E113 Healing Series: Boundaries Part Two with Lesli A. Johnson, MFT

Full show notes: http://www.adopteeson.com/listen/e113

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


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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 is part two of a boundaries Q&A we did with Leslie Johnson. 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, thank you for having me!

Haley - Okay, we have already done one episode about boundaries and we had so many great questions, we have to do another episode. But why don't we just start out, give us the Coles Notes version, what is a boundary, and why do adopted people, I mean most people do, but adopted people in particular can struggle with boundaries?

Lesli - So I define boundaries as a way of talking about what works for us in relationships. So setting expectations. So boundary sounds like real rigid word, but talking about expectations in relationships. What works, what doesn’t. Boundaries don't have to be rigid. They can change over time, and I think, like we talked about in our last episode, that having and setting boundaries can sometimes be difficult for a person who was adopted and I think in part because some of our earliest experiences were so out of our control. So many decisions were made for us without our having any input and so I think that gets sort of set in the brain as, well, we don’t really get a say. We don't really get to have a decision or a say in what happens. So I think that, and that’s simply not true, but I think that is sometimes why it's more difficult for people who are adopted to set personal boundaries.

Haley - Thank you.

Lesli - Sure.

Haley - Alright, let’s dive into the questions. So first we’re gonna talk about some questions that have to do with just navigating our relationships with our adoptive parents.

Lesli - Okay.

Haley - First one. “I have a lifelong struggle with my adoptive mom respecting me and my boundaries. How do I stay strong and encouraged? I know the boundaries I want but it’s hard to defend them.”

Lesli - I can relate to that one. I think being able to, and I’m just assuming this person is an adult. I think having the conversations, repeated conversations, especially if adoptive mom isn’t able to hear them, can work. I also think, I said in our last episode, you don't have to act out your boundaries, but I think part of it can be, you know if you’re saying something and you're setting an expectation of a relationship, you may have to follow it through with action. You know, mom we’re not, like I dont wanna talk to you, I can’t talk to you every night, I can’t check in with you, I’m, you know, that’s not possible. And then being able to not pick up the phone or, you know, and that sounds harsh. But I think that's a follow through of a statement. I'm not gonna be able to take your call every night just so that you know I'm okay. I’m okay. And then being able to act on that.

Haley - So the line that I, you know, just like, oh my gosh, pushed my button in here, “It’s hard to defend the boundary.”

Lesli - Right, so hard to defend.

Haley - And so what you’re saying is, we may need to do some follow through if people aren't respecting what we’ve asked them to do or not do.

Lesli - Yes, yes, exactly. And I can give, I mean that phone call example is one from my own and, and it is very hard to defend. And my mom is not alive anymore so she’s not gonna hear this. But she had a really difficult time. Her anxiety prevented her from being able to soothe herself and well into my adulthood, she needed to talk, she felt she needed to talk to me every single day. And while sometimes that worked for me, it often didn't work for me. Especially as I started to just, I didn't necessarily want to, ‘cause it felt more like a check in, like are you okay, are you okay? And so I had to have that conversation and say, you know, I’m okay. You know I’m almost 30 years old, and I don't need, you don't need to make sure I’m safe at home each night so you can feel safe. You know, if that makes sense. And I did it gently, at least the first few times. And then I had to just not pick up the phone. And so she, she had to learn to soothe herself.

Haley - That’s such a great example, thank you for walking us through that. And I like that this writer says, I know the boundaries I want, you know? So then I think it’ll be easier for them to be like, okay, if this line is crossed, then this is what I'm going to do.

Lesli - Yeah.

