On social chameleons, self-monitoring, and other thoughts along the lines of connection and the self

Where do we draw the line between adapting ourselves and our personalities to the people around us by making ourselves liked in order to connect with others and blend into social environments, caring about what people think just enough for it to act as a catalyst for fulfilling connections and successful interactions, and holding onto our individuality and sense of self based on inner beliefs? Up to a certain point, adaptability is normal in any interaction because, as social beings, we tend to bond by relating to another person’s experiences, thoughts, views, and so on, and for that we can’t be rigid or left unchanged, we need to be open to invite all this information from someone else’s world into ours; when inevitable differences arise, they should ideally be respected and sometimes accommodated. It’s also normal in the sense that, sometimes involuntarily, your personality and energy tend to be influenced by people you interact with and their own vibes, especially if you’re an empath, so, attuned to the moods and sensibilities of others. There is also a necessity for a certain degree of conscious adaptability and flexibility ingrained in many social interactions, in entering new environments, and facing a variety of people from different backgrounds, ages, and cultures. The social chameleon (I prefer this term rather than ‘people-pleaser’ which sounds pretty sad) is highly skilful in impression management and Self-Monitoring, being self-aware and aware of others; he or she thrives by reading social cues and charmingly acting and adapting accordingly to specific situations and types of people. Since adaptability is one of the main transferable skills you are asked to prove in interviews and job applications, this is a quality that is often valued in society and viewed as being linked to interpersonal and professional success.

When does this become a problem? When you bypass your personal boundaries and needs, such an attitude or way of living can take on a self-sabotaging quality and an unnatural influence over your life, that is ultimately detrimental to your well-being and your individuality. This happens when the focus you place on adapting to different personalities or social groups by making yourself liked and likeable at all costs becomes an impediment to living authentically and to being in touch with your feelings, interests, and desires. It can make you feel alienated from yourself and it can make others feel like they don’t really know you. The first steps you might take down this slippery slope could be silencing or diminishing your voice to accommodate someone else’s ego (particularly relevant to women tiptoeing around the male ego, or even around other women’s egos), switching between social masks and doing things to accommodate people in general, at the expense of corrupting your spirit, practising unnecessary humility, gaslighting yourself and doubting yourself too much when something goes wrong or when someone puts you in a negative light, putting up with (whatever you may see as) adverse or unfriendly treatment and making excuses for it, blaming yourself, and wanting to fix the situation, and so on. There is a fine line there between being empathetic and understanding of other people’s feelings and being unhealthily willing to compromise on your expectations and needs.

If it appears that you have people-pleasing tendencies, a lot of people pick up on that vibe and your boundaries may be challenged. There is also a shadowy side to people-pleasing: whilst it might seem like an altruistic act and it can be, it can also be a somewhat manipulative approach to get people to like you so that you maintain control over situations, but this is not inherently bad and not everyone who does this is conscious of it or a control freak or has a conscious ulterior motive. And the most harmful aspect is that people-pleasers associate their worth with the capacity to gain other people’s approval. You can be pleasant to be around- as that is clearly an advantage in most situations- but without being a push-over and without relying on people’s reactions and impressions of you, on their response to your behaviour. For this, you need to have a decently stable self-image- so know yourself- and what your expectations and standards are. And then you need to ideally spend your time with people who match those expectations and standards or otherwise, to communicate that need. Go beyond being pleasant. Be an inspiring, uplifting presence. Learn to truly listen to someone and allow trails of their consciousness to permeate yours, without filtering them through your fixated thought patterns too much. Just as I previously mentioned in an article that the best approach in the process of reading a book is to suspend your interpretative frameworks initially, you can do the same thing when you read another person, so you can invite their world into yours.

I’m glad to have reached a stage in my life journey where, after meeting someone new and chatting for a while, instead of wondering “Does this person like me?” it’s more important to first ask myself “Do I like this person?”. I’m not a passive or self-sacrificing person, I’ve never been, but I haven’t always claimed my social and emotional agency to the point where my likeability becomes irrelevant or less relevant than authenticity and personal satisfaction-so there have been times when my self-presentation has overpowered aspects of my life which should have been more important – though not in a ‘blending in’ type of way. These days, instead of impression management, I ask myself questions such as: Does this person add a positive contribution to my life and well-being? Are they a presence I like being around? How do I feel around them? Shift the focus this way. It’s liberating. What value or qualities do people add to your life? It could be that they’re kind, they make you laugh and are fun to be around, they’re thoughtful, relaxing, considerate, helpful, interesting, they just get you, they have a stimulating mind in addition to similar interests or an openness to discuss your interests- or a combination of such traits that you simply click with. If my assessment is positive, then, I value their response to me on a deeper level. Anyway, people are more than a combination of factors, so I don’t believe in having a rigid checklist of traits for friendships or other connections because our minds often override pre-established ideas when we click or feel drawn towards people we wouldn’t have expected to do so or when we don’t click with people we apparently had so much in common with. I personally only have a clear, uncompromising checklist of what I profoundly dislike or am repelled by in interactions. When there is reciprocal appreciation and things really work out, that ‘pleasing’ part is organic and ingrained in your interactions, there is no need to perform or control as it’s all spontaneous and there is definitely no need to feel like you compromise your self.

