Why Adoptees and Foster Kids Must Guard Their Hearts

Because we adoptees and foster kids once swam in the rip tides of f trauma(s), we either share our hearts with everyone or shut our deep feelings off from those who love us most.

Drs. David Brodzinsky and Marshall Schechter say that the foundation for feeling safe depends on our ability to trust. “Trust allows an infant to feel he can depend on his own behavior as well as that of his caregivers. Without trust, he may grow up doubting his own self-worth, and doubting the motives of everyone he meets.”1

T.R.U.S.T. The commodity we long for but few of us possess. Reflecting on Brodzinsky and Schechter’s comments about the need for trust both in self and caregivers, do you think it possible that one half of the equation—learning to trust others —could be missing from our personal trust equations? Do you suppose it’s possible that when we were separated from our first family, no matter our age, that we couldn’t trust anyone but ourselves?

Emily tests everyone in her life all the time, to prove to herself whether or not they can be trusted. The tests are never fair and she doesn’t tell people they are being tested. When they fail, she is secretly glad because it proves her theory that no one can really care for her.

We get stuck!

Erik Erikson, a German-born American psychoanalyst, was abandoned by his father before birth. Interestingly enough, some say he was almost obsessed with his theory of development (is it any wonder?), which postulates eight stages of development each characterized by a crisis that needs to be resolved. Here’s how it works:

At the point of crisis the child is faced with a choice between coping in an adaptive or maladaptive way. Only as each crisis is resolved, which involves an evolution in personality, does the person have the strength to deal with the next stage of development. If a person does not resolve the conflict, he or she will confront and struggle with it later in life.2  In other words, if we don’t get it the first time around, we must go back and learn it.

Some of us already possess trust or may have revisited and resolved the conflict, but others may still have to face it someday. Crystal says she has always had a nagging suspicion that everyone in the world has something in them that makes them able to understand each other, to know what is really going on in relationships, and to give and receive love. “I have imagined that I don’t have these abilities because I am adopted and missed the developmental stage where most people get blessed with these gifts.”

If we never came through this crisis of trust as infants, do you think that means we will remain infants emotionally for the rest of our lives? Do we have to stay stuck?

Absolutely not!

Trust can be learned. If we haven’t learned it from our initial caregiver (our first mother or adoptive parents), we can learn it from others who have successfully passed through that stage of development and moved on toward maturity.

Trust Can Be Learned

Authors and professors of psychiatry Malcolm L. West and Adrienne E. Sheldon-Keller say, “The securely attached adult can acknowledge felt distress in a modulated way and turn to supportive and trusted relationships for comfort. Particularly during periods of emotional upset, comfort often needs to be expressed in concrete attachment behaviors that reassure the individual. Put simply, felt security at these times has a lot to do with having someone available who will respond to our feelings and even take supportive action. The special warmth that often accompanies attachment comes just from these tangible reassurances that one is understood.”3

Now let’s translate this into adoptee terms and see how trust can be developed.

THROUGH A NO-RISK CONFIDANTE

Connie Dawson has a rewarding trust relationship. She says, “I don’t share deep feelings with anyone unless I deem them to be a no-risk confidante. I can talk with other adoptees about adoption issues, but only to a point.  If I want to go to a newly discovered place in myself that is related to adoption, I test out whether the other person can go there too. I am fortunate to have a fellow-traveler adoptee for a close friend. I’ve told him, with tears in my eyes, that I can tell him things I haven’t told anyone else—because he is willing to plumb his depths too. In my experience, this is a very rare experience. We have an intimate relationship of a precious kind.”

IN CLINICAL SETTINGS

The term “transference” is a clinical term and refers to the unconscious transfer of experience from one interpersonal context to another. In transference, we relive past relationships in current situations. They are repeated over and over, and this can be especially true when we are in counseling. For example, we might unconsciously view our therapist as our father or mother and act accordingly. If we had a poor relationship with our fathers or mothers, we can work through those negative feelings with the right therapist who has good boundaries and thus establish trust.

