E111 Healing Series: Boundaries Part One with Lesli A. Johnson, MFT

Full Show Notes: http://www.adopteeson.com/listen/e111

Episode Transcription by Fayelle Ewuakye. Find her on Twitter at @FayelleEwuakye.

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Haley - This show is listener supported. You can join us and help our show grow to support more adoptees, by going to AdopteesOn.com/partner.

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Haley - You’re listening to Adoptees On, the podcast where adoptees discuss the adoption experience. I’m your host, Haley Radke, and this is a special episode in our Healing series where I interview therapists who are also adoptees themselves. So they know from personal experience, what it feels like to be an adoptee. Today we are taking your questions, about boundaries. Let’s listen in.

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Haley - I’m so pleased to welcome back to Adoptees On, Lesli Johnson! Welcome Lesli!

Lesli - Thank you so much, thanks. I’m so glad to be back. I’ll apologize in advance for my voice, I’m getting over a little allergy thing and I know you’re not feeling at the top of your game either, so, we’ll do our best.

Haley - We’re both sick, it’s no problem, listen, we’re just a little bit lower than normal, and people are gonna love it. Okay I asked on social media, because I knew I was talking to you, and we were gonna talk about boundaries. And I asked people to send us their questions. because they really need help navigating this area. And one of-

Lesli - Perfect.

Haley - My funny followers said, what are boundaries? ‘Cause we struggle with boundaries.

Lesli - That’s a good question.

Haley - We struggle with boundaries!

Lesli - Me too!

Haley - So why don't you answer the basic, what are boundaries?

Lesli - I get that question a lot too, and I know a lot of my clients also say that they struggle setting boundaries and keeping boundaries. And I guess this is probably not the dictionary definition, but I think it’s a way of establishing guidelines for relationships, finding what feels right in ways that we can sort of know where our edges are. We wanna let in, and how we want those relationships to work. And then being able to actually verbalize that, and let the other people in our lives, whether it’s you know, our adoptive parents, our birth parents, our partners, our friends, the people that we work with, just letting them know what our boundaries are.

Haley - Now it sounded like, a lot of adopted people, struggle with this, letting people know where the edges are. Why would you say that could be?

Lesli - I think in terms of like what we’ve talked about before, you and I, and like I said with many of my clients. So for an adopted person, if that person was separated from their biology early in life, if they had multiple placements before coming to their adoptive families, there were so many things that happened that were not, events that happened that were not events in their control. And I think boundaries are a way of exerting, although that sounds really like a strong word, but I think boundaries are way of having some control. Having some control over who and what we let into our lives.

Haley - I like that idea about having some control back. And you mentioned that we may need to verbalize our boundaries, that sounds a little bit scary.

Lesli - Right, it does.

Haley - But how else are people supposed to know? Talk a little bit about that.

Lesli - I mean I guess we can verbalize our boundaries and have it be a conversation. It doesn't have to be, I mean I think sometimes the word boundary, it sounds so strong and direct and rigid. And I guess I don't really see it that way, it’s about talking about what works for us and what doesn’t work for us. And we can of course act out our boundaries. But I think if we’re working towards health and well being, that being able to have those conversations with people that are in our lives is a much easier, well I shouldn't say easier, it's a much more lasting way to, to work with boundaries. And I think it’s also important to remind ourselves that boundaries don't have to be rigid. They can be more fluid, so we might start out in a relationship with someone and have certain boundaries and they change over time, whether they become more relaxed or they become more firmed up.

Haley - I think you're about to give us some in real life examples of what these conversations could look like.

Lesli - okay.

Haley - Alright, so here’s our first question. “I think it’s super important to talk about setting boundaries of reunion. Not doing that, I think I really messed up my reunion with my grandmother. So, advice on how bring that up without people feeling hurt.”

Lesli - I think that it is very important in the initial stages of reunion, to have guidelines for what each person wants the relationship to look like in the initial phases. I think all too often people are either really timid and afraid, and so they are so vigilant over each contact or each phone call. Is this person gonna call back, are they gonna return my email. I think if we can talk about that in the initial, the initial part of the reunion, this is really scary for me. And I'm a person that gets triggered when I don’t have my voicemails returned, or my emails returned. So setting a boundary can also be asking for what you need. I'm just gonna ask that you, you be mindful of that and know that that is worrisome for me when I don't hear back. I mean that’s a way of, I think, I don't know if you agree, but setting expectations is also a way of having a boundary.

