Scottsdale, Arizona, “Beverly Hills East,” teemed with chameleons: enormous Santa Barbara-style homes with red, Mexican clay-tile roofs, manicured lawns, flashy cars, ubiquitous golf courses, bronzed body builders, breast reductions, breast augmentations, labia reductions, bleached anuses, plumped lips, Botox, facelifts, perfect children with secret eating disorders and opioid addictions, restaurants with white tablecloths and inflated prices, and lots of anxiety about getting your share of the American Dream and holding onto it. I liked Scottsdale, albeit the Albuquerque in me was always just underneath the surface of slick, fancy things: the glamor and glitz, overt consumption, and materialism. Still, it was clean and safe, and it provided lots of opportunity to grow as a psychologist. I felt good about myself in a way similar to winning a race, and I figured I could thrive as long as I didn’t lose my own grounding. Although I still sometimes felt like an imposter, I found it intriguing that my new role was to mingle with surgeons and anesthesiologists; psychologists and counselors; self-made millionaires; and skinny, beautiful people in designer clothes; and attend parties at homes with martini bars, negative-edge pools, and yoga rooms. I reminded myself that I’d grown a lot since my incarnations of Corporal, Timmy Two-Mile, or Ratty Snake. I had better social skills, didn’t blurt out the first thing that came to mind, didn’t think that unsettling others was as funny or cool as I used to think it was, and had increased self-understanding: I knew I was normal and good enough, which really helped when surrounded by successful and potentially intimidating people. Did these “1 percenters” (2 percent at worst) sometimes also feel small, vulnerable, and not good enough? Knowing that we all felt pretty much the same but merely hid it to varying degrees helped me to feel confident socially and to be more open about myself. My new friends only knew me as a middle-aged psychologist. They were oblivious to my past incarnations, held no grudges against me, and treated me with kindness and respect, which was what I reflected.
When I was thirty-nine years old, we had a baby. In the Levels of Intimacy hierarchy, I have placed our son, Gentry, on level 3, children. I don’t involve him in our level 2 spouse or significant other interactions, our sex life, or in adult issues that are inappropriate for his age. I love him unconditionally and let him know that he is wanted and lovable, and I model emotional intimacy for him. Being at level 3 means that we are still very close to each other’s hearts and vulnerable to each other. I’m doing things differently with him; I parent him the way I wished I’d been parented—called “reparenting” ourselves—which is nurturing for him and healing for me. We will always help him thrive as we guide him to grow into the best person he can be.
I spent six years finishing my training at a clinic in downtown Scottsdale called Psychological Counseling Services Ltd. (PCS), and got on staff. We did a bit of everything, but we were one of the leading outpatient treatment clinics in the country for “sexual addiction” or sexual compulsivity. I was often on treatment teams that saw celebrities. I can say that Academy Award–winning movie stars, Grammy-winning rock legends, national political stars (who insisted on sneaking in through the clinic’s back door), and superstar athletes came for help. What many of these high-profile people had in common was that their problems—usually inappropriate sexual acting out—were often caused and magnified by their celebrity status. It created opportunities for them to cheat on their spouses, and it created unique challenges to their personal boundaries. Their popularity made it more difficult for them not to impression manage because so many people paid attention to them. What were often lacking were appropriate boundaries with the people at each level.
Many of the celebrities did not have enough emotional connection with people at their level 4, relatives (and people as close as relatives are). People at this level love us, help us to thrive, and only want what’s best for us; they do not exploit us or do what’s only best for them. Sadly, just because someone is blood or a relative, doesn’t mean he or she is safe, has our best interests at heart, or should be at this level. Sometimes it makes such people the most dangerous of all because they’ll take us for granted, harbor unreasonable expectations of us (to meet their needs, not ours), and exploit us by leveraging our emotional attachment to them for their gain. Often, we allow ourselves to be manipulated because we fear conflict or we fear losing the relationship. Some relatives will use our long personal history against us by reminding us who we used to be before we grew to our current self-awareness. Sometimes they refuse to renegotiate a healthy adult-to-adult relationship. So, I keep the healthy relatives at level 4 and move the unhealthy ones further out. It’s not all-or-none; there are countless boundaries within each level for dealing with the minutiae of relationships. When relatives don’t respect your healthy boundaries, don’t lash back; just set a stricter boundary. Talk about it if you wish, if the relationship is important enough to you, and if the relative is willing to make behavioral adjustments too. Patience and tolerance make sense, but taking abuse does not.
There’s something disappointing about this, of course; it is not what most of us imagined as children. We had no choice as children. We assumed our family of origin was correctly run and probably the best in the world. But as adults, we come of age, collect more information, learn what’s dysfunctional or healthy, and leave childish ignorance and fantasies behind. Then we create our own families the way we choose, preferably with healthy boundaries that keep us safe from those who would exploit or harm us but staying connected to those who merely wish to love us—or even to help us manage life.
Sometimes it was the unctuous behavior of the celebrities’ entourage and groupies that caused them to distance themselves from deeper, more authentic relationships in favor of the addictive rush of newer or shallower relationships. Often this led to affairs, and then they showed up in my office. I was impressed with how authentic and vulnerable most of them could be in psychotherapy, the biggest obstacles to treatment being their sense of privacy (from a watchful media and interested public) and their narcissism, which often had been fed more than normal and thus was overblown.
At level 5 are friends. Many of the celebrities, to better control their image, kept even potentially safe and authentic friendships too far away (or had the wrong people as friends, such as sycophants and employees who stayed close for more selfish reasons than having the celebrities’ best interests at heart). This left many celebrities lonely, despite their popularity, and not nurtured with good “cheese,” which made them vulnerable to affairs and other kinds of exploitation. I can tell you for a fact that some of the most desirable women on earth still had cheating husbands, and some of the most desirable men could do no better than manage their loneliness via sex, alcohol, drugs, or other dysfunctional ways to self-medicate.
