The Chameleon Complex

By PCS - 12/14/2018


The Chameleon Complex  |  Timothy M. Tays, PhD

Many people look good but feel bad. They are chronically stressed, sad, and anxious. They are lonely in their marriages and disconnected in their relationships. They know something is wrong but have no idea what it might be. They fear, “If you really knew me, you wouldn’t like me.”

A “chameleon” is a person who changes his or her opinions, ethics, morals, and behavior to please others or to defend himself or herself. This person often behaves in a manner so plastic, shallow, and two-dimensional that it is like witnessing an act. People sometimes wonder, who is this person really? Why isn’t there any connection? There’s always this…distance. Everybody knows a chameleon, but not everybody recognizes it when he or she is one.

Chameleons believe that if they were perfect—had a slicker act—then they’d feel better, people would like them more, and they could protect themselves from being hurt. They try to be attractive in a way that they do not believe they were as children. They feel shame, so they chronically alter their true “colors” to protect themselves. They attempt to control the image others have of them. They “impression manage” or control and cultivate the image they convey to others. By controlling the image they project, people can exercise some influence over how they are perceived by others and the way others respond to them. The payoff is feeling safe; the cost is lonesome suffering, even when they are surrounded by people.

Of course, we all learn to behave differently depending on the roles we fulfill to meet our responsibilities. For example, in a single day a person may transition through many roles: wake up as a spouse, parent the children to school, work as an employee and later as a boss, eat lunch as a friend, go to the gym and be an acquaintance to some and a stranger to others, drop by his or her own parents’ house and feel like a child again, before returning home and back into the role of spouse and parent. These shifts in roles are necessary and normal, and we are more or less transparent depending on the relationship. But when we remain opaque to everybody (i.e., highly defended), we can become chameleonlike, and we may become stuck in one “color” or shift to many “colors,” resulting in nobody knowing who we truly are. This behavior is not authentic, results in little emotional intimacy, and that can feel bad, especially when it’s chronic.

However, there is help. It seems counterintuitive that the best way to deal with the Chameleon Complex is to stop covering shame and to uncover it. Many people need to learn how to let down their guard around safe people in order to reveal more of their authentic selves, to keep up their guard when the situation demands it, and to know the difference. Very quickly, connection will result, and loneliness, sadness, and worry will fade.

With awareness comes the ability to change and grow.

As I mentioned earlier, the etiology of the Chameleon Complex is shame. The sources of shame are diverse. To name just a few sources: neglect or abuse in family of origin, religious messages that we are not good enough, social stressors (e.g., bullies, underdeveloped social skills, etc.), critical teachers and other authority figures, or even failure to navigate age appropriate milestones (e.g., adolescents slower to physically mature, slower academic progression, etc.).

The treatment for the Chameleon Complex is very similar as that for cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy for social anxiety. We want to identify and challenge any cognitive distortions, such as mind reading (e.g., “They’re thinking what a loser I am.”), emotional reasoning (e.g., “I feel anxious so there must be a problem.”), all-or-none thinking (“Nobody can ever truly love who I really am.”), etc. Behavioral exposures are used to decrease anxiety, in this case, gradually exposing the “chameleon” to more appropriate self-disclosure with others (self-disclosure should go in both directions, with both individuals being open and vulnerable with each other). The result is acceptance, greater connection, self-confidence, and healing of shame.

Not everyone is safe to be transparent with. Some people will use our information against us; some will spread it inappropriately. Therefore, keep the model below in mind (Levels of Intimacy, modified from Marilyn Murry’s Circles of Intimacy). This will help determine with whom to take greater emotional risks.


Levels of Intimacy

Greatest Transparency/Deepest Level of Emotional Intimacy

Level 1: Core Self
Level 2: Spouse or Significant Other
Level 3: Children
Level 4: Relatives
Level 5: Friends
Level 6: Colleagues and Acquaintances
Level 7: Strangers
Level 8: Toxic People

Least Transparency/Shallowest Level of Emotional Intimacy


Keep in mind that the Levels of Intimacy model is merely a general guideline. The boundaries (i.e., the extent to which we reveal ourselves to others) are represented as dash lines. These boundaries are as rigid or porous as each individual decides for him or herself. For example, a stranger can eventually become a spouse, a relative can become a toxic person, etc. The idea is to share our core self—whom we authentically are—discriminatingly, but with increasing self-disclosure as the other person proves him or herself safe, thus increasing emotional intimacy. The more trustworthy a person proves to be, the closer we may move to the other person and the more we may self-disclose. This is emotional intimacy and it feels way better than emotional isolation (e.g., alone in a crowd).

People may be as private and isolated as they choose, but what’s normal is to wish to have at least one other human know who we authentically are, not judge us, to accept us as we are, and to love us. The resulting emotional bond is evolutionarily adaptive for our species’ survival; in the modern world this has become less important for our physical survival but is still necessary for our emotional health. When we bond, then the games, the act, the phoniness, the masks, the impression management, the Chameleon Complex can cease, resulting in less anxiety at fear of rejection, and less depression because of emotional isolation and loneliness. We are all here relatively briefly and then exit the stage, so to speak, so let’s not waste our time; let’s go through life together.


Article by Timothy M Tays, PhD.

Timothy M. Tays, PhD

Timothy M. Tays, PhD, did his training and was on staff at Psychological Counseling Services, Ltd., before opening his solo psychotherapy practice in Scottsdale, AZ. He specializes in treating anxiety disorders and has published “The Chameleon Complex,” available at online booksellers such as and Visit his blog The Chameleon Complex at Portions of this article have previously appeared in “The Chameleon Complex” (2017) by Timothy M. Tays, PhD, and is due to appear in the September, 2018 Arizona Psychological Association newsletter.

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