The late Dirck Brown, Ed.D., founder and first executive director for Post Adoption Center for Education and Research (PACER), board member of the International Soundex Reunion Registry, former president of the American Adoption Congress, and author of Clinical Practice in Adoption says, “I spent about four years in analysis and let me tell you, transference is a wonderful experience —I’ve seldom felt closer to anyone in my life than my analyst, John.”

THROUGH FRIENDSHIPS

I have learned trust through my friend and colleague.  We met at a women’s support group and the moment I saw her, I knew I would love her. 

She and I live very different lifestyles, but we love each other just as we are. We are no longer in the group but our friendship has continued for more than twenty years. Just yesterday we were talking about the mystery and joy of our relationship, and Vicky observed, “You know, trust is a delicate gift we far too often give when it’s not deserved. When we do this, we inevitably get burned, and this restarts the cycle of not being able to trust. Our friendship is unique but not at all surprising. God has taken each of us along very different paths but he has brought us to the same place: his safe presence. I think trust is recognition of the familiar — knowing that we are truly a part of One.”

WITH MENTORS

I also feel safe with the beautiful senior women who have mentored me over the years. At each stage of life and with every move, there has been someone older and wiser than me to help me find the right path.

Rosemary Jensen, Founder of Raffiki, took me under her wing when I was a new teaching leader in her organization. Even though we don’t see each other anymore, the relationship has continued through correspondence. I will never forget one time right after my birth mother rejected me. Rosemary knew nothing about it, yet in the mail one day I got a note from her that said, “I’ve been thinking about you. What is going on in your life? How is your writing going?”

IN SMALL GROUPS

Bob and I are members of a small group that meets weekly for study and friendship. In the beginning, we all had our best foot forward, but as one person got real, then another, people were freed up to be themselves and share without fear of judgment. It’s a guilt-free zone for each person and they have become like family to us.

Risk but Beware of Toxic People

It’s reality that not all people are trustworthy and we need to always keep that in mind, especially when we are needy. Trust is not something we ought to dole out like ice cream on a hot summer day to anyone who comes along. Yet because many of us have emotional vulnerabilities and such a deep need for connection, we sometimes throw all caution to the wind and launch into relationships that tear down instead of build up.

Author Lillian Glass, Ph.D., describes the results of a relationship with such a person. She says, “A toxic person is someone who seeks to destroy you.  A toxic person:

  • Robs you of your self-esteem and dignity and poisons the essence of who you are.
  • Wears down your resistance and thus can make you mentally or physically ill.
  •  Not life-supporting. They see only the negative in you.
  • Jealous and envious–ot happy to see you succeed. In fact,they get hostile whenever you do well.
  • Sabotages your efforts to lead a happy and productive life.”4

After we’ve been burned a few times by toxic relationships, we long for the wisdom and courage to listen to the signals of our bodies and souls. However, more times than we care to remember, we don’t recognize or heed the warning signs and find ourselves in relationships with emotionally unhealthy people, in undesirable circumstances, or in commitments for which we have neither the time nor the energy.

Remember that Trust Must Be Earned

Some of us also become enmeshed in toxic situations and relationships when we share too much too soon. We don’t put out the necessary “feelers” or “testers” to see how the other person will react to private information. We dive in the deep end of the pool when we haven’t taken beginning swimming lessons.

Richard Curtis describes such an experience. He says, “About a year after my reunion with my siblings in Cleveland I was visiting my two half-sisters. While waiting for dinner to be prepared I had an opportunity to spend some time with the middle sister with whom I hadn’t had much communication. She asked several questions about my growing-up years as well as my adult life.

“Feeling more comfortable with her, I proceeded to reveal personal stories about my experiences in my adoptive home, my broken relationships with spouses, recovery from addictions, and strained relationships with my own children.

“She became silent, explaining that my behavior was much like her ex-husband’s, with whom she has a volatile relationship”

“Oh-oh, Richard, I said to myself. Too much sharing!”

“Since that conversation I’ve sensed a coolness, a backing away, a judgmental, rejecting attitude toward me. I continue to correspond only with my other sister who has accepted me unconditionally.”

Richard’s painful experiences underscore the truth that trust must be earned.

