Chameleon

In job interviews and leadership sessions, I’ve often come across the question, “What would you say is one of your strengths?”

One of the things I’ll answer with is my adaptability. I’ve found myself able to respond to change well, even if not instantaneously. I’m able to find my comfortable spaces in new environments, and if I don’t find the space I’m looking for, I either create it or search for the resources I need to address it. I’ve been proud of myself for all of that, but lately I’ve been looking at it in a new light, and that new light isn’t exactly a limelight:

Maybe this adaptability, this ability to find and create my own space in new environments, maybe it doesn’t come by in a positive way.

I used to look at this adaptability as a strength, a positive trait. But maybe it’s notHow am I so adaptable to my surroundings? How have I been able to cope with change? Answer: I change myself. Or, I let my environments change me. Either one. Both of them.

I don’t want to call this conformity — I feel like conformity implies a certain level of deliberate intent. I don’t want to conform. I’ve never consciously intended to conform. I am just so susceptible to being influenced by the people around me, especially by people who have very judgmental or assertive personalities. The moment I recognized that, I had flashbacks to each time in my life where I’ve struggled with awful amounts of cognitive dissonance after leaving a situation or an environment and realizing that I’d let myself lose sight of who I was at my core. This has manifested itself in small ways, like picking up mannerisms that weren’t mine to begin with. Or it would be bigger, more concerning: I’d suppress parts of myself to accommodate or enable people around me, prioritizing their behavior or attitudes over my own.

I’ve come to realize this is how I’m an easy target for toxic or draining relationships — sometimes I don’t set boundaries, letting in anyone and everyone, healthy or unhealthy. The healthy relationships are fine, of course. But it’s the unhealthy ones that are really troublesome when paired with my failure to set boundaries. Thankfully, though, those relationships have been quite few and far between, occurring only when a person like me who hasn’t learned how to successfully set boundaries crosses paths with a person who doesn’t know how to consider the boundaries of others. Neither of those are okay, and it’s a lose-lose situation, but I’m learning. I’m learning how to take responsibility just for myself and my failure to set boundaries. I’m learning how to stop trying to take responsibility for both sides of a lose-lose situation. I’m learning how to not accommodate or enable someone else’s failure to consider boundaries, because that’s exactly the kind of overcommitment that perpetuated my lack of boundary-setting in the first place.

Additionally, I’ve found myself turning into a negative person when I’m around negativity. Rather than maintaining integrity and keeping my head up, I’ve participated in or contributed to a gossipy or critical atmosphere. I cuss more often around people who cuss — not that I feel there’s anything too wrong with well-timed sentence spicer-uppers, but I’ve noticed under what circumstances my own practice gets a little excessive, and I’m trying to work on that. That might be a small thing to others, but to me it’s a huge indication of who I might be around certain people or groups. I often worry that this poses a question as to my sincerity or trustworthiness as a person and friend, but then I remind myself that at least I’m aware of my mistakes and I’m consciously making an effort to combat them. A less sincere or less trustworthy person might not even feel shame or regret to begin with. I remind myself that I know who am, even I express myself differently depending on my surroundings. (I mean, that’s just a common thing anyway, to have slightly different versions of oneself depending on one’s circumstances. It’s just a matter of how different those versions are from each other. And even if it doesn’t always show on the outside, I do know who I am at my core. And who I am is a person who has made the mistake of occasionally being a social chameleon in a bad way and refuses to continue letting herself be one from here on out.)

It’s all about integrity. I want to consider myself a person with a lot of it, but first I’m taking responsibility for the fact that I haven’t always been a hundred percent myself. (In situations where I’m easily influenced by my environment, I’d say I’ve been around the seventy-five percent mark. That missing twenty-five percent haunts me.) But like I keep saying, I’m learning. And I am not defined by my mistakes. I’m defined by the fact that I’m learning from them.

I feel deep regret about the people who have been affected by my chameleoning. I am haunted by my relationships that have been broken and become toxic by my deliberate avoidance to use my backbone and the subsequent ways that has consciously or unconsciously been taken advantage of by the other party. (Inversely, though, I believe that those relationships would probably have been broken all the same if I did use my backbone.) But I’m grateful for my many friendships and relationships that are healthy enough where I don’t feel pressured to be a social chameleon. I’m grateful that those healthy relationships outnumber the unhealthy ones a hundred to one. They remind me that my unhealthy relationships, enabled by my chameleon tendencies in unhealthy or toxic environments, are not an accurate representation of my entire self.

I know I might not be able to take back all the times I’ve displayed a lack of integrity or sincerity thanks to how I’ve let myself be so easily molded by my surroundings. What I am going to do with those times, though, is take them as learning lessons, as stepping stones, to bigger and better versions of myself. While I’ve always been proud and aware of my “adaptability,” I’m learning that how I adapt might be a completely different story, and it’s that process (rather than the adaptability itself) that needs to be addressed. There’s a positive side and a negative side to being a social chameleon, just as the hyperlinks at the beginning of this post suggest. Like with anything, I guess it’s all about finding the right balance. And that’s where I am right now, I think: Finding the right balance.

Featured image of yours truly, August 2016

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