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The Primal Wound of Rejection

{I didn't realize until after I heard and met Jeanette at the 2021 NAAP Conference that years ago I had listened to her episode on Adoptees On. One particular part on shame stayed with me, which I’d like to share:

"Shame is like a bubble around you and in the bubble you see a mirror, and all you see is your bad self. You see your deficiencies, you see you're not worthy, you're not loveable. There's something wrong about you. Because it's a bubble, you cannot see past the bubble. People who experience pervasive shame, who live with this feeling that when someone points out to them a mistake - they can't separate themselves from the mistake, it's all enmeshed in one. When you point out my mistake, I feel I'm the mistake.

Shame will impede the development of guilt because guilt is feeling sorry and acknowledging the other person; you're not only looking at yourself. So that's why it's very difficult for people who experience shame, it's very difficult for them to apologize and take responsibility, and this is a common red flag that you're living in cannot go to this person and say "I'm sorry", because what you're saying sorry for is that "I'm sorry I'm so bad" and "I'm sorry I'm so wrong." You're asking [them] to go to the person and reaffirm how bad [they] feel about [themselves].

So what we want to do is be able to separate the person from the behavior.

I'm not the mistake, the mistake is the mistake and I can learn from this.

Kids and adults with shame often haven't had someone who was empathetic with them. Children who have been in foster care and adoption have unmet needs.

...We need to take care of ourselves, because of what happened to us. And we get to then go into the world and utilize our many strengths. There are many core issues, but there are many strengths: we're strong-willed. We're very determined. We are deeper thinkers. We feel the world on a much more profound level. That's what makes us amazing creators, visual and performing artists, writers, painters. We can see things other people don't see because we're very observant. And once we tap into those strengths, we can do things that we never thought or imagined we could." }

The Primal Wound of Rejection

Jeanette Yoffe M.F.T.

As an adoption psychotherapist and an adoptee, I want to help bring more awareness and understanding to a very painful, and sensitive circumstance in adoption: the initial separation of mother and child, and the core vulnerabilities that develop for the child placed for adoption, which can hinder having a successful reunion.

A phrase I often say to adoptees, in the Adopt Salon support group I facilitate in Los Angeles, is “being separated from your mother was not a rejection of you, it was a reflection of the circumstances” in your mother’s life at that time. This candor is in no way meant to diminish, depersonalize, or take the grief and loss away. It is meant to help gain objectivity, separate from the re-experiencing of the “primal wound of rejection” and reframe, rethink, and see from an objective stance, from the birth mother’s point of view.

Adoptees thematically have a high sensitivity to any perceived sense of rejection. Why? Because of the initial separation trauma from their birth mother, which can feel like a “death by rejection.” The loss of the mother to the child is still not acknowledged as legitimate grief by society and vice versus. Even so, many question “how could a baby remember leaving their mother?” The answer is babies' bodies remember. This abrupt loss is downloaded and stored into the cellular body and unconscious memory. The baby forms an attachment to the mother in the womb, by her rhythms, her voice, and her smell during their nine month embrace.

As children develop, they try to make sense of why they are not with their families of origin and question over and over, “How could a mother give away her child? There must have been something wrong with me.” A core belief system sets in which concludes “I am not good enough. I was not wanted. I was rejected.” This schema is downloaded into the psyche of the adoptee, and becomes the “core of who they are,” thus causing strain in future relationships that remind them of this primal wound. Adoptees can anticipate a rejection in an instant, and misperceive new situations as possible further rejections, unless deemed otherwise. They need a lot of reassurance, validation, and consistent emotional support.

To move through this threat of rejection, it is very important for the adoptee to gain an understanding of their birth mother’s circumstances at that time, so they can understand the circumstances which led their birth mother to make such a decision, and many times adoptees don’t have this information.

However, once there is a chance for reunion, adoptees can learn their birth mother’s decision was not based upon them as a person, but based on a multitude of psychosocial stressors occurring in their life at that time, which had nothing to do with them. i.e. lack of family support, mental health services, parenting support, childcare, or financial stability. Having this information can help the adoptee externalize, and hold a knowing “your birth mother could not parent any baby born on your birthday, this decision was not about you, it was about the circumstances in her life at that time.

Reunion has its challenges. I recommend taking planned, concrete steps to develop trust in the fractured relationship. It is imperative for both the mother and adult child to create an expectations agreement. Reunion can catapult a strong desire to jump into the deep end too quickly, with either too much contact or not enough contact, which, if not handled properly, can trigger feelings of feeling rejected all over again. It is important to recognize that both the mother and child will regress in reunion, meaning they will go back psychologically to the time of the initial separation trauma. They will need support from an adoption-informed reunion therapist, who can help to establish healthy boundaries and foster open communication, so everyone’s needs are met. Exchanging initial hand written letters and providing an opportunity to ask questions back and forth enable understanding of each other’s life circumstances, perceptions, and intentions.

Most importantly, a therapist can assist the birthmother in validating the adoptee's experience of growing up without her, and the impact this has had on their life. In doing so, the birthmother affirms her child’s grief and loss as valid. “I see you, I hear you, and I can understand how painful this must have felt like for you as a child.” This holding of understanding is the most validating act a birthparent can do for their child.

Jeanette Yoffe, M.A., M.F.T., is the Director and Founder of Celia Center, the non-profit she named after her first mother, Celia. It serves as a support center which meets the needs of all those connected by Foster Care and Adoption and all those who serve the community. She is an adoptions and foster care psychotherapist and founder of Yoffe Therapy. Yoffe’s desire to become a therapist with a special focus on adopted and foster care issues derived from her own experience of being adopted and moving through the foster care system. She leads the support group called Adopt Salon Los Angeles, which brings together all of the constellation members involved in an adoption and/or foster care placement, as well as ignite strength and community, and bring education, awareness and support for all of these members in forming healthy reunions, open adoptions, healing and understanding for all. In her spare time, she enjoys being a spokesperson and actress in T.V. and Film.

More info at

Jeanette-ically Speaking (YouTube)

Adoptees On Episodes

<Safety instructions for being there for a woman who lost her only child to adoption

<why I relinquished a son to adoption and why I never would again

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