Photograph by Ingo Arndt / Nature Picture Library

Standing Out

words by Willow Defebaugh

We focus on chameleons’ ability to change in order to belong to a place, but being themselves is often enough. Imposter syndrome is no different.

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Imposter syndrome refers to a phenomenon in which someone feels inadequate and undeserving of the titles and identities they hold, regardless of how qualified they are for them. It’s the feeling that no matter how apt or deserving we are of something, we’re still a fraud. And it’s called a phenomenon for a reason; according to the American Psychological Association, up to 82% of people experience imposter syndrome. So how do we overcome such insecurity? In attempting to answer this question, let’s look to nature’s most well known imposter: the chameleon.


Before we get to the obvious, chameleons possess a whole host of incredible attributes aside from the one we’re most familiar with. For starters, their protruding eyes give them panoramic vision that extends 180 degrees horizontally and 90 degrees vertically. They are able to focus each eye distinctly and alternate between monocular and binocular vision, which allows them to assess both distances and potential danger with incredible precision. When it comes to matters of perception, it’s imperative to recognize whether or not we’re seeing clearly.


Aside from protection against threats, keen vision helps when it comes to taking aim and reaching for our goals. Chameleons have remarkable tongues that are twice their body length. They keep them curled up in the back of their throat until it’s time to strike, launching them as projectiles at unsuspecting insects. Imagine you’re in a car that picks up speed from zero to 60 miles per hour in a hundredth of a second, and that’s how fast these animals are able to fire their tongues. The tips are suction cups, able to grab up to 30% of the chameleon’s weight. 


Chameleons are also uniquely poised to keep their grip, no matter how perilous their surroundings. Each of their feet has five toes, three of which point in one direction while two point in the other, acting as a thumb that lets them expertly grip tree branches. When it comes to traversing the canopies they live in, they wrap their spiralic tails around branches so that they can safely use their feet to take the next step, with trust that they’ll catch themselves should they fall. Why should we doubt ourselves either, when we’ve gotten us this far?


Of course, what chameleons are renowned for is their ability to change color—an evolutionary marvel. They do this using special skin cells called dermal chromatophores that contain pigment, which interact with crystal-like cells called iridophores that stretch and reflect wavelengths of light—allowing them to alter their appearance across a whole host of hues in under a minute. And while the common belief is that these animals use this technique primarily to blend in with their surroundings, the truth is more surprising.


Though they are capable of some impressively complex pallets and patterns, some of which do help them camouflage, chameleons can’t match any background. And they don’t really need to; their natural colorations of brown and green typically do the trick. Rather, these animals’ color changing abilities are just as often used for distinguishing themselves as they are for disguise. Territorial males have showdowns in which whoever can display the most vibrant colors wins. And all chameleons use colors to communicate with each other, especially for mating.


We focus on chameleons’ ability to change in order to belong to a place, but being themselves is often enough. Imposter syndrome is no different. Our culture of continuous exposure makes us feel like we have to change who we are in order to conform to others’ expectations and interpretations of our various roles and identities, rather than trusting our own. When insecurity creeps in, we must hold fast to the truth, and never lose sight of who we are—or be afraid to display our unique colors to the world. Because who wants to blend in when you can stand out?

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