Social Thoughts That Are Common, But Which People Can Worry Are Abnormal
Over the years I've seen a handful of posts come up again and again in online forums where people talk about interpersonal skills. In them the poster explains a social mindset they sometimes have. Then, either outright or by hinting at it, they ask everyone if thinking like that means they're weird or damaged. Usually their thoughts are perfectly normal and common, though you could see how someone with less social experience could mistakenly conclude something was off about them. Here they are:
"I've realized I'm a chameleon. I'm a different person around different people. When I meet someone new I can figure out who they want me to be, and then I become it"
The underlying worry here is often, "Am I a soulless, manipulative sociopath and I don't know it?" The runner-up is, "Does this mean I have no identity of my own?"
Adjusting yourself to fit the social context you find yourself in is typical behavior. Everyone does it to a degree. We act differently around our older relatives at a funeral than we do around our friends at a party. It's just polite and considerate. It shows basic empathy. Say you've met someone and have two subjects you'd be happy to chat about. It's common sense that if you deduce they'll be bored by Topic A, but engaged if you bring up Topic B, that you'll go with the latter so you can a better conversation.
Adjusting yourself based on your audience is healthy in moderation. It causes its own kind of problem if you don't do it enough. People who act the exact same at all times can be seen as stubborn, inflexible, foolish, and insensitive.
Just the fact that someone is worried about this a good sign. A true callous, remorseless manipulator wouldn't fret over their abilities. They'd simply use them to hurt and exploit people.
Sometimes people are concerned about being a social chameleon because they've noticed how good at it they are. They reason, "It has to be a bad sign that this comes to me so easily." I think that's a misjudgment that comes from a lack of experience and perspective. They know it feels simple for them, but then they mistakenly conclude it must be tricky for everyone else. The fact is it's not that hard to get a basic read on someone and mold yourself into what they'd prefer. Most people could do it if they wanted to, they just don't see the need.
At other times someone will ask about their chameleon skills and you get the sense that along with "I'm worried I might be a sociopath", there's also the unspoken message of "This makes me dark and edgy, right? Right??" People who think like this are usually younger. They've discovered they have this apparent new interpersonal "power" they can play with. They're eager to think there might be something about them that makes them unique and semi-dangerous. Again, they don't have the experience to know they haven't discovered some forbidden social art.
What if someone gets a slight kick out of toying with people? That seems worse, but it's probably still harmless if it remains a secret, "edgy" inner thrill, and they don't do anything beyond that. Sociopaths can be manipulative, but that's only one of their traits. I won't get into it in this article, but there's way more to sociopaths/psychopaths/whatever you want to call them than just that. You know, dogs have fur, but not everything with fur is a dog. Someone doesn't need to be locked away because they're seventeen and they get a naughty little rush when they're talking to someone at a party and pretend they're more interested in hearing about a TV show than they are.
If you've had this thought yourself, hopefully I've reassured you you're not an imminent danger to society. However, if you're still worried, nothing's stopping you from looking into the matter further. Same goes for the other points in this article.
There are other reasons someone may be excessively self-adjusting. Fortunately, they can all be addressed:
- They're not sure of their identity yet, and just take on the form of whoever they're with. This can be solved by taking some time to figure out what your identity is. Think about and clarify what your core values are. Decide what things you're truly interested in, and what you're indifferent to. You don't need to commit to any of your decisions for life. It can just help to sit down and properly mull over these kinds of questions.
- You're too much of a people pleaser, and become whatever you think others want you to be. Depending on how deeply rooted this pattern is, it may take a while, but it is something you can change. It may only be a start, but here's an article on assertiveness skills.
- You're afraid of being rejected for showing your true self, so you act however you think will appeal to the people you're around. Again, you can break this habit. Slowly begin to show more and more of the real you, at a pace you can handle.
