I remember one evening during high school like it was yesterday. I had invited friends over and once they arrived, I found myself unable to talk. I just stayed in the kitchen cooking chili while they socialized.

I wasn’t sure which person to be—the person I was with my parents or the person I was with my friends. These “two people” were far enough apart (or so I thought) that I was scared to wreck my image with either group.

Over time, I started to call myself a chameleon. I could stand outside a metaphorical room with 20 people in it, figure out what each of them wanted me to be, and make myself into the perfect conglomeration of that.

This unconscious strategy did its job pretty well. Most of the time, I could get everyone’s approval. Even this uncomfortable high school evening didn’t deter me. This remained a major part of my social mechanics until I was about 30.

As you can imagine, being everything to everyone left little time or energy to figure out who I really was. Around the age of 30, I really started to question, for instance, why I had become a professional violinist. I do like classical music a lot, and there are things I enjoyed about that career, but they were far outweighed by things I didn’t like. I didn’t enjoy most of the 3-7 hours a day I spent alone in a practice room for a couple of decades, for instance.

It finally dawned on me that music had been the perfect approval-getting engine for me. If I played well, approval came pouring in from my parents, my teachers, symphony conductors, and audiences. When I really weighed it, I found that most of why I put myself through the rigors of becoming a professional musician (very similar to becoming an Olympic gymnast or figure skater) was for approval, not because it fed my own soul.

This “I’ll be anything you want me to be” thing didn’t really fit with what I thought I believed on a rational level, even. I remember once calling someone a “blank slate.” I imagined that she lived her life saying, “Please just write on me, tell me what I believe!” I cringe to think about that, because to a large degree, I was that same blank slate (with a good dash of meanness and lack of self-awareness thrown in!).

So, if being a chameleon didn’t fit with the way I thought life should be, why was I doing it all the time?

I learned that it went way back to early childhood. Long before we can even think, we develop our survival mechanisms from the way we fit best within our families. By the young age of 2 1/2, we’ve put into place our sense of self, which is the way we feel that we need to be in order to survive well. Since our thinking brain isn’t operating yet, we can’t evaluate whether those survival mechanisms make sense, or not. This is just how it is to be human.

After age 2 1/2, the sense of self becomes the generating force behind all of our moments, so we just keep ending up in situations that feel the same as we felt early on. For some of us, getting approval by being whatever those around us wanted us to be became a major part of the sense of self, and ouila! A chameleon is born!

There is a group of questions that I contemplated to start moving out of chameleon-hood, and I have my clients work with these same questions:

  • What really matters to me?
  • Who am I really?
  • Can I have and express what matters to me, or does it feel that something bad will occur if I do that?

These are usually perplexing questions for chameleons. I remember feeling like I almost couldn’t comprehend the question, “What really matters to me?” As if it were a foreign language. I hear similar responses from my clients all the time.

Since our survival mechanisms are just that—how we feel we have to be to survive—it can feel unsafe to even know or express what matters to us, which may seem ridiculous on a rational level. The part of our brain that stores the sense of self stays that 2-year-old that is incapable of rational thought, so it just clings to whatever survival mechanism it absorbed, and we keep feeling like we have to stay chameleons to stay alive.

Moving out of this survival mechanism brought about an ability to first know what mattered to me and then begin to express it. Often, (because this is how energy works) as I or clients have started to feel comfortable with who we are, others just automatically begin to invite us to express ourselves in a new ways.

Recovering chameleons commonly find themselves expressing their deepest desires and thoughts for the first time openly. It can be a bit shocking, honestly, but in a good way.

Does this ring a bell for you? The questions above are usually a good test. If you find yourself answering, “I don’t know,” to the first two and perhaps feeling a bit queasy at the idea of openly expressing what really matters to you, you might also be a chameleon.

You’re here to express your uniqueness, so I hope you’ll join those of us who are throwing off our chameleon suits and share who you really are with the world.

Sara Avery helps people get unstuck in their relationships, health, career, and self-expression. Learn how she can help you tackle your biggest challenges.