Haley - So that's something we can do at the start if we’re noticing our emails not getting returned in a timely fashion in our opinion.

Lesli - right.

Haley - But what if you let things kinda go, and then you wanna come back and say, okay, I’ve really not expressed my desires or needs before, how do you start that conversation?

Lesli - so when you say let things, go, tell me what you mean, like maybe--

Haley - Well this person’s question, was saying that she really hoped that she, or she should have set boundaries at the beginning of reunion, and she didn’t do that. So now how does she bring it up, and talk about, likely what she is hoping for, for herself and prob for her grandmother?

Lesli - I think just having that conversation and again I’m may be oversimplifying it, because that’s not going to be an easy one to have. Especially, and I’m not sure about this person if they’re, I wish I had a tiny bit more information because I’m wondering if they, there was too much contact at first and now she wants to kind of pull back, or if there was lapses and now she wants to become, get closer. But I think being able to say, you know, even just what she said in that note to you, or that email to you, I think I wish I would have set more clear expectations at the onset. And now I'm regretting that and I think I’ve ruined the reunion with my grandmother. If she were able to say that to her grandmother, I wonder how her grandmother would react? I feel like I messed up because we didn't talk about our expectations of each other when we first met. Is there room for us to start again? You know, being honest and open and transparent. And of course people are gonna get hurt, especially in reunion, they’re gonna get hurt. And their feelings are gonna get hurt. And who they thought the other person is, isn’t gonna meet who the person actually is. Or maybe it is, but not maybe not initially. And so again, just being able to take care of oneself and convey again those expectations with the other.

Haley - I think this question really goes along with what you’re saying. “My first mother wants me to let her know how often I’ll be in touch. She believes it will assuage her anxieties about losing me again. I want to make her feel better but truthfully, I don't know what the answer is. And I'm scared to overpromise and under deliver. What do I tell her?”

Lesli - That’s a beautiful question and I hear that so, I have so many clients right now and oddly, are just at one time, right now that are in reunion that are in the initial stages. And really trying to navigate the complexities and one theme I’m very very aware of, is that the anxiety that, that first parents have, first mothers have, is very very similar to the anxiety that the adoptee has is that “I'm gonna be left again. I’m gonna, if I don't say it right, if I don't type it right, if I don’t make sure every single bit of my communication is understood in the way that I'm trying to convey, I'm out of here.” So I think that mother’s wish and desire is a good one. It’s fine for her to ask for that and the adoptee may have to say, I understand what you’re asking. I'm not going anywhere. But I also can't, I'm not able to say exactly when I'm gonna reach out to you. But if they are used to talking every week, and one week lapses, that they're gonna reconnect. Or if they plan to talk every other day, and a few days go by, that they're gonna reconnect. And maybe that can be enough. because I don't think the onus should be put on either person to try to take care of the other. I mean, that’s what we do in relationship, but I think it’s too much to ask one person to assure the other when they’re both having similar anxieties, does that make sense?

Haley - Yeah, definitely. But I like that, you can say, I can't exactly give you, like the times in my day where Ii can reply. You know, like especially if it’s like, in the honeymoon period, because it can be so fast and furious and you literally can’t keep up.

Lesli - Right.

Haley - But I like that, if we don't hear from each other in a few days, let’s give each other permission to reach out again.

Lesli - Of course I think it also speaks to the hope that in these relationships, that everyone’s doing their own work. So that the onus to assure and reassure the other isn’t misplaced.

Haley - Okay. Next question. “I have a paternal sister who is kind and nice, but wants more from me than I can emotionally give at this time. My sister has sort of a angel or hero complex for me, and she thinks me being adopted out was a lucky thing, because her life with our father was horrific. She’s almost jealous, it’s a lot. I wanna have a relationship with her, but I can’t be smothered.” Thoughts on that Lesli.

