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The Trauma

Although each person in the adopting triad has problems, we consider here only the trauma of the adoptee. Whether adopted soon after birth or later, the adoptee suffers a trauma from separation. This separation leads to a constant fear of abandonment. It is a mistaken view to think that a baby adopted soon after birth is not emotionally and psychologically affected by this separation. The adoptee often creates a false self that constantly seeks approval and has an inability to show feelings – especially negative feelings. The suppression of the true self and the creation of the false self is a protection from any further rejection. The creation of a false self is a coping strategy: a way of coping with emotional pain and the profound sense of loss they feel. Such a sense of loss often results in a feeling of sadness and bouts of depression. The adoptee often feels anxious and has a mistrust of relationships, especially with women (regardless of the sex of the adoptee).

The loss of a birth mother often leads to emotional disturbance. Although the adopted mother may be loving and caring, the adoptee tends to reject such love and finds it difficult to be intimate with the adopted mother. When traumatic memories or feelings surge from the unconscious, the adoptee can be irritable, aggressive, impulsive and even anti-social. There is a tendency for the adoptee to want to be in control and so even household decisions can become a battle ground for control. Such control is a manifestation of the adoptee attempting to prevent future losses. Yet such behaviour can lead to the very thing the adoptee dreads.

Adolescence can be a particularly difficult time for the adoptee since this is the period they are developing a sense of identity. The usual difficulties of such a period in a child’s development are compounded by the fact that they have been establishing a false self. An adoptee may ‘run around’ with the popular crowd but at the same time tends to feel a fraud. As the fear of rejection and abandonment continues unabated, so the adoptee tends to withdraw and become isolated. Since one of the greatest fears of the adoptee is not being loved or liked they tend to ‘test’ people. This in turn can lead to them rejecting people before they reject them. In other words, they tend to sabotage relationships – both in the home and with friends. Furthermore, when an adoptee perceives someone has abandoned them then they do not let them back into their lives.

The adverse influence on the adoptee can continue into adulthood. In the workplace it can lead to a fear of success or an inability to believe in their competency or expertise. They can go about sabotaging their success. But it can manifest itself in its opposite. A strive to be perfect; to be the best. It is even possible for an adoptee to vacillate between these two possibilities. In either case the adoptee is very sensitive to criticism or the slightest hint that their views may be rejected. They may even be at a loss as to what triggers such apprehension.

As pointed out, adoptees find relationships difficult. They mistrust closeness or forms of intimacy and so they distance themselves from others. Paradoxically, however, they yearn for such closeness and intimacy. This yearning is not surprising when it is realised that they have not had such closeness and intimacy with their birth mother. Although the adoptee does not want to reject other people, what they do is to reject themselves instead. Because they have been rejected from their birth mother, adoptees consider (unconsciously) that women are not to be trusted. It does not matter the sex of the adoptee: it was their mother who abandoned them. It is a very common response in which one incident becomes all: one female rejection means rejection by all women. Again paradoxically, when adoptees make attachments, which they find difficult to do, they find separation even more difficult. This means they often cling to unsuccessful relationships. Adoptees in their attempt to control tend to avoid situations that can trigger rejection and possible abandonment. An alternative control mechanism is to get the inevitable abandonment over with quickly.

The adoptee often fails to integrate the trauma of separation with their mature development. As a result the original trauma is repeatedly triggered. The adoptee may rationalise this, but it simply maintains fear. The rationalisations keep the adoptee trying to maintain control; they block access to adult solutions and in the end lead to self-fulfilling fear. What the adoptee experiences are three barriers to integration: fear, anger/range, and guilt/shame. Their fear of abandonment leaves the adoptee with a constant feeling of being at the mercy of others.


Nancy Newton Varrier (1993) The Primal Wound, Gateway.

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The trauma: the primal wound