Being close to your family is usually a good thing, but it’s possible to be too close.
Enmeshment describes family relationships that lack boundaries such that roles and expectations are confused, parents are overly and inappropriately reliant on their children for support, and children are not allowed to become emotionally independent or separate from their parents. Family members are emotionally fused together in an unhealthy way.
Commons signs and symptoms of enmeshment
If you grew up in an enmeshed family, these common signs of enmeshment will be familiar to you.
- There’s a lack of emotional and physical boundaries.
- You don’t think about what’s best for you or what you want; it’s always about pleasing or taking care of others.
- You feel responsible for other people’s happiness and wellbeing.
- You’re guilted or shamed if you want less contact (don’t talk to your mother every week or want to spend a holiday without your parents) or you make a choice that’s good for you (such as move across the country for a great job opportunity).
- Your parents’ self-worth seems to hinge on your success or accomplishments.
- Your parents want to know everything about your life.
- Your parents’ lives center around yours.
- Your parents don’t encourage you to follow your dreams and may impose their ideas about what you should be doing.
- Family members overshare personal experiences and feelings in a way that creates unrealistic expectations, unhealthy dependence, confused roles. Often, enmeshed parents treat their children as friends, rely on them for emotional support, and share inappropriate personal information.
- You feel like you have to meet your parents’ expectations, perhaps giving up your own goals because they don’t approve.
- You try to avoid conflicts and don’t know how to say “no”.
- You don’t have a strong sense of who you are.
- You absorb other people’s feelings feel like you need to fix other people’s problems.
What causes enmeshment?
Enmeshment is a dysfunctional family dynamic that is passed through the generations. We tend to recreate the family dynamics that we grew up with because they’re familiar. Enmeshment usually originates due to some sort of trauma or illness (addiction, mental illness, a seriously ill child who is overprotected). However, because it’s usually a generational pattern, you may not be able to pinpoint the origins of enmeshment in your family. It’s more important to identify ways that enmeshment is causing difficulties for you and work to change those dynamics in your relationships.
Families need boundaries
Boundaries establish appropriate roles – who is responsible for what in a family. And boundaries create physical and emotional space between family members. Boundaries create safety in families. They reflect respect for everyone’s needs and feelings, they communicate clear expectations, and they establish what’s okay to do and what’s not.
As a child grows up, boundaries should gradually shift to allow for more autonomy, greater privacy, developing his/her own beliefs and values, and so forth. In healthy families, children are encouraged to become emotionally independent – to separate, pursue their goals, and become themselves – not to become extensions of their parents (sharing their feelings, beliefs, values) or to take care of their parents.
In enmeshed families, these kinds of healthy boundaries don’t exist. Parents overshare personal information. They don’t respect privacy. They rely on their child for emotional support or friendship. They don’t allow children to make their own decisions and mistakes. Children aren’t encouraged to explore their own identities, become emotionally mature and separate from their parents.
This burdens children with:
- the responsibility of taking care of their parents (often when they aren’t emotionally mature enough to do so)
- role confusion (children are expected to take care of their parents and/or are treated as friends or confidants)
- prioritizing their parents needs above their own
- a lack of respect for their feelings, needs, and individuality
Children need to individuate from their parents
In order to become a mature and emotionally healthy adult, you have to individuate and become independent from your parents. Individuation is the process of separating yourself both physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and so forth. Individuation is the process of becoming an individual, not just an extension of your parents.
The process of normal individuation is obvious in adolescents. This is the time when we typically start spending more time with friends. We experiment with our own style and appearance. We recognize that we don’t have to believe the same things our parents believe. We gain clarity about our values, beliefs, and interests and are able to express them and act on them. We make more decisions for ourselves. In other words, we start to figure out who we are as unique individuals and look to the outside world for greater opportunities.
In enmeshed families, individuation is limited. You’re likely to get stuck in an emotionally dependent, child-like state. This creates a strange juxtaposition of being undifferentiated and emotionally immature yet also parentified (treated like a friend or surrogate spouse).
