You’ll often hear this expression in any community that talks about relationships with narcissists, or other disordered people like psychopaths or borderlines. They are often described as “chameleons”, but what does this actually really mean, and how does it manifest?
Metaphorically describing a narcissist as a chameleon simply refers to the fact that they will often adapt and change to mimic their surroundings like a real chameleon does. Narcissists will intensely mirror and copy the traits, hobbies, interests, values of someone they enter a close relationship with, but will then happily discard them and move onto other people and do exactly the same, mimicking a completely different set of traits and hobbies.
As a general rule, there’s no real, fixed sense of identity or sense of self with narcissists. They just latch onto and copy from the latest person they are in a “relationship” with, be it romantic or friendship. When they drop this person, all these traits fall away, like they never existed and were never that important, and they begin the process all over again with someone else. The new traits, interests and values they mimic are often the complete opposite of the ones in the previous relationship.
Once you spot this in narcissists, you begin to ask the question “who are you?“. The answer is that there isn’t a real “them” in there – as with all the Cluster B disorders, they lack any kind of center or real sense of meaning or self, and are therefore constantly looking outwards for other people to fill this void inside them. This of course never works, which is one of the reasons they often bounce from relationship to relationship, just blending in with the new surroundings like a chameleon, hoping that “this time” the mirroring and mimicking will work and fill the void psychologically (it never does).
Let’s look at this slippery, chameleonic aspect of narcissists in more detail – some ways it manifests plus some accounts of it.
Examples Of The Chameleonic Nature Of Narcissists (Different Contexts)
Narcissists can show this slippery, changeable, chameleonic side to themselves in lots of different contexts, so let’s break it down into a couple of key areas of life where it can manifest:
Romantic relationships – Playing the perfect match in terms of courting, seduction, in the bedroom etc. Being everything you want them to be. Matching up perfectly to your preferences and desires. Then doing exactly the same to the next partner they move onto, even if they’re totally different. Pretending they’re your “soulmate”. There will often be lots of over-the-top talk of how “amazing” you are, how “we were meant to be together/find each other”, how “you’re the best I’ve ever had”, and so on.
Friendships – Similar to the above points, but with more focus on hobbies, discussion and shared values and outlook. They’ll pretend to be into everything you’re into, have the values and opinions you have, be the prefect echo chamber and ally. Again, they play the perfect match, always agreeing and mirroring you as long as they keep getting supply off you as well. They’ll often also dress like you dress, talk like you talk, mirror your humor and general “style”, eat what you eat, drink what you drink, and so on. Then dropping all of this if/when you ever distance from them, and taking on a whole new set of traits, interests and hobbies with the next person they pretend to be “friends” with. It’s like this “identity” they had as your “friend” never existed (because sadly, it doesn’t with a narcissist or psychopath).
Workplace – Again could take some of the above forms, in terms of “playing the perfect match” in terms of hobbies and interests. However, another way this can work with covert narcissists especially in the workplace is with a sneaky, slimy “snake” like way of behaving, where they agree seemingly wholeheartedly with one person expressing one point of view, but also pretend to agree 100% with another co-worker expressing an opposite point of view. I’ve seen plenty of these types at work; the type who’ll also be nice to your face, pretending to be your best friend, then gossip and attack you behind your back to others.
Especially in romantic relationships, this can all feel really good, since your ego is being stroked. You’ll often feel on top of the world when narcissists are engaging in this intense mirroring, but that’s because it’s the hook that’s meant to draw you in. It isn’t so nice when they start to withdraw, become cold and distant, and triangulate with other people they’ve now moved into as their new “best friends/partners”.
Which is why staying grounded and realistic and checking in with yourself are so important in all relationships. We all like being complimented, mirrored, and having our egos stroked, but we need the detachment to see when it’s excessive to the point of being weird. Something else might be going on. See the last section for some tips on this.
Getting close to a narcissist, it can seem like you’ve met the perfect match – you’ve got everything in common, right?
Some Accounts Of The Chameleonic Nature Of Narcissists
You’ll find all sorts of different accounts of the chameleonic nature of narcissists from the accounts of people who’ve had relationships with them. It’s a very common, shared experience of people who’ve been caught up with them for any length of time in a relationship they thought was serious and genuine.
