3 ways to know if you’ve got Chameleon Syndrome: Identity Crisis for the identity expert
Updated: Oct 3, 2019
So, I may or may not have just made up the term Chameleon Syndrome. But if you’ve ever had to start your life over or reinvent yourself, you know what I’m talking about.
I’m a military spouse. This requires a unique set of skills that involve adaptation, flexibility, and courage. My family moves every 3-4 years. We are on our 4th base and it’s a challenge (to say the least) to have a career when you have to leave your community every few years.
So, what does this have to do with Chameleon Syndrome? It was hard to recognize when it was
happening, but for me, it felt all too familiar. I felt the urge to reinvent myself at a time when I didn't see myself reflected in the community around me. I now recognize that sense of INVISIBILITY as one of the first symptoms of Chameleon Syndrome.
I grew up in the 1980’s in a predominantly Black community just outside of Chicago until I was 10 years old. Although we had a similar amount of melanin in our skin as our neighbors, my family didn’t exactly fit in. We “talked White” and went to parochial (read: the "wrong") schools. Then we moved to Wheaton, IL. If you haven’t read What it’s like to be Black in Naperville, America, you should. Everything shifted. We were one of a handful of Black families. I stopped seeing neighbors, teachers, store clerks who looked like me. I felt invisible. In an attempt to be seen, I unconsciously made myself as palatable as possible to the mostly White, wealthy community that was now home. I stopped using the slang I grew up with, learned to play tennis, and wore Keds. I shopped at The Gap and drank Starbucks. It all worked!…for them. The White people in my community were comfortable with me, but I was becoming invisible.
Signs of Chameleon Syndrome
Feeling invisible - not seeing yourself reflected in those around you. This could be in respect to any aspect of your identity (race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, spirituality, age, etc.).
Searching outside of yourself for sense of self - looking for a way to understand who you are by understanding who everyone else around you is. Although it is good to understand your environment, it is important and powerful to understand the self that you bring to your environment.
Assimilating - morphing yourself into your surroundings. Instead of acculturating, which is more like incorporating parts of the outside into the self and vice versa. Assimilating is really a loss of self at the cost of “fitting in." The parts of you that are unique or separate from your surroundings stops being valued or seen.
And just like that, you’re lost. You have succumbed to the Chameleon Syndrome.
Fast forward 18 years, and I’ve experienced a rebirth. This time around, I’m able to see myself and accept myself unconditionally for who I am. I have done research on racial identity and how we understand ourselves in the context of others. I understand the importance and value of being exposed to and surrounded by images and people who look like us.
Allowing others to tell me what my identity is has been a defense mechanism I’ve used since childhood. I've only recently, in the past decade, come to understand that for what it is. Since my eyes were opened, my work has been around helping other people avoid similar pitfalls, and affirm their own identities instead of participating in the very process of making themselves invisible.
It's amazing. When I let go of the version of myself that I thought others would find more palatable, opportunities to be myself and support others in similar work started flooding in. Now, maybe that's just a coincidence, but it feels more like confirmation.
Irene Summers Temple, PhD is a licensed Counseling Psychologist in private practice at Irene Summers Temple, PhD LLC in Rapid City, SD. She specializes in multicultural counseling, coaching, and consultation, serving helping professionals, People of Color, and LGBTQ+ individuals, fostering mental wellness and identity development.