Enmeshment is confusing
Enmeshment can be confused with healthy closeness, especially if it’s all you’ve known. Enmeshment creates an emotional bond, a dependence, and intimate connection among family members. But it’s not a healthy dependence or connection. It’s based on using people to meet your emotional needs and not allowing them to become fully themselves. Adults shouldn’t use their children (or others) to make themselves feel valued and safe.
The legacy of enmeshment
In addition to the issues mentioned above, enmeshment can cause a variety of other problems such as these.
- Approval-seeking and low self-worth
- Fear of abandonment
- Not developing a strong sense of self; not being in touch with your feelings, interests, beliefs, etc.
- Not pursuing your goals
- Being saddled with inappropriate guilt and responsibility
- Having a hard time speaking up for yourself
- Codependent relationships
- Not learning to self-soothe, sit with difficult emotions, and calm yourself when you’re upset
- Feeling responsible for people who’ve mistreated you or who refuse to take responsibility for themselves
If you grew up in an enmeshed family, you’ve probably replicated enmeshment and codependency in your other relationships. However, this doesn’t mean you’re doomed to dysfunctional relationships forever. Below are four components of reversing enmeshment and becoming a healthier, more authentic YOU.
1. Set boundaries.
Learning to set boundaries is imperative if you’re going to change enmeshed relationships. Boundaries create a healthy separation between you and others. We need physical boundaries (such as personal space, privacy, and the right to refuse a hug or other physical touch) and emotional boundaries (such as the right to have our own feelings, to say “no”, to be treated with respect, or not answer a call from a toxic person).
To get started, you’ll need to identify the specific boundaries that you need. Notice when you feel guilty, resentful, unappreciated, or angry. Explore what’s underneath these feelings – there’s a good chance there was a boundary violation. To learn the basics of setting boundaries, check out my 10 steps to setting boundaries and my article on setting boundaries with toxic people.
2. Discover who you are.
Enmeshment prevents us from developing a strong sense of self. As a result, you may not have a clear sense of who you are, what matters to you, what you want to do, and so forth. You may feel obligated to do what pleases other people and stifle your interests, goals, and dreams because others wouldn’t approve or understand.
An important part of separating yourself from an enmeshed relationship is to discover who you really are. What are your interests, values, goals? What are your strengths? What do you feel passionate about? Where do you like to vacation? What are your religious or spiritual beliefs? If you weren’t encouraged to cultivate your own interests and beliefs, this can be an uncomfortable process. It can stir up feelings of guilt or betrayal. But despite what others have told you, it’s not selfish to put yourself first. It’s not wrong to have your own opinions and preferences – and to act on them.
3. Stop feeling guilty.
Guilt can be a huge barrier to setting boundaries, being assertive, developing a separate sense of self, and doing what’s right for you – not what’s right according to others. Guilt is often used as a manipulation tactic in enmeshed families. We are told that we’re wrong, selfish, or uncaring if we go against the grain. Over time, most of us internalize this guilt and come to believe that setting boundaries or having our own opinions is wrong. This kind of stinkin’ thinkin’ is often so entrenched that it’s the hardest aspect of enmeshment to overcome.
The first step in changing it is to recognize that guilt and self-criticism are not helpful or accurate reflections of reality. Notice how often you feel guilty and how often guilt dictates your behavior. Then try to challenge the distorted thoughts that perpetuate feelings of guilt. Changing your thinking can be an arduous process, but you can whittle away at your inappropriate guilt little by little.
4. Get support.
Breaking free of enmeshment is tough because it’s probably a relationship pattern you’ve known since birth – and those that benefit from your enmeshment are certain to try to make it difficult for you to change. Getting help from a professional therapist or a support group (such as Codependents Anonymous) is invaluable for learning new skills and reducing guilt and shame.
Changing enmeshed family dynamics can be overwhelming. However, enmeshment exists on a continuum and so does healing. You don’t have to change everything at once. Just pick one change to focus on and work on consistently improving in that area. It does get easier!
©2019 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
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