Here’s a great summary quote from someone caught up with this type of personality:
“They kind of almost trick you into idealizing them because they play the perfect match. They gauge you, they feel you out, and they know what you want to hear and they repeat that back to you. So if you’re not careful you’re gonna be like ‘oh my god, this (person) is perfect, she’s everything I ever wanted, she loves cars too, she wants to go and shoot guns with me, she’s amazing….But what you don’t realize is that 6 months or a year later….that was all for show, that was all a facade or a face to put on”
Toxic relationship survivor – see here (47 min timestamp)
And then a couple of good comments that sum up this chameleon effect of narcs from a great video on relationships with Cluster B disordered people:
First from the video itself:
“They’re able to become who you want them to become. In other words, if I’m into motorcycles, martial arts and cross fit…all of a sudden, it’s ‘wow, I’ve never tried cross fit, let me go to the gym….oh, it’s amazing. Oh, can I get a ride on the back of your motorcycle, I love motorcycles. Can you teach me some self defense moves, because that would be great to protect myself’. And ‘wow, you’re such an interesting and deep and amazing person’.
And to you, it seems like ‘oh, wow, I’ve met someone that likes who I am, that likes the things that I do. Her hobbies are kind of my hobbies, she doesn’t have a lot of drilled in must-do hobbies of her own’
(That’s) because they have no interests of their own. They just grift and change depending on who they latch onto”
And then some good comments:
“I had a terribly brutal encounter a long while back. It deeply affected me for a good ten years. They are mirrors in the beginning. They reflect back all the love you send their way. But, it’s just a reflection. There is no substance generation going on in that old Star Trek salt-sucking monster”.
“Married one… 14 years of chameleon. Knew she had a new boyfriend when she completely changed her music interest… there was a new target”
My Experience With The Chameleonic Nature of Narcissists
I’ll briefly go over my own experience which clicked all these things into place for me, and allowed me to understand how glib and fake the narcissistic personality really is, and how having any real, intransigent identity or values is an impossibility for them.
I had an ex narc friend, who used to get most of his supply off me. There were several different ways this happened – one of them was shared interests in films or video games – he only seemed to be interested in certain genres when I was into them. Once I started playing/watching them, he started playing/watching them. When I stopped, he stopped. It did strike me as a bit strange, but without fully knowing about narcissism, I overlooked it.
But another big one was a sense of shared non-mainstream values. We leaned more towards libertarian, anti government, anti mainstream media bias/propaganda, and frequently spoke about the BS we were constantly fed through media, education etc.
I was, and still am, completely genuine in those values, and I thought he was too. I (in my naivete) thought was just the shared bond that friends are meant to have, where they have roughly the same outlook. I didn’t know much about narcissism at the time.
Long story short, there was inevitable fallout that there always is with a narcissist when you challenge their character flaws, and I broke off contact for a while (I now know this should have been permanent, but you live and learn).
When I checked in with him again a few years later (this in itself was a mistake on my part), his values had completely changed, firmly back into the fully plugged in, mainstream views, trusting the mainstream media presentation of anything, and branding anyone with any views whatsoever outside the mainstream as an idiot and wacko.
Why the sudden 180 flip? It puzzled me at first, until I understood the supply model of narcissism, and then it all clicked into place.
He was now around people who embodied these plugged-in, mainstream views, and were also feeding him the supply he wasn’t getting from not being in contact with me. In fact, he was being fed even better supply than he’d ever gotten from me.
Because the narcissistic supply source changed, he changed his values, interests and personality in accordance to make sure he could keep getting this new supply.
In other words:
He never cared about the “values” we were discussing, and supposedly mutually held, for their own sake. He only cared about them contextually, in the sense that discussing them was part of a back and forth arrangement that was feeding him the best supply he could get at that time, where he was constantly being validated and propped up. He agreed with me as long as I agreed with him and that fed him his supply.
As soon as he was interacting with others who fed him better supply, he was happy to absorb into their values system, even if it was the complete opposite of what he shared with me a few years before.
