After my birth family reunion a few years ago, I went through a major identity crisis. Since then, I’ve been working out my own identity: What makes me who I am? I’ve been exploring the concept of decision-making. I wonder how much of who I am and the decisions that I’ve made have been formed by my biological genetic inheritance versus the environment in which I was raised. As adoptees, the question of how much our genes (biology) and our family environment contributed to our identity is brought to the forefront in a more direct way than for other non-adopted people. There’s often a feeling of being split between these two things and straddling the line somehow.
My adoptive mom would be the first to admit that one of her main weaknesses is in the area of communication. She struggles to open up and be vulnerable. She’s introverted as an adult and said she never got involved in any social extracurricular activities growing up. I have wondered if I would be a different type of person if I was raised in a different type of environment. What if I grew up watching really great communicators? What if I had exposure to learning life lessons from stellar-communicators? Would I be less backwards and awkward in social settings? Would I have more confidence to put myself out there and be vulnerable? Would I be better at communicating and therefore receive more of what I wanted? Would I be further in my career? Would I have a different career? Would I make more money? It’s a question that I’ve pondered as I grew up and in my adulthood.
After reuniting with my birth family in 2014, my mind has been blown by the ways in which I am like my birth family. Our dark hair and Asian eyes are a given. But more than just our appearances, we also have a really have similar work-ethic. We are both very driven and extremely hard-working. We have similar life-outlooks when it comes to careers, how we spend our time, and on religion. It’s uncanny and unbelievable at times how alike we are in the decisions we’ve made. Certain mannerisms are even the same. Even for small habits that one would never think could be genetically-based, like the way my cousin and I straighten out the little section between our nose and our mouth when we speak. I did this little movement so often growing up, that my adoptive family noticed it as a little mannerism of mine. And it’s not a common habit. Growing up, I thought I was the only one who did that, because I never knew anyone else who did that as often as I did. I was shocked when I met my biological cousin to discover that he did that too even though we were raised in completely different environments apart from one another!
It’s interesting to have a daughter of my own to have a different vantage point to reflect on these questions. My little girl, who is 2-and-a-half years old is one of the most driven individuals I’ve ever met. She works so hard at meticulously setting up her things exactly the way she wants them. And when she or my husband accidentally messes with her set-up, she lets us know! So, in that sense she speaks her mind. When she’s unhappy, the entire house knows it. She doesn’t hold back when it comes to letting her dad and I know what she wants. The other day, we were visiting a neighbor’s house who also has small children. They have a small push cart that goes on a track that you can ride down like a mini-roller coaster train. And the children take turns riding the cart down the tracks. In this particular environment while playing with the neighborhood children, my daughter did something surprising. When it was my daughters turn to ride the push-cart, she liked to push the cart up the track herself, and then ride it down the little track. But each time she went to push the cart up the track for her turn to ride it down, her friend would come and take the cart from her and push it up for her. The little girl was so enthusiastic about it and even said, “I help!” to let me daughter know that she was helping her take her turn. Instead of letting the little girl know that she wanted to push the cart up to the top herself, my daughter visibly caved her shoulders and posture inward and backed up– eventually sitting down on the side as the little girl pushed the cart for her. My daughter wasn’t despondent. She was just silent and unsure of what to do. So she stood back and took a backseat role to this more aggressive youngster. After a moment, she smiled brightly after the little girl pushed the cart to the top, stood up and took her turn to ride down the little roller coaster. I could see that my daughter wanted to push the cart. She loves to push things and feel heavy pressure against her joints as she does something daring and gratifying while playing. I was so surprised to watch her take a backseat in these moments and not use her voice to speak out to say that she could do it herself. I was amazed and saddened at how much this behavior reminded me of me. So many times, I too take a backseat when I should speak out. And for so long, I’ve blamed that backwardness on my adoptive mom. My adoptive mom’s incredibly introverted, and that’s where I believe I learned those behaviors. But in that moment, I realized– it was genetic. And I gave it to my daughter! Yikes!
