In defense of the social chameleon

Urban Dictionary’s top definition of a social chameleon is:

Someone who changes the way they interact with people depending on who they’re with. (Thanks Boone Wheeler)

If you are not a social chameleon, yourself, then surely you have crossed paths with someone who is. We have all had that friend who seems “different” around certain people from the way he or she behaves around us. This frustrates and confuses us. It can seem dishonest and inauthentic. It causes us to question our nature, his or her nature, and the nature of our relationship.

 I am a social chameleon… and I’m sick of catching a bad rap.

The way I see it, there are three types of us. There are the people who are unsure of themselves, the people who intentionally behave in an unnatural way to achieve their corresponding goals, and the people who selectively express inherent characteristics depending on the situation. I happen to share tendencies with all three types.

First, let’s talk about the people who are unsure of themselves. And by those people, I mean all of us. No matter how strong we think our self-identity is, how can we ever be sure of anything? Our survival depends on us being adaptive. We are programmed to change, just as everything around us is. A fixed point of view and way of being will only constrain us. When someone is exploring all that they are and behaving accordingly, we should respect their honesty and strength.

The second category of chameleons I referenced are the ones who change their behavior, in a way that is counterintuitive to them, in order to achieve a certain goal. I sometimes fit into this category as well. The idea for this post came to me during a journal entry as I was questioning the authenticity of my behavior. I have been doing a lot of learning and making a lot of changes recently. In light of this, I have been experiencing some criticism from those closest to me. They are unfamiliar with my behavior and they see my changes as phony. Sometimes they are! But phony is not always bad. It is not my natural reaction to always take the high road. I have to work at my responses every single day in order to achieve the goal of harmony in my relationships. It is not my natural goal to only surround myself with uplifting people. I have programmed myself to occasionally crave chaos and to enjoy the challenge of helping those who does not want to be helped. I have to fight this natural urge and behave counterintuitively in order to achieve the goal of self-progression. I can give you a hundred more examples but the moral of the story is that being phony is often an essential part of changing our habits for the better. If you are thinking, “but the social chameleon I know is not fake because they want to be better”, then I have a response for you too. We are all resourceful in our own ways. Before assigning judgment, ask yourself how you might do the same thing and approach your relationship with understanding.

Finally, there is the group of us that shows some of our personality to some people and other parts to others. This type of social chameleon gets it. We are multidimensional, conscious, responsive, resourceful, and reciprocal. If you know someone like this, you should learn from them. He or she has had enough experiences to be able to connect with a variety of people and also has enough awareness to know when to share what. This special collection of people is also respectful enough to know when not to share certain things. We are great at reading others, reading situations, and responding to energy. For this type of person, being a social chameleon will prove to be a great strength.

Love is nameless

Over the weekend I attended a retreat in Huntington Beach. It was led by one of my favorite thinkers, Eckhart Tolle, and it centered around living a life of presence. I was able to hear some brilliant speakers with varying perspectives and despite their differences, I noticed that almost all of them spoke about the consequences of “naming things”.

Names are extremely reductive and realizing this has completely changed the way I look at life and language.

When you reduce a person, place, thing, or idea into a single word, it completely detracts from its essence. Words are generalizations and they eliminate the wonder of all that they represent.

I first noticed this idea with author and Buddhist practitioner, Jack Kornfield. He spoke a lot about meditation, which is something I have consistently struggled with. In the past, I have always fallen victim to the relentless voice in my head and have never been able to silence my mind. This is not a problem exclusive to meditation for me. I am constantly unable to enjoy the present because of the narratives my mind is telling me.

Kornfield provided us with an awesome visual this weekend that has already helped me to overcome this, and boy does it feel good to have some inner quiet! He said:

While you are in meditation, notice the thoughts that come up and name them. Then, watch them dissolve away like clouds under the sun.

This works for much more than meditation. It is a strategy that I am trying to use as frequently as possible in my daily life.

When you assign a single word to a complex situation or emotion, it loses so much power. You are able to understand that you are familiar with the word, you have seen it before, and you know how to process it.

For example, if you are someone who is constantly thinking about the future and worried about uncertainty, you probably create a narrative that is far beyond what is necessary. You imagine every option and outcome you can think of (none of which are “real”). You obsess and stress about potential problems and you let thoughts of your future take you away from your present. Every time you find yourself in this thought pattern, name it. Think, “This is fear. This is anxiety. This is nervousness”. You will realize that you have felt all of these emotions before and instead of going through an extensive script, you can acknowledge your thoughts and feel them dissipate.

That is the benefit of utilizing names. There is also a major detriment.

Eckhart Tolle gave an example that I felt illustrated the next concept very well. He told us a story about a hummingbird. One morning, he and his wife were standing on the porch of their home in Canada when a hummingbird flew over to them. It stopped right in front of them and seemed to stare at the couple right in their eyes. Eckhart explained that many people would have made the connection in their minds that it was a hummingbird and then would have stopped wondering about it because it was a bird they were already familiar with. This is a major de-emphasis of one of God’s creatures. In doing this, the need to know more is eliminated. As Eckhart so perfectly stated, “If you teach the child the name of the bird, the child will never see the bird again”.

It is our human instinct to look at things and analyze their functions and any potential harm that they could pose. Love is about so much more than that. Love is looking at the hummingbird and thinking about its past, where it came from, how it flies, the way it is colored, how it interacts with the rest of the world, in what ways it is similar to us, and the infinite amount of other properties that make a hummingbird what it is.

This same way of thinking applies to all people, places, things, and ideas. When you call me “Eden”, you are not thinking about my soul, my family, my childhood, my hardships, my joys… You are assigning everything that I am and have ever been to four meaningless letters.

I find this to be extremely applicable to relationships, as well. When I introduce somebody to my best friend, I give her a title. I call her my roommate or my best friend. These words do not even come close to encompassing all that she is to me. They do not explain all of the times we have cried together, laughed together, or grown together. They do not account for her gifts, her strength and resilience, or her compassion. I think about my dad, my mom, my step-dad, my siblings, and my past relationships. No combination of letters could ever illustrate their essences and when I get locked into using a single word I often forget the true miracles that they are.

 Whether it is a chair, a meal, or a person, try to start looking at things without naming them. The wonder that becomes present when familiarity is gone is one of the best ways to feel gratitude and love.