The process of Identity Development is important to all human beings, and although associated with adolescence, it is a profess that for a number of us is a lifelong endeavor. Just as we never stop learning, we never really stop calibrating our sense of belonging and understanding how we fit into the grand scheme of things.

This gets more than complicated when it comes to relinquishees and others who have been separated from family of origin. Separated/ fostered/ adopted persons often go through life asking such questions as: “Where did I come from? Who were my parents? Why was I separated from my parents? Do my birth parents think about me now? Do I have siblings? What does separation mean in my life today?”

In my own experience, those were the sort of questions that I either avoided or tackled head-on. I avoided them when I went through a period of feeling guilty about having those sorts of questions—and how it was perhaps unfair towards the people who gave me love and provided for me—and then, when I was ready to ask them again, I felt overwhelmed by how many emotions they brought on. When I was initially forced to look into my biological past, I deliberately put off that search because I didn’t feel ready. At the time, I didn’t know that what I didn’t feel ready for was not just having to make those discoveries, but also admitting to myself that I had a very unhealthy relationship with alcohol. It was only after I got sober, and after I started to get my life in order, when I became ready to uncover my past, when those sorts of questions came up again, and when I decided to answer them and incorporate whatever I learned into my newly forming identity.

It was a challenge. I worried about losing myself all together.  I worried that I would not be able to mesh my old identity with my new one, or that they would clash and leave me even more fragmented. I also worried about becoming a different person so late in life, but with time, I felt ready and supported and I really didn’t want to live in a lie anymore— I needed to know the answers, I needed to be able to imagine my parallel life and I needed to have a way to put all those questions to rest.

It wasn’t just my family of origin that influenced how I started to change and evolve: I was now a sober person, I changed professions; for the first time I was authentically present for my wife and children (without alcohol), I was discovering that I was introspective and more reserved than I always believed, and finally, I was also discovering that my belief system needed to be challenged if I were to not only stay sober, but also to live in harmony with my values.  All those quests—for a new belief system, for sobriety, for Reality, and for new way of being around people—prepared me to be able to accept and take on the biggest quest of them all, where I would learn where I came from and why I was relinquished, and where I would embrace those parts of myself I feared (because they were unknown) as I slowly became whole again.

When I think of that process, I am reminded of something strange and wonderful I experienced a few years ago when I met with and became a huge fan of a Tintype artist by the name of Margaret Muza.  Margaret photographed me and walked me through the process of watching the plate develop (movie here  This was an amazingly fascinating experience for me, much like watching my own birth as the image slowly came together. I stared at my own face, and it felt for the first time that I was not only myself, but that I finally knew myself and I allowed myself to be known.

Here’s another writer’s interpretation of my experiences.

As an addiction professional, I often come across individuals who struggle with their Identity Development. To me their questions indicate a life-long seeking-of-origin process that plays a role in identity. Because of my own experiences with allowing myself to develop an enhanced identity—to add to what was already there— I knew that developing a separate, autonomous, and mature sense of self is widely recognized as a particularly complex task for separated persons, relinquishees, and adoptees, and what my clients were going through was a natural process, not a maladaptive one. I am aware of the obstacles my clients face because I also experienced those obstacles. Counselors and therapists who work with people developing their identities are often asked to “facilitate clients’ identity searching and committing to identity alternatives as well as recognize the normative stress involved in identity exploration.” It’s a layered process and it is my hope that if you’re reading this and are thinking of using a therapist to aid you in this process, you are able to find someone who has worked with reliquishees and those separated from family or origin and who understand the unique challenges we present.

It is said that the primary task of identity for an adoptee is “‘coming to terms’ with oneself in the context of the family and culture into which one has been adopted.” Put another way, one of the most difficult tasks for separated individuals is being fully and authentically oneself in relationships with others. We are the people who are often desperate for connections, but who have issues developing trust in others because we’ve been so wounded. It’s a paradox for so many of us—being able to search and accept what we find and allowing ourselves to trust the process.

We relinquishees and those separated from family of origin have to undergo a thorough and intentional process of Identity:

  1. Reverse-engineering ourselves to understand our component parts (who we are) and further enhance our knowledge of self.
  2. Search for facts about ourselves where we could: through past behaviors or information about kin.
  3. Experiment with what we believe to be true: put that learning to the test
  4. Chronicle our narratives– developing a cohesive narrative is essential to emotional and psychological well-being, especially for separated individuals.

And there’s science that backs this up.

  • Mary Main of UC-Berkely expounded on John Bowlby’s attachment work and found that if a parent (and even more so a mother) can tell an emotionally coherent narrative about themselves, the greater the chance that their children can do the same, and thus be more emotionally secure (general happiness is not very shaken even by major disturbances in life). Put another way, a child’s emotional stability is 75 percent dependent on a parent being able to know himself or herself.
  • Dan McAdams of Northwestern University found that narrating one’s life story (making sense of their own lives – narrating one’s identity) is founded in Positive Psychology and allows people to experience post-traumatic growth – positive outcomes, experiences, and outlooks on life that might not have been achieved had the stress/ developmental interruption described in the narrative never occurred.

Recovering and/ or Healing for Separated/ Relinquished/ Adopted individuals is all about Identity Development and Identity Expansion.


Contact David at Beacon Confidential to learn more.


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