Tanya Younce, M.Ed., LPCC


Life as a Social Chameleon

dreamstime_s_100780031Social chameleons are people who know how to quickly blend in to any other person or group by picking up on and then embodying their way of acting, speaking, and various other ways of, well…BEING. Like a beige-toned color, they can go with just about anything, unlike someone with a distinct color that can only be complemented by certain hues. This ability is actually be a pretty cool super power. Imagine being able to go to any country and knowing how to conform to its culture and speak their language without even thinking about it!

But as adaptable as it is, this super power keeps someone from knowing who they truly are. In another country, we could say we’re American, we speak English, and have these idiosyncratic behaviors, beliefs, and lifestyles. But for a social chameleon (aka Sochams), it’s not that easy to describe themselves as an individual.

I guess it’s important to know HOW one develops this unique coping skill. Usually it’s due to one or more of the following ways they were raised:

  • They weren’t allowed or encouraged to have their own opinions, styles, voice, or decisions.
  • They feared any kind of clash or confrontation.
  • They got their needs met for approval, love, attention and connection by people-pleasing and making others comfortable in their presence.
  • They modeled similar behavior from a parent or other caregiver.

Because they don’t feel safe discovering their own uniqueness (or know how) , Sochams just borrow other people’s identities and often convince themselves that that’s who they really are. That can go on for a while, until a different person or crowd comes along. Then their color may change again.

“Oh no, that wasn’t me…actually I’m more like THIS!”

This causes especially significant problems when they become adults and get involved in close relationships.

At first, they likely present themselves to their partners in a way they know will blend well with them. It could even go as far as moving forward with marriage plans, buying a house, and/or having children (or not). It’s just too easy for Sochams to get sucked into the current of the energy surrounding them.

But then imagine this relationship several years down the road. Sochams don’t know this, but they all have a hidden storage box of tiny little resentments that add up over time. Anger and irritability will seep out from that storage box now and then, because their true spirit is fully aware that they have not been in touch with nor expressed themselves in authentic ways.

Instead, they are square pegs trying to fit into round holes. And over time, it gets awfully uncomfortable.

The time when Sochams finally “burst” is either around their 40’s, or after their children have been raised and are semi-independent. They just have a vague “knowing” that something is amiss. They start to question everything.

“What do I really want?”  “Do I truly like this?”  “Are these my honest beliefs and feelings?”  “Why have I been doing THIS all my life?”  “Why am I unhappy?”

Many people might call this a “midlife crisis,”  but it’s no joke. Sochams finally come out from behind everyone else’s wants, needs, and choices and start looking for their true Selves in the mirror. It’s a clouded mirror, so it won’t show who they are very clearly at first. But with some focused attention and work, they can clean this mirror and eventually have it reveal their true nature.

What do I mean by “attention and work”?

Sochams will first need to decide that they are worthy of spending time, energy, and perhaps even some money on discovering their own uniqueness. It sounds like a simple act, but this decision alone, especially if it’s not well supported by their loved ones, will be their first test of strength.

If they can get past this initial step, they’ll then need to spend time tuning in and learning to listen for their Inner Voice. For Sochams, the voice will be very quiet and timid in the beginning, because it’s been locked in a closet and abandoned for a long time. But the more attention it’s given, the louder and more confident it will get.

If you think you’re a Socham and feel stuck, here’s a good exercise: Go around your home, room by room, and pick out your most favorite things — a picture or painting, certain books, a coffee mug, a jar of peanut butter, a sweater, a pair of shoes, or a bottle of shampoo — anything you LOVE! Now bring them all together onto your dining room table. See if you can see a pattern in these items. Are you drawn to cool or warmer colors? Do you like certain styles or themes? What textures feel best? Write about why you love each of these things and see if they have any qualities in common.

The point is to get your brain programmed to pay more attention to things that look, feel, sound, smell, and taste GOOD to you. Practice being SURE about your preferences without anyone else’s input. Bringing more of those things into your life will strengthen that Inner Voice and coax her out of hiding.

At first, the people Sochams are connected to will be confused or even angered at their changes. But this is human nature. Whenever you radically change something about yourself, your family and friends will want to push back. They’ve known you as one way for many years, and now you’re becoming a different person. That feels threatening to them and to your relationship.

But the Social Chameleon will need to hold on to his or her real shape and color, and try to avoid slipping back into people-pleasing behavior. If they truly want to embrace more of their authenticity, there may unfortunately be some casualties in the process. Certain relationships may need to end. Others may need more distance, time or boundaries.

But know this.

The relationships that do survive, and the new ones that will develop, will be the ones Sochams can be sure will love them for who they really are.

It is an Almighty Aha moment when a Socham realizes that finding their OWN identity outweighs the costs of shedding their beige color and sycophant capabilities. It’s scary and it’s not easy, but going from a Socham to being able to say “I am” is the most profound and liberating super power they will ever possess.

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