If your focus is on people-pleasing, it can be self-effacing or, to sound more dramatic, self-annihilating, as you tend to lose yourself in the process of presenting yourself in the way you think others expect you to. This could mean your fashion sense, your personality, the current version of your identity. Identity is fluid, I’ve always believed this, and some of your personality variables are, in fact, altered by interaction. My life mantra seems relevant here: “I am rooted, but I flow” (Virginia Woolf’s words). You have a core, the part of you that is grounded, rooted, true no matter what happens. This is surrounded by waters in which you flow and with which you can merge, meaning you can be open to new experiences and be shaped and re-shaped by them. But be mindful of where you flow and don’t be scared to swim against the current when you have to. Meet new personalities, be amicable and let the right worlds enter yours, without losing yourself in the other.

Cognitive biases

Many people live their lives jumping from one cognitive bias to another, with a reluctance to delve deeper or look beyond. They see what they want, they perceive things, events, and people around them in a light that reinforces what they already think or fear of the world or hope the world to be like, and often in a one-dimensional way. This can range from something superficial like snap judgements and the famous halo effect -for instance seeing an attractive person and automatically, sometimes unconsciously attributing them other good traits like being good-natured or intelligent (although there is also the reverse effect, in which people associate some positive assessments with negative personality traits), from the Barnum effect with practices like astrology and certain personality tests, to having confirmation biases such as unsubstantiated interpretations of ambiguous events and situations which fit some pre-existing beliefs or the illusory correlation of behaviours or events. People also tend to have selective, biased memories, often more likely to remember emotionally-charged events more vividly and subjectively. They often have a filter through which all information and their perception of reality goes, which reaffirms some values they hang onto and – sometimes unwisely- attach their sense of self and their interpretation of others to.

 

This may seem like an effective and useful self-defence mechanism in many cases, because it means you can always stick to your own little bubble, never having to confront points of view which don’t match your own and which will make you contemplate and potentially doubt the beliefs that you’ve relied on for a long time. However, this approach to life is pretty clearly a double-edged sword. It can often prove to be delusion-inducing, divisive, and toxic as it prevents genuine connection among people and can even turn everything into a -sometimes subtle and insidious- war of ideas, with every person being uncompromising and unwilling to let their guard down and be open or receptive. This war is not always transparent or even vocalised, it can be silent, low-key, as well as appearing disguised as something else-i.e. power trips – because of feelings of repression and the fear or rejection of the unpredictable and the unknown. Things get particularly problematic when the subject concerned is something of importance to people, something related to someone’s core beliefs or nature such as views on life purposes, career choices, relationships, kids, religion, etc.

 

What would be the solution then? To judge appearances and only hang out with those who never challenge any of your beliefs? This scenario is quite problematic and actually impossible unless you only seek superficial connections and you’re not truly connected with others- because otherwise, you will most likely never be on the same page with anyone else entirely. Whether that’s a partner, friend, acquaintance, family member, there will always be a situation in which your views on some subject diverge. Because everyone has had unique experiences which shaped them differently. If you’re lucky, one of you will be more diplomatic about it and drop their view to prevent reaching a point where you’ll be pulling each other’s hair out. But is it such a good thing? Always relinquishing one’s standpoint in order to stay away from any semblance of confrontation is not a long-term, or constructive tactic, because it doesn’t stimulate change or self-development and doesn’t really benefit anyone in the long run. It normally only provides moments of relief and passing through life as lightly as possible- although even that depends on what the voice of your ego says.

 

I anticipate what one might think: maybe that’s all you want sometimes, moments of relief and bliss. Choosing your battles seems like sensible advice, after all, doesn’t it?  Indeed, and in the end you will inevitably also weigh how much you value the opinion and judgement of the other, as well as how much you value your own opinion, how important it is to you; if you decide it’s a matter of significance and, simultaneously, that it’s a person whose opinion matters to you, and you can’t just brush things off, then you need to be aware of how you tackle the subject, don’t try to make it seem like you’re imposing your perception of reality on someone else. People might be less inclined or willing to digest and properly, openly process information communicated with an ostentatious holier-than-thou attitude. Even though you may find it difficult to act in an emotionally intelligent way if it’s a subject you feel strongly about, like an ingrained belief, it’s not impossible. Promote acceptance by embodying an accepting and open approach to the world around you. Sometimes this implies accepting that people have different opinions, some of which you may view as wrong; other times the best approach is to educate, where there is ignorance. The more you get to know yourself and others, the easier it will be to know when to be assertively relentless in your convictions, and when to let go.

 

The key is to aim towards becoming the best versions of our selves. Let’s be aware of our cognitive biases and not trust them blindly, let’s be open-minded and non-judgemental and non-dismissive towards other perceptions of reality. Let’s build bridges. Let’s do this whilst still being authentic and true to ourselves and to our own core system of values, but also true to the people around us. Let’s choose understanding first and foremost, which ultimately leads to happiness anyway, and let’s defy the narcissistic tendency of our contemporary society by practising empathy and fulfilling self-interests simultaneously, rather than treating them as mutually exclusive.