Friday, January 12, 2007

The Empathetic Adoptee: Oh, the Burden

I'm a recovering people pleaser. So, it appears, are many awakened adoptees. Some are at the stage of discovering that they spent most of their lives trying to please others and are trying to figure out why and how to stop.

It's an exhausting business, this people pleasing. All that smiling, all that listening, all that saying the right thing, rushing around try to fix the unfixable, leaping before we look, offering up our time and energy for the sake of other's goals, all in mindless pursuit of that ever elusive intangible that is Approval. Which is doubly ridiculous because, if we stopped to think about it for even a second, we often don't even like the person we're trying to please.

Paula O. wrote eloquently on people pleasing in a recent post about playing the grateful transracial (Korean) adoptee and it reminded me how far I've come conquering my own PP tendencies in the last seven months of intensive therapy (thank you, insurance!).

This takes being very mindful of WHAT I WANT and HOW I FEEL. It is so simple, really. But so FOREIGN. You basically have to reprogram yourself, like a computer.

In the old days, for example, my sister-in-law would have called me, crying over her troubled marriage. I would have spent endless hours on the phone with her, even going so far as finding a good divorce lawyer, perhaps sending money and offering my home as a place of refuge. Never mind that she doesn't even really like me (She resents me because I "stole" her brother, she's admitted.) But I so desperately want a sister that I scramble around, trying to win over someone who's not capable of a reciprocal relationship.

Today, whenever an in-law drama flares up, I may listen sympathetically - briefly - but I do not attempt a rescue. I no longer get emeshed. That's her problem. Not mine. In fact, I don't much like her and she's not worth my time and energy because she's a needy user.

It takes being very calm and quiet before we can stop long enough to ask the essential questions, "How do I feel about this? What do I want? What do I want to do? What's right for ME?

That's what I do now. I get a phone call, an email, read a blog post, listen to a friend or a pitch and ask those basic questions. What am I feeling? What is my reaction?

And I realize how much I was "out of touch" with myself. I had no idea how I felt because I only really cared about what others wanted or needed or thought. I was more in tune with them. So in tune they were running me.

But why? How did I get this way? And it appears I'm in good company. Many adoptees seem to be afflicted with the burden of people pleasing.

And then, completely by chance, my daughter knocked my battered copy of Betty Jean Lifton's "Journey of the Adopted Self" off a table and it fell open to the last chapter, "Becoming Whole." It had been ages since I read it so I sat down to reread it and there it was, this explanation:

"Adoptees heal by becoming healers.

We could say that adoptees have always been healers. As babies, they healed the birth mother by going off to be raised by another clan. They healed the adoptive parents by sacrificing their own history and heritage so that the adoptive family line could be continued. By becoming replacement children for the child who never was or the child who died, they healed the adoptive parents infertility.

Because as children they have to have empathy for their adoptive parents' needs, adoptees develop an enhanced sensitivity for the feelings of others."

Ah, the loud ring of truth.

Thank you, Betty. I think you nailed it.



Blogger suz said...

funny, before i got to the end of your post, I was thinking that exact thought..the Lifton words (I have read all her books). I even suggest that to my daughter recently indirectly. She feels very responsible for my happiness. I pretty much jumped up and down in email screaming at her that she is not responsible for me and my happiness. I was bold enough to suggest she might feel that way about her adoptive mom and that she is projecting that feeling on to me.
Bottom line, totally agree with you and Betty.

11:35 AM  
Anonymous mia said...

I agree, Betty was right on the money.

11:54 AM  
Blogger Nina said...'s a real gift that you are so in tune with your daughter and can see that she's doing this. I hope she reads Lifton. Although, I did but it took me at least five more years to have a melt-down triggered by an event at an in-law family reunion that forced me into therapy and, finally, admitting that adoption WAS a big deal.

And Mia..Betty blows me away. She had such courage to do battle with existing ideas about adoptees and offer such groundbreaking insight.

1:40 PM  
Anonymous Paula O. said...

Ah yes, the disease to please. I remember when the ton of bricks finally got through my thick skull that rarley did anyone (with the exception of my very best friend - who is also an adoptee) in my life ever have to compromise, give their share or accommodate my needs or wants. It was seriously all about them. I had put such a premium on being the "nice" one - the uber-flexible one - and of course the one who could always be counted on pleasing everyone else.

Your words "Out of touch with myself" resonated so deeply with me.

Man, it feels good to get back in touch, doesn't it?!?! :)

7:08 PM  
Blogger LeRoy Dissing said...

Your post reminded me of a quote from Socrates, "Know thyself". When we are in touch with ourselves first, then we can be in touch with others...otherwise our identities could be emeshed or eclipsed by another.

What you describe in your post sounds much like a role reversal. In essence, you become the parent and they become the child. You become what others expect and consequently never develop boundaries for yourself. As you age, you finally discover you don't even know yourself because you have never been allowed to develop a sense of self....always relying on another for approval of what they expect you to be. A vicious reinforcing cycle that for some is never broken and for those where it is broken, there is a lot of confusion, loss, fear, saddness and probably anger/depression...It is at that time that a person is very vulnerable...vulnerable to either repeat the cycle with another who rescues them or vulnerable to take stock of who they are and what they want to become.

Maslow would argue that we cannot self-actualize until our basic needs (food, clothing, shelter and safety) are met. However, I could argue that it is at the time in our lives when we experience the greatest crisis, we also can experience the greatest possibility of growth. Crisis help us change course in ways we never thought possible or dared to imagine. Yet, I would hope that all change is not percipitated by crisis otherwise, I would be a wreck. I would like to think we can learn from others' experiences and avoid the potholes to make the journey less rocky.

Unless one "know thyself", how can one possibly share with another? I would think this could have a profound impact on relationships, especially close ones...and could be very threatening, yet healthy, to a significant other once you start to be yourself.

8:09 PM  
Blogger Third Mom said...

Thanks, Nina, this is something we a-parents need to really be sensitive to in our children.

You've got me thinking about what I as an a-parent might be doing to create this feeling in my children. I wonder, for example, if adoptive parents expect perfection from their families and children more than parents in biologically-related families.

Lots more thinking to do on this, thanks for raising the issue.

12:02 PM  
Blogger Nina said...

Leroy...You gave me much to think about, thank you. I love it that you can quote Socrates, etc. in a meaningful way. Now that I'm no longer around a university, I hear that sort of thing less and less and I realize how cool it is.

Third Mom: You know, I'm not exactly sure how this dynamic really works and how it initially gets "started." In my case, my parents were NOT empathetic in the least bit and were emotionally demanding and needy. Especially my father who was/is childlike and needs constant and immediate attention. Maybe it also has something to do with not feeling like you fit in. Sometimes, I wonder if I expect too much from my teen girls, both of whom are loaded down w/advanced classes. My youngest just started high school and she has a TOUGH analytical English class and she worked very hard yet got a C and I nearly freaked. Then I had to tell myself to calm down, that she's LEARNING and that's the most important thing and that she has a positive attitude, etc. So sheesh!

5:53 PM  
Blogger Reunited Dan said...

It is amazing that that small paragraph from the book made such an impact on people.

It had an incredible impact on me also.

Take care.

1:45 AM  
Blogger Rebecca said...

Thank you for posting Betty's explanation. I'm still trying to convince myself that I'm not the solution to everyone elses' problems. I was a great band-aid for my parents infertility...wasn't I? I needed to be reminded that I don't have to save the world or fix everyone else. With all my free time I can work on fixing ME!!! :)

2:39 PM  
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