perfectionism and impression managing, which reinforced my chameleonism. Any grade lower than an A seemed like failure. The professors told us that they watched us, judged us, and even noted how we dressed. They judged our composure in class and throughout our practicums, and they even judged what they knew of our private lives. Every year, over 15 percent of my class either failed or matriculated elsewhere. I was terrified, because if I washed out, I didn’t perceive any career options other than returning to teaching for a third time. The faculty members were clear: they didn’t want any simpletons or flakes sullying the profession. I feared that I might be both.

      I was afraid I’d be discovered, the whole imposter-syndrome thing. I walked the circuitous way to class so I’d see fewer people and spend less energy faking confidence and brilliance and friendliness, when actually I felt overwhelmed with feared social judgment of my barely beneath-the-skin imbecility. Remember, I was labeled “stupid” in my family of origin. I think the majority of us fear, at various points in our lives, that we are not intelligent enough. Remember, we all start out knowing nothing, and everybody else has more information than we do. As we grow up, things generally equalize—unless we’re always moving up into pools of more educated people, which has a tendency to humble us. Some of the most intellectually arrogant people I’ve met have never spent an evening conversing with Stanford professors and anesthesiologists. What I’m saying is that back when I washed dishes, I thought I was pretty dang smart, but I have since become more grounded regarding how my intelligence compares with that of the general population, especially with those on the right tail of the normal IQ curve.

      So anyway, one day I was again avoiding people by walking the circuitous way to class, and a professor laughed at me and said, “You’re going down the wrong hallway!” It was a meaningless remark—I can laugh at myself today—but at the time, the blood rushed to my face. My year of isolation in Vermont had supercharged my social anxiety. Did my idiocy and anxiety make me unfit to become a psychologist?

      Every student was required to get psychotherapy so that we knew what it was like to be on the couch and to address our own issues. I learned that I suffered because I was too perfectionistic; I was trying too hard to appear competent to compensate for my feelings of inferiority. I thought I had to be the best, but I learned that I just needed to get the PhD to achieve my dream: to be a clinical psychologist in a solo practice and write novels between cases. I didn’t need to be the next Abraham Maslow. I couldn’t be the next Abe Maslow. That wasn’t me. I didn’t know at the time that the best I had to offer was myself, not an amalgamation of others lumped into some Frankenstein-like monster called “Me.”

      A professor commented that she enjoyed watching students come in the first year and, over the next six years, take on the guise of psychologists. We wore the professional clothes, bought briefcases and scheduling books, cut our hair, used words like “inappropriate” and “correlated,” and learned how to think based in research. Once it was brought to my awareness, I too observed our transformation. We were all chameleons, not just me. We were all morphing into something that people would eventually label “doctor.” I hung in there, no longer trying to win, just desperately determined to finish.

      As a distance runner, I had discovered my physical limits. In graduate school for my doctorate, I discovered my intellectual limits, which weren’t as limited as I’d believed or as boundless as I’d hoped. I was normal, which, to tell the truth, was a big relief. I use this lesson about normalizing our experience often when doing psychotherapy. It’s helpful to know when we’re normal, because then we can quit worrying that we aren’t. In graduate school, I hadn’t yet learned what was normal, and neither did I trust myself to be normal.

      When we studied psychopathology, I developed a bad case of “graduate student disease.”

Graduate Student Disease: Self-Diagnoses

Attachment Disorder

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Social Phobia

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Alcohol Abuse

Sexual Compulsivity

Major Depression

Dysthymic Disorder

Borderline Personality Disorder

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Histrionic Personality Disorder

Antisocial Personality Disorder

Avoidant Personality Disorder

      Not included: a long list of disorders for which I only met some of the criteria. Now that I have decades of clinical experience, I know that I didn’t have these disorders. True, I had a touch of OCD, but who doesn’t? It was helpful in distance running and in grad school. I just needed to channel it, the details of which I’ve already covered. I mostly feared that I wasn’t normal, but I have since learned, statistically, clinically, and anecdotally, that I am quite average, which actually makes me more confident and transparent because I know that I’m not weird. I can still act weirdly if I want to, but I generally no longer wish to draw attention to myself.

      I probably also suffered a degree of anxious attachment. There was plenty of verbal, emotional, and physical abuse when I was a child, and there was plenty of neglect due to the era and to cultural, religious, and family-of-origin factors. It made me anxious and distrustful, and I generalized my experience to all humans.

      On a physiological level, my brain’s limbic system—the part that controls basic emotions (fear, pleasure, anger) and drives (hunger, sex, dominance, care of offspring)—was poorly organized as a result of the trauma. My brain’s executive function (the ability to plan and consider consequences) was delayed, which looked like impulsivity, and so I identified with seemingly similar people, writers such as Kesey and Bukowski and the beats, and hippies.

      On a psychodynamic level, the people I needed to trust to be there for me when I was young were not there as much as I needed (“every dog for himself”), so I erroneously concluded that I was unlovable and that I couldn’t trust anybody to help me. My selfishness, even as a young adult, was due to the fear of not getting my needs met and thus not surviving. This made it difficult for me to connect with others. When there were more than two of us, my shyness would kick in, and I’d begin performing as if on stage. When people let me down, as people always do to a degree, I viewed that as confirmation that I could not fully trust anybody, which felt lonely and led to increased anxiety about being alone in a harsh world. At fourteen, I learned to use alcohol as a sedative for my anxiety and at fifteen, I learned to use pot, which helped relieve boredom and self-regulated my emotions. I may have avoided becoming an alcoholic simply by lacking the necessary genetics to become one.

      Fortunately, exercise and the rhythm of distance running helped my brain maturate. A good intervention to fix our brains is physical exercise, which grows the hippocampus’s volume. Running without headphones, which was typical of serious distance runners back in my day, was meditation (mindfulness) for me. So running saved my life socially, but it also saved my brain. The mind always seeks homeostasis. Perhaps this all came together in the hot tub and explained my peak experience—but that was not how Maslow would explain it. Regardless, by my late twenties, my limbic system had recovered and become well organized. I had better control of myself and what I said. I was able to teach and coach adolescents, and I eventually got my PhD.

      But all psychobabble and pathologizing aside, there were the nuanced manifestations of the so-called Chameleon Complex, from which I suffered. I was wounded, somewhat emotionally arrested, had poor modeling and guidance for my underdeveloped social skills, and became very defensive. We could use other words, too: acting, faking, morphing, adapting, and so on. The word we can’t use is “authentic” unless I felt very safe in a one-on-one situation, in which case I’d come off as quite sincere, because I was.

      Today, I don’t react but instead sit and just be. I do not become something or someone else. Boredom is because of becoming and not being present, here, now. I choose safe, trustworthy people to attach to going forward. I use Levels of Intimacy to connect safely with people in a more fluid and shaded way rather than using the all-or-none approach of viewing people as either totally safe or totally unsafe.

      There’s a pithy saying in psychology that the only “normal” person is someone you don’t know well yet. What that means for the human condition is that we all have issues; some people just hide them better than others do. It means we are all unique. What I’m concluding is that having issues is normal, and whether we have large or small issues, we are all more normal than we are weird.

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