What is adoption gaslighting?

Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker is a licensed psychologist with professional training in Theraplay, TBRI and EMDR. She is also an international-adopted adult person. She is a featured blogger this month as we focus on adopted adult persons. 


As an international adoptee from India, I've definitely experienced gaslighting at times. And most of the other adopted adult persons I know have experienced gaslighting as well. So today I wanted to describe some of the ways I see gaslighting happening toward adopted persons.

What does the term gaslighting mean?

For those of you who aren't familiar with the term gaslighting, basically it's a psychological manipulation that occurs discrediting or questioning what someone feels or what their experiences, thoughts or beliefs are. It makes them doubt their own perception. And with adoption, this often looks like our feelings about the complexity of adoption, including the wide range of emotions and things we feel, are being invalidated or dismissed.

Some examples of gaslighting are when people tell you, "Oh, you know, that's not how you really feel," or they turn it into this dichotomy of “you must be an angry adoptee or a happy, well-adjusted adoptee,” and there's nothing in between.

So, it minimizes us to those categories and sometimes it just looks like people telling us, "Oh, you're not remembering that correctly." Like, "You must not actually remember how it was because that's not true." So it tells us our perception wasn't accurate.

I also feel like the whole sense of being looked at as, like a perpetual child, where you feel like people are condescending or they're patting you on the head. And, you know, we're just looked at as perpetual children sometimes when we're adopted.

How does gaslighting impact adopted persons differently?

There can be that sense that any time an adopted person explains how we're feeling or describe our lived experience as an adopted adult person, that we're just kind of placated and told, "Sure, sure, that's fine. That's how you feel. That's OK." Even though we can tell they're not actually believing it or valuing the input we're giving. And sometimes I feel like I see that being just the way, too, that people look at adoption as a single event that happened. And they tell us that, you know, "It was so long ago. You just need to get over it. Move on." Again, just really disregarding the complex and lifelong emotions that go with adoption.

How does gaslighting relate to grief, loss and trauma experienced with adoption?

When we try and explain about the losses, grief or trauma in adoption, it can turn into something like a trauma or opression Olympics with people who aren't adopted. The nonadopted person wants to sort of one up you and tell you about all the ways they've experienced loss or trauma, or they know what it's like to be separated from someone they love or miss them. They feel like they know better than us what the experience of adoption is because they have generalized it to their own experience. 

A lot of times I think it comes down to that whole narrative of, "You're so lucky, and you should be grateful." We are gaslit by that whole savior mentality – thinking we were rescued and given a better life. And while there may be different opportunities when you're adopted, it doesn't necessarily equate to better. Sometimes people will tell you, "Do you know what your parents had to go through to get you home and all the sacrifices or struggles they made?" This question, while seemingly innocent, gives the impression that you don't get to feel the losses or the difficult parts of adoption or whatever other feelings you may have regarding adoption. Instead, you should just be happy and grateful and go with a rainbows-and-unicorns kind of perception of it.

When this happens, often it's attached with a message that the experience of adoption is so much better than being dead, stuck in an orphanage or aborted. But those are not comparisons to the experience. It's not an either/or kind of scenario, but it gets minimized into that. And so that's where we are gaslit. We’re basically told, "There were, you know, maybe these two or three options for your life, and this is the best one – to be adopted." 

How can gaslighting affect an adopted person wanting to learn about their birth family?

As adoptees, it seems like any time we want to know our first family or learn about the birth culture we came from, it can turn into a sense of betrayal. Like you're supposed to choose between this life that you were born into and the life you were adopted into. It becomes, "How can you talk about that?" Or, "How can you hurt your parents or disappoint them or not respect or honor them?" It can come across as though you aren't allowed to feel like you have lost something, miss someone or feel any sadness or grief. Instead of being allowed the space to mourn, you must choose to not talk about your past. You have to choose the present only. 

Adopted persons may experience gaslighting different ways

There are a lot of ways adopted individuals experience gaslighting. As an international adopted adult person, whatever you're feeling, whatever you're experiencing, it's valid. It's real. And it doesn't have to match what every other adoptee experiences and feels. We're all unique despite the commonalities in our experiences. Don't allow yourself to be gaslit. Know that what you feel is always something that matters.

I'd like to give a shoutout and a thank you to Andrea Lyons and Kathy McKechnie, two other fellow adoptee therapists who helped me compile this list of things to share today. .

If you have questions or want to learn more about adult adopted persons, contact Buckner here.

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