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The Chameleon’s Dilemma: Invisible Labor, Expectations, The Trust Trap, and Building Resiliency

This person is so hard to read, I think to myself as I stare across the table at my partner, quietly eating dinner. Is this silence significant? Have I done something obnoxious? Is this just a cultural thing? Am I creating a story in my head? Is this instinct or insecurity?

How should I quietly adjust myself to counteract whatever may be happening?

When we talk about invisible labor, especially in relationships, this scenario happens a lot. Two or more people, who have had different lives and have learned unique communication styles, possibly from very polar communities, trying to connect and understand each other. It can feel excruciating or joyful, depending on the partners and the day and everything else under the sun. And sometimes the danger or ease is manufactured by us or the other person, completely separate from reality! In order to protect ourselves, it makes sense that we develop coping mechanisms for when we’re in the thick of it. Some of us fight, some run, some hide, and some process in that moment. When I examine my immediate urge to shapeshift, to mold into what might be needed in the moment, it’s a struggle to define the reasons behind it. I can recognize that I’m attempting to configure myself to someone else’s needs and energy. The chameleon matches himself to his surroundings for safety, a gentle camouflage that will ensure his survival. In this action, he hides himself instead of asserting himself. Those are his tools.

Questions that come up for me:

How much does this shapeshifting behavior benefit me?

In the short-term? In the long-run?

Why does it feel necessary for me to be able to “read” someone in the first place?

There are common stories perpetuated around intimate relationships: that we are all entitled to know what is going on in the other person’s head, that it’s a guessing game, that all our thoughts and actions align with an irrelevant binary. These societal mantras do us a disservice, creating impossible expectations and situations ripe with potential miscommunication.

The only solution I can land on is: trust.

Trust is a razor’s edge. It is also deeply, inevitably necessary if we want to forge meaningful connections with others. We have to trust ourselves, while also recognizing when we are getting in our own way. We have to trust that others won’t learn our vulnerabilities and use them against us. We have to trust that our past experiences won’t be our future ones, while simultaneously learning from our mistakes. Limitless vessels to pour our trust into, as if it were simply an open spout. Trusting is work, until it feels second nature– and then when it is injured there’s a sudden chasm, and the work starts all over. Since we have no control over what others do, the key seems to be to get to the point where we trust that we have the tools or resilience to navigate whatever comes our way. We know uncomfortable and painful things will happen in life–it’s unavoidable. We cannot prepare for them, but we can prepare to trust ourselves to face them.

So, how do we build resilience?

It’s essential to note that there is an immense amount of privilege at play when we talk about building resilience. It is not an equal or equitable space for everyone. The tools we can cultivate are not universally accessible, available, or functional. The backgrounds we come from (socioeconomic, racial, geographic, generationally traumatic, oppressed, abled, etc) might help or hinder us, creating the need for very tailored approaches for each individual. These suggestions are nowhere near all-encompassing and are simply that: suggestions. I am not a medical health professional, these are things that have worked for me or people I trust. A spark that may ignite the fire to help keep you warm in the dark.


What are your strengths and how have you utilized them in the past?

Sometimes a firm reflection on past struggles and how we navigated them can give us better perspective on how equipped and capable we actually are. Even surviving a difficult time is enough. If it feels safe for you, WRITE IT ALL DOWN. Make a list. Build a collage. Draw it out. Whatever works best for you. When it exists only in our heads it can seem minimal and hard to pin down. Sometimes seeing it there in front of us makes it as real as it is. Afterwards, you can shred it, burn it, or frame it.


What could you try doing differently?

Things change– it’s inevitable. When we are too rigid we risk a fracture upon sudden shift. How can you put yourself in a situation where you have no idea of the outcome, where you don’t know what you’d do? These can be safe or bold and they can start slow or fast. Every personality type will require something different: there will be people that can commit to taking a different route home and people that will travel to a completely foreign country without any research or preparation. There will be people that will push themselves with quieter and louder things, and all the things in between. The idea is to put yourself out of your comfort zone, in whatever level of safety you require to both feel secure and grow.


In what small or large ways could you introduce new experiences to your life?

Allowing yourself to try something new (and probably be “bad” at it, if it’s your first time) introduces a sense of play as well as humility. Not everything needs to be part of some big plan for yourself: some things can just introduce a new idea or feeling, or work a different part of your brain than usual. Trying something totally new can lead to inspiration. If the outcome is unpleasant for you, it reaffirms the idea that perfection is a myth and the world won’t end when something doesn’t go as we expected. If you happen to enjoy the outcome, it reaffirms your capacity to grow and reflects your capability. The more novelty you introduce, the less important constant “success” seems.


Are you operating on the needs of your most recent self or a self long gone?

It is easy to fall onto tradition to guide us. This is what I’ve always done. This is what I’ve always needed. Separating what is currently ours and what is no longer relevant is necessary. We must thoroughly look at our lives for the thoughts, behaviors, people, and dynamics that do and don’t currently work for us, regardless of how we’ve interacted with them historically. It will also benefit us to be able to communicate this to our communities, especially when interacting with people that have known us for a long time.

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To all my fellow chameleons, we must build a world where hiding is not our only option, where trust does not feel so precarious, and where resilience can be gently nurtured in every moment.

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