An Essay for Adoptees
By Nancy Verrier, MFT
First of all, every one of you has a right to be in this world, find happiness, and maintain good relationships. However, when one begins life with a trauma, especially one as devastating as losing ones mother, one begins to compensate and cope with that trauma from that moment on. These coping behaviors are meant to defend against another devastating loss. Because relinquishment usually takes place during the time of implicit memory, rather than explicit memory, a child doesn’t remember the event which caused those coping mechanisms to kick in. He just knows he has to keep himself safe.
What do I mean? A baby is born ready to be welcomed into the world, protected, and nurtured by this mother with whom she was genetically, physically, emotionally, and spiritually connected for nine months. Every sensory aspect of the infant expects her, knows her, wants her. When the baby is whisked away to a nursery or placed in the arms of another woman, she is confused, disorientated, and terrified. Where is mom? A few mothers assert their rights and demand to hold their babies after birth. Those are the lucky babies. But many mothers do not. They certainly aren’t encouraged to do so, even though the nurses should know that there are post-natal, hormonally-connected responses between mother and child which need to take place.
What this means is that the reason coping mechanisms take the place of some normal developmental behaviors is unknown to the adoptee and the parents. Thus they both begin to assume that the coping behavior comes from the personality of the child, rather than from the child’s defenses against abandonment and loss. (Note: The Primal Wound is about coping mechanisms, not about personalities or character traits of adoptees.) The first thing the child is coping with is the loss of the first mother.
The second thing is what adoptees call “genetic confusion.” Whereas, the first problem is a single event which has lifelong consequences, the second is an on-going struggle. The child is placed into a non-biologic family with whom he may have very little in common. Now that we have the human genome to rely on, we know that many more human traits are genetic than we used to believe. This is evident in my work with adoptive families. Adoptees are often in a family where they can’t see themselves reflected. They speak of not fitting in, feeling as if they don’t belong. This is true whether the child was told of his adoption or not. Not being told just means that there is no context for that feeling. This doesn’t mean that the child hasn’t had caring, loving, nurturing parents. It does mean, however, that there may be miscues in communication, which lead to feelings of being misunderstood.
Because the child senses that fitting in means survival, she is quick to try to adapt to the family style, even it if doesn’t feel comfortable. She becomes an expert observer, noticing every nuance of the parents’ actions and words. What happens then is that she defines most of who she is, not only from her coping mechanisms, but also by what she observes and mimics in her environment. This is a slow, adaptive process which eventually seems to become “just the way I am,” or “just who I am.” Of course, it is not. It is the formation of the false self. Since it started so early, and since the event which triggered it is out of consciousness, there is very little awareness for some adoptees that they aren’t who they are presenting to the world. There are some adoptees who know very early that how they feel on the inside doesn’t match how they are acting on the outside. Even with all this adaptation, there is a feeling that “I’m just not getting it right.” So there is a sense of failure at not having managed to hang on to first mom and another sense of failure in their adaptation to the adoptive family style. Some adoptee-adoptive family matches are better than others. None of this is in the form of thoughts or conscious awareness, but of beliefs or feelings.
Going back to the beginning, we see the baby being separated from the first mom and being placed in the hospital nursery. The baby cries and cries for that mother, but she doesn’t come back. After a while the baby gives up, goes into shock, and gives up all hope that the mother will return. All the while 100 billion neurons are beginning to be connected in the brain. Those neurons are going to be connected as a result of the experiences the child is having. There is going to be a difference in the wiring between the baby who is placed into the loving arms of his mother right after birth and thereafter and the baby who is taken away from her, never to see her again. All the crying didn’t help. What neurological message does this give the baby? “I am not important; I don’t matter; I have no impact.” These early neurological connections are deeply imprinted in the brain of the newborn. This is especially true when it happens during a traumatic event. The effect of this neurological imprint is that 30, 40, 60 years later the message is still there: “I have no impact, I am not important, therefore what I do isn’t important.” Therein lies one of the most difficult problems for adoptees in relationship. “I am extremely sensitive to how you affect me, but I have very little sense that I affect you at all.” This is what I call the “double standard” of adoptee relationships. There are two phenomena going on here: the need to be safe (not too close) and the belief that “I don’t matter.” Except for the compliant people pleasers, who just do what they think everyone else wants them to do regardless, adoptees have no idea the effect they are having on those they care about the most. (They are usually fine with strangers because they don’t really matter.)