Haley - Okay next. Similar, similar theme I would say. Okay here’s the question. “I’m in a reunion with both bio parents and siblings and it’s been amazing, we’ve become very close. My only issue is with my adoptive mom. She’s supportive of the reunion and encouraged me to search for years. But she keeps pushing to meet my birth parents. I haven’t even met everyone yet. I keep trying to tell her, this is not about you, it’s about me. But she’s not getting it. I don't want her involved at this stage, maybe not ever. She and I have a strained relationship. She has a history of crashing my boundaries. I feel like if she met them, she would make it about her and the sacrifices she made. And ultimately say something unintentionally hurtful or embarrassing. Every time we talk, she’s bringing this up. How can I set the boundary in a way that isn't hurtful to her, but is maintaining my comfort level with her involvement in my reunion?” Oof.

Lesli - That’s a big one, that’s a really big one.

Haley - I think maybe some other people can relate to this too.

Lesli - Yes, I think so too. I’ve heard this story a lot. And it was a very detailed question and this person was answering some of my thoughts as you kept reading. My initial, before you finished the question, my initial thought was, can he or she have a conversation with their adoptive mom, and ask, kind of, be curious about why they want to have such a part in the reunion. Is it really curiosity? Then as you read on, it sounds like there’s more, there’s something underneath there that this person is protecting themselves from. Meaning, a fear that mom is gonna make it about her, that she’s gonna say something you know, hurtful. So my suggestion would be to just continue to say, mom, this is still a very new relationship for me, and these are new relationships that I’m forming and that’s really taking up my brain space right now. And I want to continue to build these relationships and I’ll let you know when I want you to be a part of it. And again, I think the theme I keep hearing is, how can I maintain my boundary without hurting the other? Sometimes that’s impossible, I think. You know, I think I don't know that, because if adoptive mom wants to meet birth parents, and the adoptive person is saying I don't want mom to meet birth parents, someone’s not gonna get what they want. And they're gonna be hurt or disappointed. That’s okay, that’s okay.

Haley - That’s okay? How do you get to the point of feeling that’s okay? ‘Cause we don’t wanna hurt people's feelings.

Lesli - We don’t wanna hurt people’s feelings but, okay, so, if this person let’s her, right now, when he or she is feeling very conflicted about bringing mom into reunion, sets that boundary and says, you know, not right now. I’m still in the early processes. If they don't set that boundary, who then is going to be hurt? I think they are, for compromising what they're trying to really establish as feels best for them.

Haley - So we gotta be brave sometimes.

Lesli - Sometimes we’ve gotta be brave.

Haley - Okay, okay. Let’s get, thank you. Alright, we’re gonna move on and talk a little bit about money. So that’s super fun. Here we go, here’s the question. “My adoptive mom owes my husband and I a lot of money. We never really truly expected her to pay it back, but she claims it’s for groceries and other things, but she has social security income. It’s been since her husband, my adoptive step dad, died. Is it realistic for us to talk to her about paying us back? Or never lending her money again? I said no from the beginning but she called my husband instead. Now he’s fed up like me.” Ooh, there's a lot in here.

Lesli - There’s a lot!

Haley - There’s a lot of little notes in here.

Lesli - Yeah, that’s a really tricky question to answer just based on that. Because it does sound like there’s lots of boundaries being broken that mom doesn't call the person who wrote this, but goes through the husband. And I think of course, I mean my, off the top of my head, my answer is of course I think it’s a conversation to have. And I think they could say, can you start paying us back 5 dollars a month? Or 5 dollars a week or, you know, something just on principle. But yeah, I think it’s a fair conversation to have.

Haley - The other thing though, this line in here, “we never really truly expected her to pay it back.”

Lesli - Right, I guess I would wonder, if they conveyed that to her.

Haley - Yeah.

Lesli - Did they say we don't expect you to pay it back? And then now, are wanting it back, or hoping--

Haley - See to me this question is almost like, the husband and wife need to have this conversation.

Lesli - Yes.

Haley - And decide what their boundary as a family unit is.

Lesli - Right.

Haley - And then decide are we gonna have this conversation with my adoptive mom or not? And et cetera.

Lesli - Right, I agree with you, I agree with you.

