It would appear that I have asked this question unconsciously in every interaction or relationship I have ever had; I want to know what you need me to be so I can best ensure that you stay happy. In everyday parlance this doesn’t sound like a bad thing; wanting people you care about to be happy – but it has an insidious underbelly if it is the only question you ask, not also asking what do I want to be, or what do I want from this relationship.
I became aware of this chameleon feeling a while ago as I worked on myself both in therapy and in my professional development as a coach. It is a strange experience when something that feels as natural as breathing becomes obvious to you, a behaviour you previously didn’t see becomes visible – or more than that, becomes visible and feels odd. It moves from a subjective experience to an objective one and the sensation felt like I was acting outside myself; I was watching myself during interactions and I did not have control over my responses.
This is puzzling when it first occurs. Insight is a weird and wonderful thing, wonderful in that it gives you an opportunity to change (the first step to a solution is to be able to recognise the problem) and weird because it’s awkward, like if you try to remember how to walk downstairs the chances are you will trip up; as soon as an activity we have performed out of conscious awareness is brought to consciousness we become incompetent!
So, there I was, in a psychological way trying to walk up the stairs consciously and often feeling like I was falling. My automatic response, without thinking, had been to ask the question, but now I realised that the question wasn’t always helpful and I had to work out what I wanted to do. I remember one of the first times I consciously worked on making a choice for myself, it was tough. My mum wanted me to go with her on a weekend break sometime in the early noughties, I had done this before with her but I found it difficult, not relaxing. It was also emotionally exhausting; being myself with mum was only possible in fleeting moments, mostly I worked hard at being what she needed at any point, and this had been my life’s work. I said no to this newly suggested weekend away, this invoked a hurt reproachful response from mum, and one that even made her Christmas newsletter months later when she said I “refused” to go with her so she had to ask the neighbour because it was already booked! I had responded with trepidation, knowing this may be the response and I had to work hard at maintaining a boundary so that I didn’t give in and go just to please her. This is the secondary fallout from development after you make a change to behaviour or attitude; some people can’t appreciate the change and pressurise you to return to “normal”. This old habit of mine had been to ignore my own wishes or feelings and please the Other, I had come to psychological damage previously – it had to stop!
Actually, I had come to genuine physical damage too. My first husband is a beautiful person but he and I liked doing very different things; he loves the outdoors; camping walking, cycling, running, water-skiing, windsurfing. He loves practical doing and the making and doing of gardening projects, the building of things and the opportunity to be active. I love reading and being in the emotional space with people, I love my coaching work and my one to one or workshop work with people developing their potential, and seeing them fly. I love the drama and beauty of the mental, intellectual and emotionally mature life – some academic, some philosophical, some just connections with others at a meaningful level. This did not make us very compatible as we grew up from the very young people we had been when we met and fell in love in our early twenties. I did try the physical life, I did try the things he loved and did well, except I fell off jet skis, I hated camping, I am scared to death on a bike because I have a very poor sense of balance, but I did nearly die from water-skiing. We were in Portugal on holiday and we went out for a lesson. I can swim but not well and I am scared of deep water, but along I went. There were four of us, and Jack the instructor. I went second. I have very little memory of getting into the water except I was brave and my heart was racing. I had seen how far away the coast seemed as we had bombed away from it in Jack’s little speedboat. I remember the sensation of my arms being pulled from their sockets as I was tugged along on the water surface, roped to the back of the boat and then attempting to stand up on the ski. I did not manage it, I slipped and fell, the ski banging my head as I went under the water, I could not breathe, and I have a visual memory of seeing the never-ending water at eye-level as I bobbed up to the surface. Jack raced the boat around and looked anxiously in the water at me, his previous chatty patter halted. I was hauled out, I shivered and was silent. I have never been back in the sea since.
I have strived subsequently to these events to maintain a level of awareness that enables me to question myself, my motives for acting. I fail spectacularly sometimes. I will find out halfway through an activity or event when I notice that I am feeling resentful, it’s a red flag that I probably don’t want to be there. Or a plan will be made and I feel scared or anxious about it, then I feel I am triggered by my feelings and I look to spend some time reviewing what is my wish, what do I want to do?
It doesn’t mean I never want to do things for others, or even that I will not put others first at times. Love and compassion are great motivators to be aware of. I wish to practice the four brahmavihāras; Buddhist virtues, loving-kindness and compassion are two of those, so I have to be awake to my own needs and the needs of others.
The aetiology of my chameleon is not complicated to work out, even if it is complex in its effect. As I have written before, I began a second life at three weeks in foster care and then, at seven and a half weeks, a third new life in another house with another primary carer. As an alien in sequential new worlds, my reptile brain was flooded with stress hormones and needed to work quickly, if primitively, to survive. It seems my flight, fight or freeze response was to freeze; I was a “good” baby, a compliant child, I froze, and, once I had worked out what was expected of me, I did that. My mum said I was fine as a younger child and teenager; it was when I left home that I “became difficult”! I was attempting to exert my independence, be myself, but that was not OK. It was many years, into my forties before I really, truly understood all I have written here, and only now, into my fifties can I see what I need to do to honour my own needs and ask myself, “What do you need me to be?”