I know many people who, like me, have been adopted. And many of us have a driving need to meet their birth parents. I don’t. But I do suffer from a lifelong sense of not belonging and wonder if you could suggest some possible ways to cope with this.
My adoptive parents did not reveal my birth circumstances until I was 17 and heading to college. Naturally, I was shocked and saddened, but not completely surprised.
The entire family, including cousins in my own age group, had known this all along, and it became clear that the nagging sense of not being a true member of the group had a real basis.
Had the term “identity theft” been used way back then, it would certainly have described the situation. The result for me has been a continuing sense of not belonging to any group, and the related feelings of not being good enough, attractive enough, or smart enough to be included.
At this late stage of life (60+), is it too late to finally overcome this crippling fear of not being wanted?
Obviously, many people face tragedies in life that change their circumstances and cause them to experience these same feelings. I would so appreciate your comments.
– Feeling Alone
Some of what you talk about is common to many, if not most, people who have been adopted. And this business of feeling alone and different from everyone else is also universal. I believe this struggle with loneliness is the main roadblock to finding genuine peace and security. But let’s start with your story and then talk about the universal one.
Many who have been adopted struggle with low self-esteem, a sense of being rejected by their parents, and an ongoing fear that people will leave them again. Of course, we all fear rejection, but with adoptees, there is always a question of why their birth parents put them up for adoption. It’s almost inevitable for them to wonder if their flaws caused this rejection. And because of this, many adoptees have difficulty maintaining intimate relationships. You haven’t said anything about intimate relationships in your life, but we will explore that in our Web chat tomorrow.
Don’t get me wrong. Many who are adopted do very well in life. They feel loved and secure, knowing their adoptive parents made a choice and love them fully. Likewise, many adoptive parents are comfortable with the adoption issue and are open with their children from the beginning. Many even help their children reconnect with their biological parents, knowing that that is what their children need to shape their identity.
It doesn’t sound as if your adoptive parents were very comfortable with the adoption issue. Secrets are almost always about anxiety or shame. So not only did you have to wonder about this yourself, you were raised by anxious parents.
Their decision to tell you at age 17 came at a terrible time in your development. All children this age struggle with identity questions such as “Who am I? How am I the same/different from my family?” So here you are nearly 50 years later, and perhaps struggling with the same questions. And underneath it all is the longing for something you’ve never had.
Here is where it becomes universal. We are hardwired to be social animals. We feel more comfortable with people who look and act as we do. But something I’ve never been able to figure out about our hardwiring: We all want to be part of the clan, to be understood completely and accepted for who we are – but we have an equally strong drive to be unique!
So, like many minorities, you already feel unique but that may not feel very good. Your great fear of being unwanted is not a fear, but a fact. It may or may not be true externally, but it is a truth you have been living with most of your life.
And if there were a way we could look directly into your mind, we would probably see that you’re a person who feels unwanted. So, like the rest of us, your crippling fear is really about facing feelings that already live inside you.
I don’t want you to overcome this fear of not being wanted. I want you to sit with it and let yourself feel what you feel. Your anxiety has been protecting you from deeper, more painful feelings. The fact that you have this fear of being rejected tells me that deep down, you hope that one day you will be accepted (whatever that means to you).
Sometimes hope keeps us stuck. It’s the hope that we can undo something that happened to us, that we will get what we think we need, and avoid what we fear.
Underneath that hopelessness lies a great grief. Perhaps you will be able to finally mourn all the losses you have carried your whole life.
The process won’t be easy and it won’t be quick. But if you work on it, you might discover a woman who is comfortable with who she is and has found inside the acceptance and compassion she always wished for.