Haley - Right. Okay, another question about money. And this is from a international adoptee. “This year I had to set some financial boundaries because my bio family who live in another country, assume I am rich. They respect this boundary and understand this is not the kind of relationship I want with them. However, I”m scared it stops them from updating me on certain things because they don't want their hardships to sound like asking for charity. I do want to help in a sustainable way but I realize that sometimes money is the only way I can help due to our geographical distance. My main question is, how do I set financial boundaries with bio family if they're much lower income than myself? And also, how do you set these without feeling guilty?”

Lesli - That’s a tricky question too, and again I guess we’re getting just a piece of the puzzle. I guess my questions would be, what stage of reunion are they in, what kind of relationship do they have? Does giving money, could that be part of the relationship? Is it a new reunion and, this question feels like there’s a lot more than just being able to have a hard, fast, answer. And again I think it’s a conversation. You know, if there is the ability to give money and it feels okay and it feels okay to the recipient, I don't see a problem with it but I think there has to be conversation around it too. I can do this for, this amount of time, or I can only give this much. And not based on what the person has, but actually what they feel comfortable giving.

Haley - Well it changes the power dynamic, right?

Lesli - Sure, yeah.

Haley - Just when you’re saying that if you’re higher income and especially in international adoption, I’m not sure what country this other family is from. And how do you have a real healthy relationship when there’s like this shift in power.

Lesli - Right.

Haley - Especially if, this writer obviously doesn't wanna come across as like, I’m the savior and I’m rich and I’m gonna help you out of here. It’s not like that.

Lesli - No, it sounds very genuine and sincere.

Haley - Yeah. That’s a tricky one. But I think a lot of international adoptees who’ve reunited, probably have had some of these similar thoughts.

Lesli - Right, right.

Haley - So it’s interesting question to think about. Okay we are gonna shift and just talk more specifically about, I asked right at the beginning, you know, why do some adoptees feel like they struggle with boundaries so much? And just, these are things that happen on and off in our personal life. So I’m gonna ask you for some general tips and some other little one off questions. So I think this will be a little bit more rapid fire.

Lesli - Okay.

Haley - Okay, so first. “My spouse talks at me, dumping all his job related stresses on me, help!” Yikes, that does not sound happy or good.

Lesli - No.

Haley - So what do you do? Your spouse comes home and is always dumping on you. What’s the boundary there? How do you deal with that?

Lesli - I would express how that, what that creates for me. So honey, I know you have had a hard day, but when you come home and the first things, the first words out of your mouth are criticisms about your coworkers and your hate for your job, it really destabilizes me. So I’m just wondering, it’s not that I don’t want to hear about it, but I’m just wondering if there’s a way that we can first connect and then talk about our days a little bit later. I mean, when I work with couples, I hear this a lot. And I talk about you know, shifting gears. So how can you shift gears from work to home? Sometimes that’s sitting in the driveway and listening to your favorite song, sometimes it’s you know, when you get out of the car, before you go into the house. It’s walking around the block and intentionally saying to yourself, that I’m shifting from work mode to home mode. And sometimes that can, with that intention, can create a different mindset as you walk through the front door.

Haley - That’s great thank you. Okay, next question. “I do two things, overshare and yet don't let anyone get too close. Is this a boundary issue?” What do you think, Leslie?

Lesli - I think it could be a boundary issue, it could be a relationship issue. That person has a lot of insight though, that they're able to know that about themselves. So I think sharing is a way to bring people in however, it sounds like this person also has the awareness that they, that that feels scary to them. So whether it’s a boundary issue or not, it certainly sounds like a topic to explore further.

Haley - You know what when I read this question I thought, this is, they gotta go back and listen to the Implicit Memories episode I did with Dr. Julie Lopez, because it sounds like maybe there’s a trigger there that you need to look at.

Lesli - Like sharing is, you’re bringing people close, you’re bringing people, you’re creating a sense of intimacy but then it sounds like something gets triggered that there’s sort of like, the flee. Sounds like some attachment stuff.