This resurrects an old issue: Remember when I was young and fantasized a pyramid model for social acceptance? Fame, fortune, beauty, power, respect, and athleticism didn’t protect the celebrities from exploitation, betrayal, criticism, and rejection the way I’d fantasized that they would. Sometimes, because of others’ envy or poor manners, those attributes made the celebrities even more of a target for attack and exploitation. Fame and fortune hurt them.
Celebrities had the same childhood pain and slights as most of the rest of us. Often, their own narcissism, greed, and lust tripped them up and lured them into blunders, typically sexual escapades, which was why we saw them at PCS. I wondered what the endgame was, then, for chameleons. If it was total safety, acceptance, respect, and lack of criticism, then it was a lost cause, because if even people at the apex of their particular pyramid couldn’t achieve that, what chance did the rest of us have? Plus, people who are surrounded by “yes men” and who are more insulated from criticism do not fare better in terms of mental health than the rest of us do because they lose their grounding without the complicated give-and-take (i.e., reciprocity) of normal relationships.
So, the endgame must not be some sort of perfect image that protects us from negative judgment and criticism, but rather, it must be authenticity—awareness and unconditional love of our core self—a goal that we can all attain if we keep working at it and reminding ourselves that we are lovable despite our mistakes, our deficits, our pasts, our acting out, and the ugly projections put upon us by others. We should also seek to accept other people as they are, rather than how we think they should be. We should not expect a rat not to be a rat, a dog not to be a dog, or a human not to be a human, with all the complications and contradictions that implies. Then we proceed forward in our lives toward greater self-actualization, but always with appropriate boundaries for the necessary emotional connections and safety. Isn’t that the loving thing to do? Are we right back to love as the endgame? Did I get it right in the hot tub?
All this stuff relating to the Chameleon Complex—Levels of Intimacy, boundaries, vulnerability, emotional intimacy, authenticity, self-actualization, love’s role in our lives, and the meaning of life—seems like common sense to me now. I deal with it every day because it’s true about all people; we merely are aware of it and embrace it to varying degrees. But if it could get past me, then it could get past other people who have spent less time thinking about such things.
Often in therapy, good (but wounded) people will explain to me how awful humans are. I nod and agree because I live on the same planet as they do. Then, over time and as they are able to hear, I explain the same things to them that I’ve been explaining to you. We all know that people can be ugly, greedy, selfish beasts: look at history, current events, and the person currently trying to use you for his or her unfair gain. But people are also wonderful beings who naturally strive to overcome our baser instincts. We can learn to better navigate our social milieu to minimize people’s exploitation of us and maximize our rewards. When we do, our overall experience will be more pleasant. We can only change ourselves and hope to influence someone else for the better. Having been a teacher, psychologist, and writer, I know we can influence and even force people to pretend to change and improve themselves, but real change only occurs from within the individual.
Sometimes I say things in therapy that seem so simple but are “Ah-ha!” moments for clients. Typically, it’s common sense backed up by science that resonates the most with people (though our relationship is the biggest factor in change—how emotionally connected we are, how trusting and accepting the relationship is; people need other safe people to truly know them in order to heal and grow toward self-actualization).
When I began practicing psychotherapy, I thought my distaste for numbers (i.e., statistics) and the fact that my brain prefers impressions to details might hamstring my career. On the contrary, my clients never wanted me to recite stats and research. The impressions that filter through my brain help me uncover patterns, and I point these out to my clients, which can be quite enlightening for them. It’s natural for me. Actually, it’s a gift that I didn’t know I had until I saw my first client. Along with caring, offering unconditional positive regard, actively listening, normalizing, making accurate interpretations, and giving sound recommendations, I’m usually able to be helpful. I find the more I trust myself, the more common sense I have, the righter I am, and the better the outcome is for clients.
In my formative years, I was taught not to trust what I thought, felt, and did. I was taught that my less-than-perfect cognition, uncomfortable emotions, and actual physical body were merely illusions; even worse than that, they were evil or “Error.” I don’t blame myself—I was just a boy—but if I’d intuitively trusted myself more from the beginning, many mistakes in judgment and failures of character could’ve been avoided. I trusted other people more than I trusted myself—as young children must—and it twisted my self-image. I became a chameleon. I think I always intuitively trusted that something about me was worthwhile, that we all deserved love and respect, and that I could be better than I was, which is the story that you are now privy to.
This is all helpful to me today. In some sessions, teens and twenty-somethings are puzzled about why they have conflicted relationships. In general, I experience them as likable young people. What I figure out is that they are sharing some chameleon version of themselves with others and coming off as opinionated, insensitive, and not empathetic. They say, “But it’s the truth!” as if that excuses any consequences of expressing oneself. Sometimes a better option is to filter oneself more, to remain silent and wise. Ironically, I find myself recommending increased censoring of what an exuberant youth might honestly say. I never wished to be the Man telling passionate youth to dull down, but if they wish to avoid hard feelings, they should consider finding a balance between self-expression and sensitivity for others—better than I did at their age—and use Levels of Intimacy as their guide. The trick is to open up enough and hold back enough, depending on the level of each relationship. It’s a social art, and it gets easier with practice.
We should always be authentic, regardless of the role we play. That’s the secret. Actually, it’s really no secret, but we are often afraid to practice it. Remember; assess the level of danger, and if it’s not truly dangerous to you, go toward the thing you fear. It’s OK to feel the fear; just do it anyway. If you do it in a planned and prolonged manner and frequently, you will habituate and eventually feel fine—or closer to fine, anyway.