Three Characteristics of Safe People

Wouldn’t it be great if every safe, trustworthy person wore a sign on his or her back that said so? That might qualify as an adoptee fantasy of the highest order! However, there are certain characteristics that define safe people, and once we learn them we’re much more likely to make wise decisions regarding with whom we share our deepest selves.

  1. THEY REQUIRE A TWO-DIMENSIONAL RELATIONSHIP.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand to be in any kind of conversation or relationship in which one person dominates. It absolutely drives me nuts! After the conversation is over, I feel like I’ve been bound, gagged, and shoved in a corner.

These are the kind of people I befriended before I learned about trust. I was a co-dependent, thinking I could rescue them and help them by not sharing my thoughts, but just listening.

That’s far from the kind of relationship we’re looking for. There has to be a natural give and take, kind of like playing a graceful game of tennis. One shares and then the other responds in a continual, flowing manner.

A key to this kind of relationship is what David Augsburger calls “equal hearing.”  I love this..(I love this)…

EQUAL HEARING

I will claim

my right

to be

equally heard.

If I yield

my right to speak,

if I do not claim my time for sharing,

if I do not express what I want in equality,

I am squandering

my privilege of

personhood.

I will respect

your right

to be

equally heard.

You are you.

I want

to hear you.

If I usurp

your right to speak,

if I use up

your time for conversing,

if I do not listen

for what you want in

equality,

I am stifling

your privilege of personhood.5

If we’ve located someone who’s not a dominator, but equally as interested in us as he is in himself, we can look for the second characteristic, which is a nonjudgmental attitude.

2. THEY’RE NOT JUDGMENTAL.

Don’t you hate having someone point his or her long, bony finger at you and tell you what you should or shouldn’t be doing? 

I love the saying: “If you can spot it, you got it.”

It has helped me immensely to learn about the psychological dynamic of projection. My layman’s understanding of it is that if someone says something judgmental about me, they’re really saying that is how they feel about themselves. Try that next time someone throws a judgmental thought at you. It diffuses your reaction so that you can respond responsibly and not emotionally.

It is my belief that we are all of equal worth and are on a horizontal playing field. One of the most effective ways I can spot people who judge are those who give unsolicited advice or counsel. Yes, they may be well-intentioned and even knowledgeable. However, unsolicited counsel is nothing more than a glorified put-down.

Augsburger created a diagram about relationships that I have made myself accountable to for years, and it has literally changed my life. It has helped me sidestep judgers as well as keep my own attitudes and behavior on track. Notice as you review the diagram that “talking with” is the correct way of relating to others.

Talking down

Blaming

Scolding

Judging

Belittling

Instructing

Supervising

Equal Mutual

give and Talking with hearing and

take being heard

Yielding

Ingratiating

Groveling

Apologizing

Placating

Talking up 6

Once we’ve weeded out judgmental, self-appointed counselors from our lives, we can put out feelers by observing the reactions of others to our words and feelings. Safe people desire to build up, to reassure us that they care enough about us to invest something of themselves in our lives through words and actions.

3. THEY EDIFY THROUGH WORDS AND ACTIONS.

Here are some attitudes and actions of people who build up:

  • They accept us as we are—they don’t try to “fix” us.
  • They recognize our potential.
  • They believe in us and tell us so.
  • They encourage us to “aim high.”

As we apply what we’ve learned in this chapter to our lives, we will gradually gain the ability to identity safe people and then develop relationships with them.

OUR CHOICE

To begin searching for safe people, put out feelers, and take a risk.

We must guard our hearts through discernment and simultaneously learn the art of gradual self-disclosure. We need to find a healthy balance between the two, and that will occur as we learn to trust ourselves.

HOW TO BEGIN

  • Assess current relationships. Are they safe or toxic?
  • List whom you might feel safe with. Whom do you admire? If you are in a support group, whom do you feel drawn to?
  • Reach out. After you have identified a new person, invite him or her for coffee. It feels scary to take a risk, but go for it….guarding your heart as you go.

PS–Of course, the safest person you can ever talk to is a fellow adoptee or foster kid. We can “read” one another from a distance:-)…,AND…the last place we will ever be safe in any relationship is the internet.

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Fishers, IN, USA

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