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The Chameleon Effect

by Colleen P Moyne (Colmo) (follow)
I'm a freelance writer living in the beautiful river town of Mannum in SA, dreaming of the day I can retire from the 9-5 to write full time.
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I was doing some research recently for an article on personality disorders and came across the term ‘Chameleon Effect.’

Painted face, face-paint
Are you a Chameleon? - Image courtesy of flickr

This is a behavioural trait often associated with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) but can also be found in people with no other diagnosed conditions. The more I read, the more I recognised behaviours that I exhibited in my younger days when I was struggling with self-esteem issues and trying to find ways of ‘fitting in’ with my peers.

The term Chameleon Effect is taken, of course, from the familiar member of the lizard family who has the ability to change its skin colour to blend in with its surroundings.

There are a number of reasons for this gift of camouflage – one being a form of communication. Different colours signal different moods – anger, fear or readiness to mate. This colour change is also a survival tactic, deterring predators by making the chameleon difficult to spot.

Painted face, face-paint
Image courtesy of flickr

The Chameleon Effect when referring to people is similar. It can manifest in two ways. There are those who, as a survival tactic, try their best to disappear into the background – to avoid drawing attention to themselves in any way. For most of my young life this was me. I would hide in the corner at parties (or avoid them altogether,) rarely speak unless spoken to or voice my opinion for fear of being criticised. I dressed sedately, spoke softly and remained in my comfort zone. I rarely had the courage to try anything new. I’m happy to say that I eventually grew out of this phase.

But the other side of the Chameleon Effect is a bit more complicated. It happens at a more unconscious level and involves mirroring the behaviour, gestures and even opinions of those we interact with. We’ve all heard the saying ‘Imitation is the highest form of flattery,’ and the unconscious emulation of another’s mannerisms can actually be a good thing, showing a connection or rapport between the parties involved –but it becomes a problem when we cross the line into behaviours that are unsettling or even creepy.

Painted face, face-paint
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I noticed a few years ago that one of my friends was beginning to emulate me in several ways, dressing in a similar style, mirroring my opinions, liking the same things I did (music, books, etc.,) and decorating her home in the same way as mine. Rather than feeling flattered, I found it concerning and consequently began to distance myself from her. Looking back now I realise that there were signs of low self-esteem that I was unaware of at the time.

If you find yourself emulating others to a point where it begins to be a problem, you may need to take a bit closer look at why. Developing our own opinions, feelings, likes and dislikes are what builds our character and makes us unique individuals.

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Great article. Reminds me of when I was in my teens. Thank goodness I out grew this.

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