I recently attended a women’s event at Wharton, University of Pennsylvania’s Business school. I mentioned that it’s often hard for me to answer general interview questions. Those that ask about your strengths and weaknesses or those that ask about a time when you had to work on a problem or work as a team. I just freeze in a panic and really struggle with thinking clearly to articulate my thoughts. One of the speakers recommended that I create a spreadsheet with my responses. Write down the questions that were asked of me, my answers, and their responses to what I shared. This is an excellent idea! How profound to take this process and track the outcomes systematically. Similarly, I’m currently reading a great self-help book called, No Hard Feelings, a wonderful book on how to manage and capitalize on emotions at work. The authors recommended readers to create a spreadsheet to record your decisions and your emotions and feelings in each case to then track the outcomes. This can help identify patterns of what your feelings and emotions are telling you, help you to decipher them, and help you to determine how reliable they can be. In a sense, learning how to decode your feelings.
After seeing this spreadsheet idea in two different venues, and loving both of the ideas, I realized that this would be a great idea to do to help my daughter! Rather than to feel paralyzed by this idea that this shyness and fear to speak up was “genetic,” and that this was destined to be her personality, I decided to start a running spreadsheet of areas that need attention that I notice in my daughter. Then, I will compile a list of ways to help her cultivate stronger skills in each area. Rather than let these parts of her personality be the finale, I’m going to apply some agency into helping her build strengths in these areas of need.
I was able to put these ideas into practice recently with our family gatherings. During my daughter’s last interaction with her older male cousin, she became frightened when he approached her with a loud roar and his hands poised for pouncing like he was a lion. She became so frightened that she started cry. We had another family event coming up at a trampoline park. When we entered the space, I could see fear splashed across my daughter’s face. It was dark, and neon lights were flashing across the ceiling, and there were kids making noises on a background of loud music and intercom announcements. She started to make herself small and cowered down in trepidation as we proceeded through the entry way. In that moment, I knew that this would be an opportunity for her to practice using her big voice and making herself known in an intimidating environment. So, I told her that if things get too loud, she can cover her ears. Because some things are too loud. And when we want to be loud, we can use a loud voice. We can practice doing a loud “ROAARRR!” So we did. And then, I said that if she wants to use her loud voice, she can! When she wants, she can use her voice and say words like, “I’M ALIYAH!!!” So we said that together! And she jumped and shouted and lifted her little hands in excitement. And it was one of the proudest moments I’ve ever had as a mom.
We proceeded into the trampoline park, and instead of cowering, my daughter was so big and loud, and I loved every moment of it. She was jumping and having a blast with her cousins, keeping pace with them every step of the way. She wasn’t scared of their big, loud older voices. In fact, she was talking and having fun with them and really standing her ground. At the end of the party, she even gave her cousin a big hug without any prompting from me. It was such a touching moment.
Our own choices are the seat of so much power. This agency is our x-factor. Regardless of what we are comprised of biologically-speaking, and regardless of what our parents were able to teach us, we all have this x-factor: that we get to choose how and what we do with what we’ve been given. It’s a lot of power. And sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the pressure of making the right choices. One reassurance highlighted by the book, No Hard Feelings: when there’s anxiety about making a decision between two choices, usually it’s because both options are good ones. (What a relief!)
I’ve realized a few things: Much more of my behaviors are biologically-based than I initially thought. Areas of my personality that I thought were more generalized into one camp (biologically-based) or the other (behaviorally-based) are actually more nuanced. But, most importantly, no matter where the behavior started–out of a biological response or a learned response, I have the power to decide what to do about it. I can choose to work on enhancing traits that I want to increase within myself and work on diminishing other traits within myself. I can build on my strengths. And I can strengthen my weak areas. And I can help my daughter discover who she is and teach her strategies to choose who she wants to be too. And ultimately, that’s the best all of us can do. To take what we’ve been given and apply our x-factor. I’ve been working with a life coach who really empowered me when he said that the goal is to be the best you you can be. Only you can do it. There’s no other competition as worthy of our time and attention than competing against who you were yesterday to be even better today. No one else can give the unique gifts to the world that you can offer. You are enough. Cherish the moments in your life like gold so that you can give them the respect, thought, and choices they deserve. They are comprising who you are.
I’m looking forward to seeing how you and I apply these ideas in our journey ahead. If you have any stories or thoughts about this topic you’d like to share, please feel free to contact me or leave them in the comments. I’d love to hear from you. I’ve listed a few of my favorite books in Personal Growth Resources. Dive in if you’re looking for some great-reads on how to live your best life. Know that you’re not alone in your search for your identity and your journey of how to live your best life. We are all on that journey together. And I’m rooting for you.