"I go back and forth. Sometimes I'm really motivated to get out there and be social, but at other times I could care less about it"
Here sometimes the deeper worry is, "Is there simply something wrong with me for having shifting motivations?" At other times it's, "I wish I could be driven to be social all the time, but I'm not. Why can't my mind stick to it?"
There's nothing strange about having periods in your life where you're feeling less social. Some people are almost always in a social mood. Others are happiest spending most of their time alone. The rest of us are in between. We may have a stretch where we go out a lot and meet a ton of new people. That may get old after a while, and be followed by a month or two where we're mostly homebodies. People are similar with other pastimes. For example, someone may do a bunch of hiking one spring, then get burned out on it and do other things over the summer.
You can be extra-prone to this worry if you've swallowed the societal idea that there's something weird about people who don't want to be outgoing all the time. That value is mistaken. There's nothing wrong with being on the less-social side.
People are also likelier to think like this if they're torn about socializing; they want to practice and get better at it, but they find it difficult, draining, and anxiety-provoking. In that case it makes total sense that their eagerness to socialize would sway back and forth. On some weeks they're more confident and motivated. On others they're feeling unenthusiastic and defeated. People are the same when they're trying to make all kinds of changes.
"I'm so cold-hearted. Sometimes everyone will be so upset about something and I'll feel indifferent about it"
The underlying worry with this one is also often "Am I sociopath?" Aside from being manipulative, the popular image of a sociopath is someone who's cold and uncaring.
The situation that usually triggers these feelings is being around a bunch of people who are sad about something like a missing child on the other side of the country, or an accident that killed a dozen bus passengers halfway around the world. It can make you think, "I get that it's tragic, but I don't know these people. It doesn't upset me that much. Why is everyone else so torn up about it? Am I a weirdo?"
These feelings are normal. There's nothing wrong with being relatively unaffected by tragedies that don't have much to do with you. Of course you'd be more upset if someone close to you was hurt. In any big group where people are talking about a tragedy some of them may not care as much as it seems. They're acting more upset than they are because they think it's expected of them and they want to show empathy and support for the people who are more distraught.
While it's okay to not be a sobbing mess over every abstract, far off catastrophe, it is possible you're a smidgen too uncaring. Not enough to put you into psychopath territory, but it may be that you could stand to get better at empathizing with other people's struggles. Another possibility is that you're a little depressed, which is making you feel more apathetic about everything.
"I've got a group of friends, but sometimes I get really sick of them and need some time away"
The worry: That there's something wrong with you for not feeling 100% positive about your friends, the people, along with your romantic partners, who you're supposed to be closest to; That at your core you're antisocial and will never be able to like anyone.
No one, even our carefully selected friends, is perfect. Not to mention that the closer we are to someone, and the more time we spend with them, the more opportunities we have to see their flaws and get into conflicts. Lots of people have friends who can irritate or exasperate them at times. They may even need to take strategies breaks, where they pretend to be busy for a couple of weeks. It's not an indication they're fundamentally incapable of having meaningful friendships.
You may be more prone to these feelings if you're less-naturally social, but aren't in touch with your needs yet. You don't realize that if you spend too much time around people, even your friends, you'll get drained and need to spend some time alone to recharge. Instead you're only aware that if you hang out with your friends a lot they start to grate on your nerves, and that you want to get away. Once you're aware of what's really going on you can do a better job of allocating your time with them.
Of course, these feelings could also indicate your group of friends is truly harder to be around. Some social circles have more strife and drama, or difficult personalities in them. You may not be tuned in to what's motivating you, but feel you could use a break whenever the in-group turmoil has flared up more than usual. It's also possible your friends aren't the best fit for you, and that you're lukewarm about them for a good reason.
Finally, someone may have more bouts of feeling 'meh' about their friends if they feel like they weren't deliberately chosen, but just the group they fell into because that's the best they could do. Even if their friends are a good match, they may still be unenthusiastic about them because it wounds their pride to know they're with the "rejects". If you think that's the case for you, ask yourself why it's so important to you to be in a group that's "better" on paper.