Lesli - Again I feel like it’s a fair, it’s a fair conversation. These questions are so well articulated, it’s almost like they could just say exactly that to the other person. And maybe they are gonna be met with openness and maybe they’re not. But I think it’s fair to be able to say, “I'm so happy to be in contact with you, I'm enjoying getting to know you, I'm enjoying this relationship, it seems like we have differing, a few different feelings about our father. I'm hoping that you’ll let me kinda go at this relationship at my own pace.” So again I guess there is a little, I keep saying that the onus shouldn’t be put on the adopted person, but I guess there is a little bit of onus to explain and assure this person that you wanna be in relationship with them but that it just needs to go a little slower right now. She could say, “I really wanna be able to take this all in, and process it just at a little bit of a slower pace.”

Haley - And I’m thinking of being on the receiving end of a statement like that. And for me that feels like, okay, it’s a little bit much for you, like that doesn’t hurt my feelings to hear that and be like, okay maybe we’re in touch maybe once a month, instead of, I’m texting you every day.

Lesli - Right.

Haley - I think, I love how you phrased it and I think there’s a real, I think there’s a real problem in boundary conversations that I have seen and personally been a part of, where we let things build up over time, over time, over time, to we’re like, oh my gosh we’ve had it! And we have this big kind of blow up. But if you have taken the time to think about it ahead of time and say, okay, this is really not working and you can phrase it in this really gentle, compassionate matter, outcome’s probably better than, if you have a big fight about it.

Lesli - Right. And I agree with you, that when we let things build up over time that, that what comes out is gonna be an exaggerated reaction rather than a thought out response.

Haley - Okay. Next. “In reunion with birth families, how can we know if we are being too much?” In quotation marks. “How often should an adoptee contact a new family member in order to stay connected without appearing clingy?” Oooh, there’s probably not a right answer for this one. But what are your general thoughts on this?

Lesli - Well that’s interesting, there’s not a right answer, but just even that this person is describing themselves or thinking of themselves as too much or clingy in their desire to be connected with their birth family is kinda of revealing. And I would wanna rephrase that or reframe it. And again, how can this person, he or she ask and convey like, “I really am excited about this relationship and I just, I wanna, I want to be able to reach out and I know there’s probably, you have probably some feelings too and what feels good for you? What feels good for me and how can we meet in the middle somewhere?”

Haley - Okay, this one is, this one is a little different, in it’s not the time or contact necessarily. “Finding the boundary between birth mom and adoptee, between being honest with your feelings and not pushing them away. So I wanna let her know how I'm feeling, but then I don't wanna be brutally honest in fear that i’ll push her away. And she may think this is too much for her or doesn’t need this added stress right now.” So I think that question really is, are we oversharing, what’s too much information, I think this happened to me personally in reunion as well.

Lesli - Okay.

Haley - In feeling like when I was expressing things, I was being a little maybe too brutally honest about things that were challenging. So yeah, what are your thoughts on this one?

Lesli - Well I think again, this idea that in a perfect world, everyone in the adoption equation is doing their own work and I know that’s not actually happening.

Haley - What?

Lesli - I know, so I think it’s important to remember too, how would, how, when we get in reunion or when we are in reunion, especially in the initial stages, even though we have built this up, and it’s a very big deal, it’s still a new relationship. So how would we talk with another new person that we met? Maybe it’s a friend or coworker. Would we initially start sharing our deepest feelings? We probably wouldn’t. I mean, this isn't an exact comparison, but I think it is important to be aware and be mindful that this is a new relationship, and so we do wanna kind of meter what we share initially. As we build trust, and we get to know each other, we can start to talk about those more intimate details and see where that goes. And also if we allow for a little time for the relationship to develop, we can also see what the other person, how much they can sort of handle or take,That doesn’t mean we still can't share this information we wanna share, but we’ll have a better idea rather than just dive right in. I just think so often we’ve built, and I say we, meaning myself as well, we’ve built up the reunion and we’ve been thinking about this person primarily, birth mother, biological family as well, for so long. And we’ve imagined who they are or what they look like and what they’re doing. And so when we finally have the opportunity to meet them, we do wanna share everything so quickly. But I do think it’s important to establish the relationship a bit first.

Haley - And I think this is a good time for a pitch for therapy, or, a trusted adoptee friend, right? Because there are things we have to talk about, about reunion and often it’s the other person in reunion that’s getting all the bulk of our feelings and things, right?

Lesli - right.

Haley - So maybe there's another outlet we can use to channel some of that.

Lesli - Find an adoption informed therapist, a support group, a friend who was adopted, someone who really gets it. And they don't necessarily have to be in reunion, but they’ll still get it. And yeah, talk with them as you’re building the relationship.

