I was an imposter for years. A self-proclaimed chameleon. Changing my colors depending on the scenario. Always looking for the path of least resistance that would lead me towards my survival. It was never something I was proud of. The times when I recognized I had been selling out my true self to earn the favor of others would have me feeling something profound in the pit of my stomach. Other times, I wouldn’t even see it happening. Sometimes, I even bragged about my ability to “adapt” to my environment. Whenever I went to a new and unfamiliar place, I was always able to change my colors to match the surroundings. My accent, my appearance, heck – even my beliefs – in order to keep myself from standing out.
Over the past 5 years, as I’ve committed my life to being the best man I can be, I’ve spent much of that time examining my past and looking for the clues that made me who I am now. How did I get HERE? What life experiences, beliefs, and moments from my formative years molded the adult I’ve become?
One specific moment that stands out in my story is from when I was 12 years old. I went through a really challenging stretch of health, where I was essentially absent from school for the majority of my 7th grade year. Before I had my first health event, I ran with the “popular” crowd of kids in my small hometown. I had a girlfriend – my first crush – who was also among one of the prettiest and most popular girls in my class. I was a multi-sport athlete, and very talented physically. Things were going my way.
I took it completely for granted, which is understandable given my age and level of maturity. I recall it being a very confusing time in my life where my identity and relationships seemed to change almost daily. Pop culture had a larger and larger influence on my life and the lives of my peers. Going into our teens, we were always trying to stay up on what was cool and popular at the time. To miss out on the latest trend or be caught unaware of the latest pop news would literally shoot you down the social ladder in a hurry.
I remember doing my absolute best to stay ahead of the wave. I had no context or reference for surfing at that time in my life, but it felt much like getting out in front of and STAYING in front of a wave a mighty force much larger than myself. As I look back at the other kids I admired for their “coolness”, I recognize that they were doing the same as I was – trying their best to stay out in front of the wave. There were times in those critical years where my closest friends were suddenly declared social outcasts. I’m not proud to say that I went along with the crowd 99 times out of a 100 back then, but I did. I was looking out for my own survival, even when it came at the cost of humiliation and pain for someone else.
All of this fighting to stay ahead of the current finally caught me in the early fall of my 7th grade year. Always being on the small side of the growth spectrum, I was a scrawny, yet, athletic 65 lb. 7th grader. Around this time in the school curriculum was when the daily backpack haul went from notebooks and dittos to hardcover history books that would weigh down a Golden Retriever. We didn’t know it at the time, but it turned out I was hauling HALF my bodyweight up and down the hill from school every single day.
One day, my back seemed to go out from under me. Something I’d never felt before, crawling my way to my front door in some of the worst pain I’d ever experienced in my life. Sleeping it off didn’t work. I woke up the next morning unable to stand up straight, searing pain in my low back. That was the last time I went to school for nearly an entire year.
It was 6 months of grueling pain, stumped medical professionals, and psychological turmoil before I was able to tolerate sitting in a chair for longer than 30 seconds, no less playing sports or venturing outside of the house to be with my friends. 6 months was an ETERNITY when it came to the social scene. At first, my friends would come visit me at my house, encouraged by their parents to come and cheer me up. But, as the weeks went on, the visits became less and less frequent.
After about a month of being isolated in my house, I received a phone call from my girlfriend’s best friend letting me know she was dumping me. I don’t blame her. I wasn’t much of a good time back then, and she had much more to look forward to than trying to stick it out with me through my recovery. But, that was where the downhill tumble began. Getting dumped triggered a whole bunch of my insecurities and fears about being a social outcast and not belonging.
Now that I didn’t have the popular girl on my arm, my friends didn’t have much of a reason to respect me. I don’t blame them either. I would have MUCH rather been playing outside from morning until night, starting to chase girls and explore the world as it grew than wasting away in my bedroom. I’m glad they kept moving on, but the pain I felt didn’t allow me to see it that way.
I felt abandoned. I felt more alone than I ever had in my life. I would have a few bright spots here and there, clinging to anyone who would show me some attention – even if it was sympathy – in order to give me a lift.
Looking back, I know this experience was critical for me. It happened FOR me, not TO ME. A 12-13 year old kid doesn’t understand this. He doesn’t know that the most challenging experiences in his life are what shape him into the gift he will one day become for others.
“It happened FOR me, not TO ME.”
In order to begin clawing my way back into social favor, I embraced the identity of a chameleon. I was stealthy, never wanted to make too much noise in the room or raise too much attention to my presence…just fit in. End up on the right side of every social interaction, whatever it took, to be liked, loved, and accepted. I got REALLY good at getting people to like me. Flexing charm everywhere I went. Using good manners and a bright smile to generate a non-threatening, inviting experience of me for others to appreciate.
When I finally started dating again, I was Prince Charming. Always pleasant, kind, and thoughtful. I went out of my way and bent over backwards to make my girlfriends feel like princesses. I don’t think this behavior was particularly bad, just misguided when it came to intention. I was looking for approval more than I was acting authentically from a place of love and service.
By the time I graduated high school, I was masterful at changing my colors to meet the situation. I could quickly identify WHO I needed to be in any given situation to gain favor and earn acceptance from the people I was with. I’m sure friends and acquaintances from that time of my life would look back and describe me as someone who was kind, lovable, and generous. All qualities that I still value in myself, but had learned to imprint on others for a very different purpose than I do now.
Examining myself from more than half of my lifetime ago, it’s amazing to see how much has stuck with me. Had it not been for some tremendous curiosity in college, a community of friends I found who were spiritually adventurous and equally as curious as I, and several chance encounters as a young adult, I imagine many of those behaviors would not have changed. I know that many of us still carry around baggage from our childhood that we wear behind an adult mask. I also believe that there are gifts – GOLD! – behind these behaviors, if only we could dissect and discover the value in them.
Whether you were a social chameleon – like me – or the alpha of your friends. Whether you were the introverted nerdy type, or the average Joe that kept quiet and to himself. We’ve all tried to create an identity that would help us survive the battlefield of puberty and adolescence. You did your best, just like I did, with what you knew. You also acquired many rich gifts in the form of experiences that can be mined for gold, ESPECIALLY if they were painful and traumatic. You see, our greatest wounds BECOME our greatest teachers. Ask anyone who has dug into their own growth. The wounds are where we learn what we need in this life. It’s a matter of not getting stuck in the trauma that allows us to grow.
If you have never examined these things for yourself, I invite you to look back on your life and write down 5 of the biggest challenges you’ve overcome. Maybe you overcame the loss of a loved one or a significant health event as a child. Perhaps you were abused – physically or mentally – or maybe you had an absent parent when you were growing up. Whatever it is, see if you can identify these challenges, THEN, write down what these experiences taught you. Here are some questions that may get you started:
– How did this challenge prepare me for bigger challenges in my life?
– How have I used this experience to help someone else?
– If this did NOT happen to me, what would I be missing out on?
Let me know how this process is for you by either responding in the comments section or submitting them directly to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your wounds will become medicine if you understand them well and do the healing you need to do first.