Fears and doubts about being adopted can be involved in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), often involving intrusive, repetitive thoughts and questions that cannot be answered with absolute certainty and always leave some residual doubt. They may be scary or frightening and feel especially significant, meaningful, or urgent, connected with one’s sense of identity and existence in the world.
People with OCD often find themselves filled with doubt about the topics of their intrusive thoughts or fears—for some, these can include their own birth, family, and identity. Fears about being adopted and persistent distressing doubts about one’s origin of birth in OCD are related to the OCD subtype of Existential OCD, often connected with larger doubts or fears about one’s identity and self.
As with many forms of OCD, people with these themes may question things that are unanswerable—at least not with the perfect certainty that OCD demands. They may question their genetic profile and their “true” identity. They may focus on their own existence, what they’re called to do or what they are meant to do, and how their life might be different if they were adopted. People who experience these thoughts and feelings have a great deal of anxiety about these topics and have trouble moving on without perfectly secure and certain answers to these questions. Their intolerance for uncertainty can leave them seeking safety or relief in all sorts of behaviors known as compulsions, which they perform in an attempt to relieve themselves of anxiety or find absolute certainty about their doubts.
Common obsessions experienced by people with OCD involving fears about being adopted may include:
- How can I be sure my parents are actually my parents?
- How can I know if I am who I think I am?
- I don’t look exactly like my parents. What if I’m adopted?
- What if my parents are lying to me?
- How would my life be different if I were adopted?
- Do these fears mean I don’t love my parents?
- What if I would rather have been adopted?
- What if my birth parents were bad? Does that change who I am?
People with OCD whose fears involve being adopted may be triggered by situations involving their birth, family, biology, or any situations that involve adoption specifically.
Triggers for people with fears related to being adopted may include:
- Perceiving differences between oneself and one’s parents
- Parents developing illnesses or potentially hereditary conditions
- Hearing about others who learn they were adopted
- Hearing about adoption
- Media involving adoption, children switched at birth, etc.
- Having children of one’s own
How can I tell if I’m experiencing OCD with a focus on fears about being adopted, and not justified concerns or simple anxiety?
This is an excellent question. To know if you may be suffering from OCD, you need to learn to recognize the OCD cycle.
The OCD cycle is composed of: 1) intrusive thoughts, feelings, images, or urges; 2) anxiety or distress that comes as a result; 3) compulsions performed to relieve this distress and anxiety or to prevent a feared outcome. Understanding this cycle can help you distinguish OCD from other conditions. Something to keep in mind is that if you are feeling an intense urgency to know something about your birth, biology, and parents immediately and with certainty, that is a red flag that OCD may be at work.
Intrusive thoughts or doubts can and do happen to everyone. Most people who do not have OCD are able to brush these thoughts off rather easily. However, people with OCD struggle to do this. They often believe that they are unable to tolerate even the slightest uncertainty about their obsessions, because they are simply too important or leave them with a discomfort that they struggle to accept. They feel the need to know exactly whether or not they are related to the parents they know and whether or not they are who they think they are.
When people with OCD involving fears about being adopted experience intrusive thoughts, images, feelings, or urges that cause distress, they may engage in compulsions. Compulsions are behaviors or mental acts that one does to alleviate the distress and discomfort caused by intrusive thoughts, and they can look different in every person. Compulsions may provide temporary relief, but do nothing to keep obsessions from returning again and again. In fact, performing compulsions inadvertently strengthens obsessions and fears, reinforcing the idea that obsessions pose an actual threat or danger.
Compulsions performed mentally or physically by people with fears surrounding being adopted may include:
- Excessive reassurance-seeking from known parents
- Excessive research into birth, including certificates, photos, etc.
- Seeking genetic profile testing
- Checking for specific heritable similarities between oneself and their parents
- Googling things about genetics and adoption
- Rumination on the implications of being adopted
How to overcome fear of being adopted
OCD focused on fears about being adopted can be debilitating, but like any form of OCD, it is highly treatable. By doing exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy with an OCD specialist, you can find freedom from the OCD cycle.
ERP is the gold standard treatment for OCD and many other anxiety disorders. It is backed by decades of clinical research proving its effectiveness and shows promising results within 12-25 sessions on average. With ERP, you will be able to teach your brain that you are able to tolerate uncertainty and anxiety, even about being adopted.
In ERP, you’re gradually and safely exposed to the thoughts and situations that are likely to trigger intrusive thoughts and anxiety. With your therapist’s guidance and support, you will learn how to resist the urge to respond to feelings of discomfort and anxiety with compulsions. By doing this over time, you will experience decreased anxiety and distress in response to OCD triggers, learn that you are able to tolerate anxiety, and feel more confident in your ability to sit with uncertainty and discomfort.
Examples of possible exposures done to treat fears of being adopted in Existential OCD may include:
- Creating and listening to a loop tape about the worst-case scenario of having been adopted and how this may impact one’s life
- Watching stories on TV about adoption
- Hearing about or reading about adoption stories where people didn’t know until later in life
If you’re struggling with OCD, you can schedule a free 15-minute call today with the NOCD care team to learn how a licensed therapist can help. At NOCD, all therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training. ERP is most effective when the therapist conducting the treatment has experience with OCD and training in ERP.