Haley - Here’s our last question for today. “So my reunion with my bio mother failed after eight months. We had little boundaries with each other and she ultimately rejected me for a second time.” Just an aside, I am so sorry, secondary rejection is so painful, so I’m sorry you went through that. Back to the question. “I have recently come into contact with my half sister on my paternal side and I don’t wanna make the same mistakes. I want this relationship to have the necessary boundaries but honestly I don't know what that looks like.” So going back to what you were talking about at the very start of the show today and what boundaries are, and there are edges, and you know, these guides for us and for the other person, what can we do, going into another reunion like that, ahead of time, to kind of decide what is this gonna look like? Is there a plan we can make? What's your advice for this person?

Lesli - Yeah, I pause because it sounds like she, in some ways, he or she is blaming themselves for the failed reunion. And you know, it takes two people in the relationship, so I wanna remind people of that. So I think moving forward in his or her relationship with the half sister, is just maybe having that, having again, having a conversation. “Listen, this happened in my reunion with my birth mother, and it was heartbreaking.” And secondary rejection is heartbreaking. I have seen it all too often with my clients. And explain to his or her half sister, “I don't want that to happen here. So this is kind of what my expectations are.” If the person doesn’t feel like their good at setting or managing expectations or boundaries, say that. “How can we come up with a plan together that works for both of us as we start to get to know each other. And can we be honest if something’s not working, because I don't think that happened in my reunion, in the initial parts of the reunion with my birth mother, so I just don't want that to repeat itself again.” And I'm oversimplifying, I know people are probably thinking “oh, she’s making it sound so easy,” and it isn’t easy because these are conversations, and we’re talking primarily about reunion and I know possibly in the next episode we’ll talk about setting boundaries in other relationships. But I think that the reunion, the relationships often feel so tenuous. And again I’m thinking about clients who have just talked about it. And my own experience in reunion too, were just again, every time you talk or you email, you just agonize over the words. “Is this, am I gonna offend, am I going to scare her off, am I going to say something wrong.” And so I think that it makes sense that there's such a vigilance around, especially if this person had the initial failed relationship, that it makes sense that he or she would be so vigilant around this next connection. But just to be able to even say that to the person.

Haley - I don’t think it’s, like, simplified advice that you’re giving either, Lesli. Like I think it’s so helpful just to know that you can literally have, I mean it could be like a five minute conversation saying this.

Lesli - Right!

Haley - Like, “I’m afraid of the reunion, my last reunion broke down, I’m kind of afraid, can we just kind of talk about what our expectations are.” Like it can be a really simple conversation.

Lesli - Right.

Haley - Even if it feels really scary. If you’re thinking about, if you’re on the receiving end of this conversation, like as most reasonable people would be like, “oh great, I never thought of that, let’s talk about it.” It doesn’t have to be this huge, huge major thing.

Lesli - Right, right.

Haley - But yet it can make such a huge impact.

Lesli - Right. And we’re talking about relationships, and I think, as other episodes have talked about relationships, adoptees in relationships is sometimes tricky.

Haley - Just sometimes.

Lesli - It’s a generalization, if I’ve ever heard one. But there are challenges and it’s, again, I think it stems from that primary relationship being severed so early.

Haley - And you know honestly, I think listening to an episode like this, just thinking about what do you want your boundaries to look like, what do you want your contact to look like, I think those are all really gonna set people up for success in these relationships.

Lesli - I hope so, and I think so.

Haley - Yeah. Any last thoughts on this topic before we wrap up?

Lesli - No, I think we covered a lot and I hope people get some useful information from it.

Haley - I think they will. Okay, Lesli, where can we connect with you online?

Lesli - You can connect with me at my website, www.yourmindfulbrain.com, Instagram @yourmindfulbrain and Twitter @LesliAJohnson.

Haley - Wonderful, thank you so much for your wisdom.

Haley - Today’s questions were from listeners who follow us on social media. You can find links to all the places we are on the website, AdopteesOn.com. We are on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. And you heard a lot of questions from our secret Facebook group that is for Patreon supporters. And if you want to support the show, you can also find out about our Adoptees Off Script podcast which again is also just for supporters. Go to AdopteesOn.com/partner for details.

Next week we are back to our Sixties Scoop series, thanks so much for listening, let’s talk again next Friday.