Note: This is the first of a two-part series.
Dear Neil: I am a 40 year-old man, adopted by a depressed and lonely Mom and an emotionally absent, abusive Dad. I have had self esteem issues my whole life, trouble with feeling worthy of love and petrified of being abandoned. I have a strong need to live in a close, trusting relationship, but I fear getting abandoned or rejected if I let someone in too close, so I leave women before they can reject or leave me first. Can you offer me any assistance?
Adopted in Longmont, Colorado
Dear Adopted: Although understanding the reasons for certain experiences in life is interesting and sometimes even helpful, reasons are for adults, not for babies. The idea that a birthmother loved her baby so much that she gave him away makes no sense to a child. The equation is love=abandonment. Allowing one’s self to love and be loved, therefore, may be associated with subsequently being abandoned. The baby doesn’t care why his birth mother gave him up for adoption; the baby just feels abandoned. And that abandoned baby lives in each and every adoptee all of his or her life. These emotions often manifest themselves in a sense of loss, basic mistrust, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression and difficulties in relationships with others.
Many adoptees speak of having a sense that the baby they were died, and the one that they “decided” to become was going to have to be different, to be better, so that he would not be abandoned once again. They became people pleasers, constantly seeking approval. As children, they were very cooperative, charming, polite and generally good. But they can never truly bond with anyone, because they are not being themselves. They have an inability to show how they feel about things, especially the so-called negative feelings of anger, hostility, disappointment or sorrow. Most adoptees often voice apprehension about letting anyone see the “real” person beneath the mask, because. inside, s/he may feel insecure and distrust other’s motives.
The false self is the adoptee’s method of adjusting to his environment in order to protect himself from further abandonment and rejection. Yet even the false self cannot ward off the feeling of rejection and the loss of basic trust that ensues. The feeling that life is unsafe and that he must be “on guard” takes it’s toll. If the primal experience for the adopted child is abandonment, then the core issues are the fear of a further abandonment and/or rejection. As a result, when adult adoptees come in for psychotherapy, the usual presenting problem is about difficulties in relationships. Some of these issues are fear of rejection, lack of trust, fear of intimacy, loyalty issues, shame, guilt and power and control.
The fear of rejection sometimes sets up a counterphobic reaction of rejecting others before one is rejected. In other words, instead of the Golden Rule of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” the rule of these adoptees is “Do unto others first that which your fear they are going to do to you.” This is often what happens in the relationship with the adoptive mother where she is tested over and over again to see if she is going to reject the child. The adopotee’s lack of trust of the permanency of the relationship brings about a distrust of closeness or intimacy and a need for distancing.
The fear that he is unworthy makes the adoptee very sensitive to criticism and to the slightest hint of rejection. These fears interfere with his relationships, jobs, school and other aspects of life—and often bring about the very outcome the adoptee fears.
I will continue this discussion in next week’s column.
Source: The Primal Wound by Nancy Newton Verrier (Gateway Press, Inc.)
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