Haley - Yeah. Okay, so that’s my advice, go watch the, not watch, go listen to the Implicit Memory episodes with Dr. Lopez and buy her book and I think she’ll give you some insight.

Lesli - I’m reading that book right now, it’s so good.

Haley - So good, super good. Okay, along the same lines, next question. “I feel I owe my bio and adoptive mom any information they want. How do I handle this?”

Lesli - Again, so insightful. And that’s the first, that’s the first step, once you shine the light on these things, you can really start to peel away the layers. I would just explore that. Why do you feel that you owe your adoptive and your birth mom anything they want, any information they want? And what are the things that you question sharing? Making a list of those things and then starting to slowly keep those to yourself. That’s where I would start.

Haley - That’s good. Okay, so as we wrap up, I’m hoping that you can give us a few tips, think it’s like a skill building thing, that those of us who struggle with maintaining our boundaries or seeing where our edges need to be, can really, we really need some help in this area. So can you give us some strategies and ways to say no?

Lesli - That’s a good question. Some strategies and ways to say no.

Haley - Well when people keep saying I feel like I overshare or you know, like a lot of the themes of some of the questions that we didn't even get to, are very much things where I’m like, oh my gosh just say no.

Lesli - Yeah.

Haley - But I've worked on that a long time.

Lesli - I have too. And I think it’s a muscle. So let’s think about no as a muscle. And we have to start to build it. And I would say just starting, even just maybe saying no to yourself. No, no, no, and then starting to practice with little things that don't really make a difference. So someone asks you to go to a book reading. And you think normally you would say yes, because you say yes to everything. And I’m not saying you say yes, Haley, but this is something you don't really, you’re kind of ambivalent about. But normally you would say yes. Just say no, just say, you know that doesn’t that’s actually not gonna work for me. And then sitting with, and if you’re a person who isn’t used to saying no, then sitting with what comes up. And jotting down, what are the feelings. Oh I’m gonna say some possible feelings. Oh, that person’s never gonna ask me to do anything with them again. Maybe they don't like me, maybe they're disappointed. And just slowly again, exercising that muscle. And I’m guessing for some people, their no might sound like, initially might sound like, uh, maybe. Or, not right now. Or no, but I could do it next time. But after a time, being able to just say, no that actually doesn’t work for me but thank you so much for the invitation. Or, no I don’t want that or I don’t care for that. But it’s a muscle and again if you think about our early experiences, we didn’t get to say no. We didn’t get to say no, I don't wanna be taken away from my birth mother. No, I don't wanna go to that next foster family. No I don't wanna live here. So honoring that little part inside of us that didn’t get to say no. and that doesn't meant that we’re going to start saying no to everything. But something doesn't feel right or we simply don't want to do something, and if it’s okay not to do. I’m not saying no, I’m not gonna pay my taxes. But just honoring our expectations of ourselves.

Haley - And we get those choices and we can have healthy boundaries. And just because you’ve been struggling with those things doesn't mean that you can’t learn how to develop those.

Lesli - We absolutely can, that’s all neuroplasticity stuff, we can constantly change the way we respond and think and it’s absolutely doable.

Haley - Great, that’s great, that’s a happy note to end on, I think. And I think just having these conversations and learning more about strategies and I mean, that’s just so important for us. Thank you so much Lesli, I really appreciate your wisdom on this area. Where we can connect with you online?

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

Haley - Thank you.

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Thank you so much to everyone who submitted questions for the two boundaries Q&A episodes. Make sure you’re following us on social media, so that the next time we do a Q&A episode, you can ask your question. We are on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook and links to all of those are in the show notes and over at AdopteesOn.com. I’m also so thankful for our monthly Patreon supporters without which we would not be able to make the show for you every single week. So, thank you so much. If you want to partner alongside of me, and our monthly supporters you can go to AdopteesOn.com/partner to find out more details about all the benefits of supporting the show.

Thanks so much for listening, let’s talk again next Friday.