Being adopted — it's been hard on me

Originally Published: October 29, 2010 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: November 22, 2013
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Hello Alice,

I was adopted when I was two and a half years old, and I still have a lot of issues from it. I don't really like myself and at times; I feel like I don't know who I am. I never let myself become close to my adoptive family, and still feel uncomfortable and out of place around them. I don't have many friends. I isolate a lot and don't really trust people. I am always scared to make friends for fear that I won’t be accepted or liked. Growing up I often turned to drugs and alcohol to escape these feelings and to feel comfortable with myself. The problem now is that I am 22 and I have a two year old daughter. I feel like I need to get over this so I can be a good mother to her, and raise her to know and love herself. I feel lost, what can I do?

Dear Reader,

Some believe that you must love yourself before you can love others, which may be partially true. You say you feel the need to "get over it," but please keep in mind that the feelings you express are very common among adoptees. You may work through your issues and still be able to provide love to others. Be gentle with yourself. While many people experience feelings of isolation and fears of rejection at various times in their lives, these feelings may be pronounced in people who have been adopted. Why might this be?

Many adoptees may be very curious about their unclear origin. They may wonder why they were adopted, and often times, this wondering is accompanied by feelings of worry, sadness, and self-doubt. Some may ask the question: "Was I put up for adoption because something was wrong with me?" Even people who feel very positively about their adoptive families may have issues that stem from being adopted. In particular, feelings of sadness may come up during major life milestones (getting a driver's license, graduation, marriage, etc.), during life achievements (winning a big game, earning good grades, getting a promotion), birthdays, or other significant events. Feelings of loss are common, even for those who were adopted as babies.

People who differ in physical appearance from their adoptive families sometimes feel like outsiders. Even when families who adopt embrace their child whole-heartedly, others may still inadvertently treat the adopted individual as an outsider. Additionally, children of color who have white parents may long for more access to the culture of their birth parents, may feel less accepted by members of their adopted parents' culture, and may feel more alone in confronting racism in their lives.

Some people may feel that most of their struggles are related to having been adopted while others feel being adopted has not presented any life challenges for them. No matter where you may be on that spectrum, know that those feelings of mistrust and isolation are understandable and may be common among adoptees. There are many things you may do to work through such feelings, not only for your children or other people close to you, but for your own comfort, as well.

  • Creating your own family may help you discover new ways to love. In your instance, having a child seems to have provided an opportunity for you to love and be loved. You may further develop loving relationships with partners or close friends as your 'family.' Loving others may in turn help you also love yourself. Consider reading How do I learn to love?
  • Seeing a therapist may be helpful to work through many of the deeply rooted fears and feelings you expressed. S/he may also help connect you with appropriate services, such as professional support surrounding the use or abuse of alcohol and other substances.
  • Group therapy may be especially helpful for people struggling with trust in others. You may be able to locate a therapy group for adult adoptees, for new parents, or even for parents who were adopted as children. Such groups may decrease the feelings of isolation as you may discover that many of the members share your concerns. Other members may have healthy coping strategies that could be useful to you.
  • While it's important for you to overcome your own personal dilemmas with adoption, you may want to also help your adoptive family understand what you've been going through. Being more open about your feelings stemming from being adopted may help you work issues out in a constructive manner and also build a connection with your family that may not have previously existed. If you're uncomfortable with approaching these issues with your family on your own, family therapy may help aid you in a safer and more comfortable environment.
  • Some adopted people ponder about searching for their birth parents. The process may potentially give a sense of resolution, open up further issues, or do both. Keep in mind that many adoption agreements have strong restrictions and protocols when it comes to contacting birth parents. Please be conscious that sometimes a search may lead to a dead end or provide no closure even if the parents are found.
  • Instead of, or in addition to, a search, which may not be realistic, visiting or learning about your place of origin (your birth country/area and culture) may aid in the process of finding your sense of self to be proud of. No matter the outcome, having support from others throughout the process may be helpful.

If you're a Columbia student on the Morningside campus, you can speak with a counselor at Counseling and Psychological Services or, if you are on the Medical Center campus, you can reach out to the Mental Health Service. For support around substance use, you may want to seek support from Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC). For others, please contact mental health and health care providers in your area and also consider reading related Q&As about helping and getting help for alcohol and other drugs.

Being adopted may be a lifelong issue for some. A number of organizations with programs supporting adoptees include the National Adoption Clearinghouse and the American Adoption Congress. Continue reaching out to better give and receive love to you and your loved ones.

Alice