There is one other thing that interferes with relationships for some adoptees and that is the need for the familiarity of chaos. If an adoptee feels both inner chaos from the disparity between the true genetic self and the adaptive adoptive self, and lives in a chaotic household of alcoholic or emotionally unstable parents, having a nice, stable relationship with an emotionally available partner will seem like dullsville. Many times an adoptee will seek out someone who has emotional problems as well… someone she can “rescue.” If she does happen to find a person with few issues, she may be uncomfortable: “Nothing is happening. This isn’t right. I had better stir things up to make it feel normal.” This, of course, is puzzling to the partner, who just wants a normal relationship and wonders why things have to be so difficult. Normal doesn’t mean the same thing to both partners!
So… we can see why adoptees may be unaware, may be inauthentic and acting from a false self, and unaccountable because they may feel they have no impact on those who care about them. Now what do they do?
Awareness is the first order of business. It isn’t fair to blame the adopted person for something which isn’t in his awareness. This is true denial, which is an intrapsychic defense mechanism. It means that it is out of our conscious awareness. We can’t change something which is unknown to us. However, this is the wakeup call for adoptees: You might want to begin looking inward for your more authentic self, but outward to observe how you affect others. You may have to ignore your belief about this for a while and just act “as if” you do matter. I have a great deal of information about how to do these things in my second book Coming Home to Self. However, I will give a short course in this paper, so you can get started. Those with whom you are in relationship may want to help you with this by keeping you honest about the things which are out of your consciousness.
Authenticity is the next concern. Because you are so used to observing your adoptive family for cues as to HOW TO BE, it will be a new experience to look inward for that information. When you see something, ask yourself, “Do I like this, not like it, or do I feel neutral about it?” You can do this about colors, food, art, music, movies, sports, clothes, religion, politics, home decorations, etc… It may be difficult at first to know what it is you like or dislike because you have been acting like a chameleon and relying too much on your environment for the answers to those questions. “What do those around me like? How to they feel about that candidate? What are they ordering for dinner?” When first conducting my “Who Am I?” workshops, I thought adoptees were just reluctant to say what they liked or disliked for fear it would be a “mistake.” However, they told me, “No, we don’t know!” So you may have to try different things. You may have to be more honest with yourselves. Remember that it doesn’t matter what others prefer; it only matters that you know what you prefer. You don’t have to tell anyone at first, but you do have to tell yourself.
Some of you will say, “I know what I like. I have always had strong opinions.” Just make sure that those opinions are your true opinions and not just the opposite of those of your parents, partners, or other people whom you are used to opposing. Just taking the opposite point of view is the same as having no real opinion yourself. (You can do this in a debate, but not in “real life.”) Pay attention to how you feel inside when you choose something. You want it to be true to you, that it fits your authentic self. This may take time to ascertain because of the long years of trying to “fit in.” It can happen, though. You will begin to feel better when you are true to yourself. You won’t have to be trying to figure out how to be with every person or group you are in. You can just be you! You probably have no idea how freeing that can be.
What about accountability? As I mentioned above, you may have to act “as if” you have an impact on those who care about you and whom you care about. (Or even those you don’t!) And in this case, you have to be more observant of others’ reaction to you. You have to notice how you are affecting those with whom you are interacting. This means that those people, too, have to be more honest with you. Instead of letting you get away with bad behavior, they have to ask you, “How do you think it makes me feel when you do/say that?” If you have been an “acting out” adoptee, you may have intimidated the people around you into not “rocking the boat” by letting things go by that upset them because they are afraid it will further upset you. They need to stop doing that. And it would be a good idea for you to pay attention when they say something to you about how you are affecting them. When you feel the urge to lash out at anyone who would dare to confront you with your bad behavior (adoptees are very sensitive to criticism!), stop and take notice: Would you like anyone to treat you like that? Be honest!
What about the quiet adoptees, the people pleasers? Maybe they haven’t been going around hurting others’ feelings all their lives, but does anyone know who they are, what they are like, how they feel? They may be kind of invisible. No one really knows what they like, how they feel about anything because they are so accommodating. This can be quite maddening to those around them. It is like interacting with a ghost. There seems to be nobody home, no substance.
Those of you who fit into that category, you also have work to do. You can do the same exercises about like and dislikes and about opinions on a variety of subjects. All adoptees are people pleasers on some level because that is how you got by in your adoptive family. (I am not implying that adoptive families have required this, but when first mother didn’t keep you, it seems as if you can’t rely on you and have to figure it out day by day by trying to fit in with other family members.) As adults, you can now rely on yourselves. No one can really relate to you if you are just an imitation of someone you believe others want you to be. Relationships require authenticity to be strong, reciprocal, and lasting. For you, the compliant ones, becoming accountable may have more to do with being honest about how others affect you, than how you affect them. Are you allowing people to take advantage of you? Are you afraid to stick up for yourself? Do you think this is going to help your relationship? Perhaps it will if you are in relationship with a controlling person. You can just lie down and play dead inside. When you fail to choose how to be treated, you are choosing by not choosing. Sooner or later the people in your life will begin to resent there being no substance to you. They will begin to ask, “What do you really want? Why can’t you make a decision about that? Does it really matter what movie we see? Just choose.” Do you always have to have a friend go shopping with you so you will know what clothes to buy? Take a look at yourself. What do you think will look good on you? What do you think will happen if you choose the “wrong” thing? What you may not have noticed is that people are more interested in themselves than in anyone else. So, it really doesn’t matter to them. They may have an opinion, but deep down it really doesn’t matter.