Put differently still, context is more important than content for a narcissist in any relationship or interaction. The substance/content of interactions, truth, justice, values, who has the “right” answers and values, is completely unimportant to the narcissist, regardless of the image they present.
Rather, it’s the context of interactions and relationships that matters most to the narcissist (ie. are they being fed their supply in any interaction). As previously mentioned, they latch onto any values, interests or hobbies (and very readily switch values) that allows them to be fed this supply. The content of whether these values are true, moral, or right, as well as glaring contradictions with opposing “values” they may have previously held, do no matter to them.
All of that back and forth talk about unplugged values and outlook was all smoke and mirrors for him. It was the just mutual validation (ego stroking) that fed him his supply. He didn’t care about the values, interests or hobbies in themselves, and was happy to switch over on a dime.
They’re supply addicts, and that’s all. They’re very chameleonic and changeable in this sense.
Avoiding Falling For The Narcissist’s Chameleon Act
Here’s some quick pointers to help spot when someone might be putting on one of these chameleon acts – playing the perfect match and telling you what you want to hear – and not get caught up in it too much.
- Take Things Slow – If you feel really great being around someone, then slow down and check in with yourself and the relationship. You might be an authentically great match, which is great, but there might also be something else going on as well. Be especially wary around glib, charming, charismatic but superficial personality types.
- Observe Them – Simply observe them and make an honest appraisal in the early stages of a relationship – does this person seem to have a discernable identity of their own? Do they have their own hobbies, interests, tastes, values etc? Or is literally everything they do, say and show interest in just a cloning of you? If so, watch out – you could be dealing with a narcissist chameleon.
- Know yourself – Work on developing self awareness – awareness of your strengths, weaknesses, vanities etc. Try to gain detachment from your ego and not be caught up in it. Do this and you’ll be better able to see when someone is playing on your ego and trying to manipulate you, telling you what you want to hear. Meditation can help with this.
- Test For Sincerity – If someone seems to be interested in all the things you are, it’s a good idea to test them out, seeing if their knowledge of the subject matches the image they put out. Ask them how long they’ve been into the hobby/topic. Then ask specific, specialist questions that only someone with in depth knowledge would know. Does their answer match what someone would say who’s into the topic? Or is it a silly answer that shows they’re just BS’ing you?
Are All Chameleonic People Narcissistic?
This is an important caveat to make, since it may not always be fair to cast someone immediately as having a personality disorder just because they are chameleonic. Some personality types do tend to adapt to their surrounding and company, but they aren’t manipulative or dishonest people like narcissists.
All narcissists are chameleonic, but not all people who display chameleonic and changeable personality traits are narcissistic.
Here’s some examples of other personality types that can appear to be chameleonic:
INFJ & ENFJ Personality Types – These are sub-sets of the so called Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality test, that can also show high levels of chameleonic traits, finding it much easier to adapt their behavior to the people they are around. Both the INFJ and ENFJ personality types can be chameleonic and changeable due to their high levels of empathy and openness. There’s also a tendency to make others happy, which can lead to strong mirroring. However, neither type of personality is toxic or manipulative, and their behavior comes from a strong sense of empathy, which a narcissist completely lacks. See here for interesting article on these MBTI types.
Codependents & People Pleasers – I know this because I am one, and codependents and other people with a disposition for avoiding conflict and pleasing others can also have a tendency to be chameleonic. It often comes from a neurotic need to seek the approval (and avoid the disapproval) of others, hence why they may appear to blend in with their surroundings in a way that avoids the negative emotions they associate with conflict, disapproval and disagreement. Once again though, they’re not manipulative or toxic in the same way the narcissist is – they may lack proper boundaries and ego strength, and therefore feel an excessive need to “blend in” to be liked by others. This is dysfunctional but can be worked on – NPD cannot, without years of effort.
By contrast, with narcissistic personality disorder, you are looking for this chameleonic nature, but also for a whole host of other toxic personality traits that cluster together to form toxic outcomes in relationships. Narcissists are not solely people who are a bit slippery and changeable, or with weak boundaries – they are also arrogant, entitled, exploitative, manipulative and so on. There’s a manipulative and insincere aspect to their chameleonic nature, which isn’t there with other personality types who may appear chameleonic.