Obstacles to Confident Performances, Part 3: Social Chameleon 

 May 31, 2021

By  Judy Fine

After performance anxiety and imposter syndrome, the next top hurdle between many folks and their ability to perform confidently in life is being a social chameleon.

The term social chameleon refers to a person who unconsciously adapts traits, actions, opinions, etc. to fit whatever environment they find themselves in – the way a chameleon changes its colors to fit its environment. Like all traits, there are benefits and drawbacks to being this way. You can both do better in group dynamics than others but lose yourself in a way that they don’t because you’re not being who you are. On top of that, there’s something very important to understand about the social chameleon.

The chameleon isn’t just social.

My backyard garden wedding 1993

I completely wasted my twenties. Not with fun things, like partying too much. I wasted it by being everyone’s perfect chameleon. Sometimes proudly so.

A person wasting her twenties isn’t unusual. The twenties are when we test out our first prototype of the person we think we want to be. We’re working entirely on hypotheses with no actual data to support our suppositions. It’s our first shot at learning who we are.

Part of learning who we are is learning how we fit into the world. Social chameleons fit pretty well, or at least are good at pretending to, because they adapt so easily. But in my twenties, my chameleon also came out in two very important and intimate areas of my life:

My dreams and my relationships.

My chameleon heard a relative say, “But don’t you want to get a real job?” and she thought, “Well a master’s degree could lead to a pretty respectable career. I think I want to go to grad school.” And I did, despite not wanting a “real” job.

My chameleon heard my boyfriend say, “We should get married,” and she thought, “He’ll be so disappointed and hurt if I say no. I guess I want to get married.” And I did, despite not being anything close to ready for marriage.

I was good at fitting in when I wanted to, and this helped me avoid a lot of real-time discomfort. Yet, I repeatedly allowed my adaptation skills to determine the trajectory of my life, which led to much future discomfort. The chameleon taken to this extreme is a kind of performance anxiety. How other people feel about your performance in life becomes more important than how you feel, in part because you fear the discomfort of an audience that won’t clap.

Between my performance anxiety, imposter syndrome, and chameleon tendencies, my twenties became an endless barrage of what my ex-husband would have called revving the gas in neutral. I worked, stressed, and racked up debt for a life I didn’t want. With each chameleon action implemented, I sank a little deeper into a pit of depression and invisibility.

Wow. Sounds pretty bad, huh?

But here’s the amazing part. We each have a person inside us, our real selves. This person knows who we are and what we need. And they are waiting to be set free, one way or another. When I look at pictures of myself from my twenties, I can see that confident person in there, not yet ready to step forward but there. And I feel sympathy for her that she had no one in her life to see what was happening and help her find a way out.

Me, 1991, in the Negev.

She did step forward when the time was right.

It took much more time than is desirable, but I suppose it was inevitable. The outer me had become so numb and broken that the real me sort of leached through to the surface. One day, without knowing it was coming, I heard myself say to my now ex-husband, “I need to take a break.”

That person inside me saved us both. That was the day I hopped off the wrong path and began building the confidence and sense of deservedness necessary to put myself before my audience. That’s the key.

You before your audience.

This is why I do what I do today. Because I want to be for others what I didn’t have for myself.

And here’s an interesting side note. That family member who thought I needed a “real” job ended up clapping for me years later (metaphorically speaking) once I found my way.

Performance anxiety, imposter syndrome, and the chameleon have a way of teaming up and supporting each other as they throw us and our lives off the rails. No matter what measurement of each you see in your life, all three should be managed if they’re there at all.

So, tell me. Do you have chameleon tendencies?

There’s an easy way to check in and see. The next time you’re about to share a thought, idea, or update on your life, etc… ask yourself, “Am I about to say what’s true for me or what I think the person listening wants to hear?”

I promise you, it’s never too late to be who you really are.

Let me know your thoughts.


Judy Fine

Judy Fine has been a vocal and performance coach since 2007, specializing in artist development coaching for aspiring singers and confidence coaching for women.

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