Your accountability is to be honest and make an impact on the people around you. Startle them! Not making an impact by being invisible is not okay. You need to be seen, heard, and taken seriously. Otherwise you are not being real. Everyone deserves to be in this world and to take their place in this world. That means taking up space and making some kind of impact. It is a good idea to be kind, respectful, and sincere. Making an impact doesn’t mean disrespecting others’ opinions or ideas. Since there are very few absolutes, there will be many opinions and ideas about any topic one can imagine. That’s good. That’s what makes the world go round.
I have a couple of chapters in Coming Home to Self which are good to absorb. These chapters are called “Reality Check” and “A Definition of Terms.” They have to do with the differences in how adoptees see the world in comparison to those who haven’t suffered that kind of early trauma. Some examples are realizing that having support from someone doesn’t necessarily require that the other person agree with you. For instance, if you are doing something which is self-destructive, it isn’t really being supportive if someone agrees with you and allows you to continue whatever you’ re doing. That is collusion, not support. It isn’t helpful. Another example is being controlled by the fear of being controlled. This can end up with your being oppositional, rather than true to yourself. For instance, if your partner says, “Let go see such and such movie” and you, feeling as if he is trying to control you, say, “No, I don’t want to see that movie,” even if you do, you are not really in control. Your three-year-old inner child is. You have to decide if you want your adult-self or your child-self to be in control! It is fine to say you don’t want to do something if it is true. It isn’t fine to say so just to be oppositional.
Some definition of terms include “love vs. approval.” I can love you but not approve of everything you do. If you have children, you know what I mean. But can you apply this to how you see yourself and others? A second example is “observation vs. criticism,” If I make an observation about you, it doesn’t necessarily mean I am criticizing you. “I haven’t seen you wear that color before” doesn’t mean, “that color looks terrible on you.” Don’t jump to conclusions about these things. One definition that can ruin friendships is “betrayal vs. disappointment.” If I fail to return your phone call in a timely manner, it doesn’t mean that you have to feel betrayed by me and slam the door on our friendship. It is disappointing, I know. But betrayal? That’s a pretty strong label to place on something that may have a very simple explanation. Have you shut out any friends by mistaking disappointment for betrayal? As you are striving to make changes in your healing process, one definition of terms that is important is “different vs. wrong.” Just because something is different, doesn’t mean it is wrong. Discussing your relationship with your partner and deciding together what to do about it may feel wrong to you. After all, are you really in control? Wouldn’t it be better to just send an email and say “it’s over!”? That would show her who is in control! The mature discussion may seem wrong just because it isn’t how you usually operate. However, that may be because you have been acting like a child in your important relationships. It may feel wrong to act like an adult, but it is just different from your normal modus operandi. These are just a few examples of things which may need attention as you make better choices in your relationships.
Distinguishing between the adult and the child self is crucial in relationships. Many of you may act quite mature in your work environment, yet like children in your more intimate relationships. This doesn’t work in the long run. No one wants to be in relationship with a three-year-old. For people who like to be in control, why do so many of you have trouble making decisions? Making choices? If you really are in control, you will listen to others’ ideas, then make decisions which benefit you. This doesn’t mean that you can’t choose what someone else wants. Just make sure you know you are choosing to do so.
I haven’t said anything about how much it helps to be reunited with your birth family to know more about yourself. Seeing yourself reflected in some of the many ways bio families mirror aspects of one another can certainly help you to know what is authentic and what is not. Just noticing similarities in gait, stance, and communication styles is so validating, not to mention talents and interests. That is another topic, however. Even in the bio family there can be a tendency to mimic something that may not really be true to you. Keep looking inside yourself. Do you feel more as if you are living in your own skin? Can you maintain your integrity when going from one situation to another? Having to figure it all out and adapt to every situation is so painstaking and disingenuous. It takes a lot of energy and proves nothing. Your first and most important relationship went awry and set up a pattern of relationship difficulties. This was not your fault and you had no control over it. However, healing is your responsibility. No one else can do it for you. Now is the time to begin taking the steps that allow you to be yourself and love yourself so that you can enjoy yourself in relation to others.
~Nancy Verrier, MFT~
Author of The Primal Wound
and Coming Home to Self