“Other people seem to have this fixed personality that’s the same regardless of who they are with, whereas I feel like I completely change in every social situation, changing my personality like a chameleon changes its colour, and it makes me feel like I’m not a real person.”
The above quote is something I once said in therapy. I remember, acutely, how painful I would find what felt like a drastic fluctuation of my sense of self across different social environments. For example, I would experience my sense of humour mirroring the person or group I was with, and I would later feel this as evidence that I lacked a core sense of self, manifesting in the thought “I just don’t know who I am”, with an accompanying sense of shame.
Nowadays, I feel differently. It is not that the essence of my experience has changed. I still notice myself adapting in relation to who I am with. Rather, it is my perspective that has changed. I now see my adaptability as a strength (of my core self!) that enables me to more easily connect with others. This absolutely applies to my work as a counsellor. Inherent in the experience of being socially adaptable is, I now see, an aspect of empathy: the ability to shift from one’s own perspective into that of another.
As a result of my gradual acceptance of my social adaptability, I also find myself being less inclined to mirror or change myself unless it feels comfortable. I am definitely less of a people-pleaser. Through the intense study of my own experience, it now feels like a choice. I no longer criticise myself for this aspect of my character. Moreover, I have been able to re-frame it as a strength.
During my own therapy (my training required 3.5 years of weekly personal psychotherapy), having my experience understood and accepted by someone I trusted and felt connected with, catalysed this change in the way I feel. The way I understand this is that being fully accepted by another subtly undermined my inner-critic. It is almost as if I gradually absorbed and assimilated the non-judgemental attitude of my therapist (if you are reading this Kim, I am deeply and forever grateful).
The upshot is that, while the ‘mechanic’ of my experience of social adaptability hasn’t completely changed, it now reinforces my sense of self.
I am proud to be socially adaptable!