I’m a professional chameleon.
Put me anywhere, in any setting, and I can blend in.
As the child of a diplomat, I learned how to camouflage into any background to avoid the being seen as an outsider. I was born in Canada and raised in Egypt, Pakistan, Ghana, Jamaica and Ukraine. My sister and I spent my childhood our zigzagging around the globe; going back and forth from “home” in Canada where our extended family lived, to our literal “home” in whichever country we were posted.
My identity molded to my surroundings. I created my sense of self by absorbing everything and everyone around me. Every time we moved away, I’d begin again from scratch. It was a constant game of building, then tearing down, building, and tearing down. It’s only now at the tail end of my twenties that I’m starting to know “myself” – whoever that person may be. This process involves a lot of digging and peeling away heavy layers of personas I’ve played and pushing away any new intruder personas from swarming in.
I know this behavior stems from a need for approval. At a young age I believed that the outside world was alien and required a certain set of behaviors and rules in order to be accepted. My inside world, at home with my parents and sister, was the only place that I felt safe to be my crazy weird self.
This feeling went off the charts in high school when my Dad thought it would be a great idea to send my sister and I to a boarding school in Canada. My parents were living in Africa at the time and I was terrified to go. Mostly because that meant I had to leave my Mum, who was my best friend. In that first year of boarding school my level of shyness was completely paralysing. I could barely operate on a normal human level. Literally every single thing scared me. I spent that whole year turning different shades of red-purple and awkwardly tip-toeing through the hallways hoping no one would look at me. I couldn’t even sneeze in class without dying in fear that someone would notice my existence.
This desperation thankfully dissolved by the time I entered College. By then, the whole family had moved back to Ottawa. After three years of living apart, we were finally all reunited, living under the same roof. For the first time in my life, I felt like I had a choice about my geographic whereabouts. It was incredibly satisfying to feel control and finally be accepted organically by others. I had an amazing group of friends, a loving boyfriend and we even had a dog. It was thrilling to know that everyone who surrounded me accepted and loved me for the person I was. It was something I always fought for, and wow, it felt amazing.
But unfortunately it also became boring. I was not used to stagnancy, I had not ever experienced before. I was now living in such a comfy cosy state with familiarity in every corner that my brain became confused. I never lived in the same place for that many years on end and I started craving novelty and excitement. I wanted the challenge of starting again even though I had a love/hate (mostly hate) relationship with it. My mind slowly started growing restless and started tugging me and tugging me and tugging me.
After careful deliberation, I decided to move to Beijing for a few months to “find myself.” Instead, I met a group of interesting hockey players and forgot all about finding myself. The moment I was with them I thought, hell yes! I can pretend to like hockey and get drunk as hell at the same bar every weekend! In reality, I am literally the exact opposite of this. But yet, here I was, completely determined to enter this clique even if it meant losing what I had built of myself in the process. I was almost excited to a play the role of someone other than myself again. It was like I was an actress who had just received a riveting screenplay.
I know that this ridiculous feeling of squishing myself to fit in places I don’t is all a part of being human. At the end of the day, we are social animals and we all share this same built-in desire for acceptance. During our primitive human years, being a part of the pack meant higher chances of survival. We were far more likely to eat a good meal, stay warm and protected, and continue our species when we were accepted and embraced by others. If we were shunned from the group and left on our own to fend for ourselves, our chances for survival would drop significantly. This part of our primal brain is still there in the base of our skulls demanding attention, in some people more so than others.
Clearly my brain is just a little more animal-like primitive than most. It defaults to approval seeking, wherever it goes. It’s constantly scanning the environment like a barcode and sending information to my brain to ‘act like this! Shhh, stop saying that!’
If only there was a switch to mute these critical internal voices. If only I could open the squeaky doors behind my skull and examine my brain as if it were a recording studio filled with buttons and dials. Once I’m there, I could see which one of them were dialled to the max and gently bring it down.
Unfortunately though, this is not possible. Instead of falling victim to my own mind, I will choose to treat each new experience as an opportunity. I will remind myself that I will not and cannot be liked everyone. I will practice forgiveness and self-compassion as often as I possibly can. I will choose to congratulate myself on how far I’ve come.
In the same way we eliminate any bad habit, I will remember to take my progress day by day, moment to moment. One day, when I least expect it, I’ll find that I no longer seek approval from anyone else but me. How freeing that must be!