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Dear Swipe This!
I’ve been dating my girlfriend for a little over a year, and this Christmas she got me a gift that freaked me out. She got me a DNA testing kit.
I think DNA kits are kind of weird and invasive to begin with. But this gift feels especially weird to me because I’m adopted. I am generally OK with this part of my life. It’s not a secret—all my ex-girlfriends and my good friends all know this about me. Also, my parents are great people and I have a good relationship with them.
But I still have abandonment issues, and when it comes to heritage and ethnicity, even though I look like I could be my adoptive parents’ child, sometimes I do feel jealous of people who know more about their actual genetic roots. This has come up when my girlfriend talks about her own family (she’s Italian and can trace her roots back several generations). I do feel curious about the people who came before me and where they came from. I’ve said this to her and she’s suggested DNA kits before. I’ve always said, “Yeah, maybe one day,” but I didn’t think she was going to run with the idea and force me to take a test!
One thing I haven’t discussed with my girlfriend is that part of the reason I’m wary of DNA testing is I know it can lead to connecting with my birth parents, and I’m not sure I even want that. I’ve heard stories of people finding their sperm donor or their birth parents on 23andMe and it makes me nervous. I mean, it could be cool! Sometimes I think it would be really nice to meet my birth parents. What if they are similar to me and we get along? Maybe it would be really special.
But I also think it could be awful. What if I feel abandoned all over again? I’ve already gone to therapy and dealt with my feelings about being adopted, so this just feels like opening a can of worms. Not to mention there are my fears about how my birth parents might feel. What if they feel rejected or hurt that they suddenly aren’t enough for me?
I haven’t told my girlfriend how anxious this has made me. She is a really bubbly, kind, supportive person and I know she really didn’t mean any harm. I’m afraid that she will be horrified and embarrassed that her gift upset me. But she has been expressing excitement about getting the results and I can’t keep stalling and putting it off. Do I just take the test and see what happens? I feel like there’s all this added pressure and I need to make a choice that I don’t feel ready to make.
What should I do? Fake the results? Can I throw the kit off a bridge?
Adopted and Anxious
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Dear Adopted and Anxious,
I think curiosity is one of the healthiest and most exciting experiences we can have. The desire to see your world more fully, to know more, is such a wonderful feeling. In some ways, curiosity is the opposite of fear. It reminds me of being a child and feeling that the world is full of thrilling mysteries. And in that way, it can be something very vulnerable to share or even speak aloud. So I’m glad you were able to share your curiosity with someone you love. And I’m so sorry that your romantic partner mistook your curiosity for a readiness to investigate your roots.
So let’s talk about boundaries. Boundaries allow us to have healthy relationships. Without them, we become enmeshed and our emotional lives feel chaotic. You have a right to set boundaries with your partner, with your parents, and—should they enter the picture—with your birth parents.
I think you’re right that your partner meant you no harm. But I also think her gift was a huge breach of your boundaries. “Yeah, maybe one day” is not consent. And while your partner didn’t intend to harm you, she has put you in a really sticky spot. And I’m not surprised that you feel uncomfortable.
Which brings me to your feelings. I think it’s healthy that you can identify that this gift freaked you out, even if you aren’t ready to voice that to your partner. But I wonder if you can’t dig a little deeper and get honest with yourself about what you’re really feeling. If you are angry or afraid, or even sad, let yourself feel it. It’s OK to feel anxious, upset, or even angry about this gift. Whatever you’re feeling right now, I assure you, it’s warranted. You seem terribly preoccupied with protecting the feelings of others—your partner’s, your parents’—and you seem very uncomfortable showing up for your own.
There are many reasons to ignore our feelings. Maybe they’re unpleasant. Maybe we’re afraid they will overwhelm us. Or maybe we were never taught how to handle them, so we simply brush them aside and focus on something more manageable—say, the feelings of others. And that can work for a little while. Caring for others and showing up for their needs, their anxieties, or even their joys can be a balm of sorts. But if we never check in with ourselves, if we deny all the parts of us that feel, things begin to fester below the surface.
So I think the first step in resolving this is to bring your focus back to you and your feelings. You can acknowledge that your partner wanted to share something special with you, but don’t sweep your ickier feelings under the carpet. If, and when, you’re ready, be honest with her about your frustration and your fears. The people who love you care about you, and they care about your experiences. They might be ignorant of what you’ve gone through, or it may be hard for them to anticipate your needs, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t care. And if she can’t or won’t show up for you, if she makes this awkward gift choice about her feelings instead of yours, that doesn’t mean your feelings have to shrink or disappear. You still have every right to your frustration and to having it acknowledged.
Once you’ve shared your feelings with your partner, and possibly your parents, you’ll still have the kit itself to deal with. I won’t tell you what to do with it, because I don’t think that’s my right. This is such a deeply personal choice and I think the choice rests with you.
Which brings me back to boundaries. Having good boundaries doesn’t mean being callous or unkind. It simply means that we recognize that our feelings are our own to care for, and other people’s are theirs. We can have compassion for others, we can express empathy, but we stop believing that other people’s well-being is our responsibility. If we’re used to feeling cared for by letting our feelings bleed into the feelings of others, stepping back can provoke feelings of isolation or anxiety at first. But with practice and over time, I have found that good boundaries actually create the opposite effect. When we stop believing that other people are responsible for our feelings, or that we are responsible for theirs, we begin to feel whole. We become more capable of showing up for others. And, because we are being more authentically ourselves, we become more capable of receiving the thoughtful love and acknowledgment we crave.
So know this—whether or not you take this test, whether or not you discover a percentage point-by-point breakdown of who your ancestors were and where they lived—you are already 100 percent whole. You don’t need a test, or even a set of birth parents to complete you. All you need is your own willingness to show up for you.