Abuse & Neglect Abuse Effects Healing

Enmeshment: Signs, Causes, Effects, & How to Heal

Enmeshment | Hopeful Panda

Childhood abuse can take on many forms, and one of these is enmeshment.

When discussing childhood trauma and abuse, people oftentimes think about physical abuse or neglect. However, a form of emotional abuse known as enmeshment, which is quite the opposite of the more known physical abuse and neglect, can actually be quite insidious.

This post will explore what enmeshment is, its signs, causes, and effects, and how to heal from it.

Learning about enmeshment and how it affected you can help you begin moving forward from your childhood trauma.

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What is Enmeshment?

Enmeshment is a term often used to describe a family dynamic where there are unclear, blurred, or nonexistent boundaries between family members.

It often happens on an emotional level in which the people involved are intertwined in an unhealthy way, unable to separate their emotional experiences from one another. They often have difficulty distinguishing their own emotions and needs from other people’s.

You can think about it as everyone’s emotions, problems, space, and personal lives being “meshed” together. This causes them to become overly involved in each other’s lives, leading to an excessive level of closeness and dependence on each other to the point it’s considered unhealthy or even toxic.

When it comes to the parent-child relationship, the child is so involved in their parent’s emotions that they don’t (or can’t) have emotions of their own. Everything the child feels or does is based on what their parent feels and wants.

As a result, the child is unable to develop a healthy sense of self, form independent relationships, and make decisions on their own. It can also lead to mental health and developmental issues and limit the child’s ability to function in the world outside of their family.

Signs of Enmeshment

All families are unique. Thus, not all enmeshed families will exhibit these signs. But if you recognize some of these signs within your family or within your relationship with your parent, it may indicate some form of enmeshment happening.

Lack of boundaries

A huge sign of enmeshment and a significant part of its definition is the lack of boundaries in the relationship. In other words, there is a lack of physical and/or emotional space between those involved.

People in an enmeshed relationship may feel entitled to each other’s time, energy, and resources.

If and when you attempt to set a boundary, your parent may take it personally. They may claim you don’t love them or that you don’t think they’re good enough.

Lack of privacy

In enmeshed families, there may be a lack of or low levels of privacy between members, physically and/or emotionally.

Members may freely share personal details about one another and lack personal or private space.

For instance, growing up, I didn’t have my own room. Everything was “shared”. Even going to the bathroom didn’t warrant privacy because the doors are usually left unlocked and everyone would be walking in on everyone’s business.

And this was set up by my mother who used it as a way to control everything and know what was happening at all times. Once I started locking the door, she assumed I was hiding something, insisting that I must be doing something bad.

Emotional fusion

Emotional fusion is when an individual’s emotions merge with those of another person or group. It is a significant element of enmeshment.

Members in an enmeshed relationship are often unable to differentiate their own emotions from those of the others in the relationship. Their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors become heavily influenced by those around them.

While it’s okay to empathize with someone’s feelings, it’s not the same as literally feeling whatever the other person is feeling at all times.

If you cannot tell the difference between your own emotions and your parents’, then you likely have an enmeshed relationship.

You do what your parent wants rather than what you want

As a child, or even now, you may struggle to differentiate your own feelings from those of your parents.

If your parent is sad, you feel sad, too. If they’re happy, so are you. As a result, you may be constantly focused on keeping your parent happy and pleasing them as much as you can.

Your parent makes decisions for you

In enmeshed families, individual family members tend to have little autonomy when it comes to decision-making.

For example, your parent may have made decisions for you well into your adulthood, like what college you go to, what you should major in, what career path you should take, and even who you should date.

Your parent expects emotional support from you

Enmeshment can lead to codependency, where family members rely on one another for emotional support and validation to an unhealthy degree.

Your parent may have depended on you to provide emotional support and companionship to the point you took on the role of a parent or partner.

See also: Parentification and Emotional Incest

Your parent is excessively involved in your life

Parents in enmeshed relationships are oftentimes helicopter parents – overprotective and overly involved in their child’s life. There may be a high degree of parental control, even into adulthood.

As a result, the child may be overly dependent on their parent to make decisions for them and tell them how to live their life.

Causes of Enmeshment

The causes of enmeshment can vary.

Sometimes, an illness, trauma, or other types of problems can cause a parent to become overinvolved in their child’s life as a way to protect them.

While intervention might’ve been necessary, the parent might’ve gotten stuck with the same approach and became just a bit “too” involved in the day-to-day of their children.

However, oftentimes, enmeshment is passed down from one generation to the next. When your parent’s parents have loose boundaries, it’s likely for them to repeat the family patterns they were familiar with.

It’s also possible that their parents had strict boundaries so your parent tried to do the opposite and ended up on the other extreme.

Other things like overprotective parenting, lack of healthy boundaries, and cultural or social norms that prioritize family loyalty and togetherness are also possible factors.

Effects of Enmeshment on the Child

It’s difficult to recognize the effects of growing up in an enmeshed family. Because you often feel close and friendly with your parent, you might not think anything’s wrong. You are each other’s best friends, how can that be wrong?

But that’s exactly what can make enmeshment so insidious. It limits the child’s ability to develop a healthy sense of self, form healthy relationships, and make decisions. It can also lead to emotional distress and limit their ability to function effectively in the world outside of the family.

Lack of identity and sense of self

Children who are enmeshed are usually an extension of their parent, doing things and making life decisions based on what their parent approves of.

Enmeshed individuals often struggle to establish their own identities. They tend to have difficulty distinguishing their emotions and needs from those of their parents, leading to a lack of individuality and independence.

In her book, I’m Glad My Mom Died, Jennette McCurdy discusses her experience growing up with her mother and how it affected her. The mother-daughter relationship she describes is very representative of the concept of enmeshment.

My entire life’s purpose, keeping Mom alive and happy, was for nothing. All those years I spent focusing on her, all the time I spent orienting my every thought and action toward what I thought would please her most, were pointless, because now she’s gone. I tried desperately to understand and know my mother - what made her sad, what made her happy, and on and on and on - at the expense of ever really knowing myself. Without Mom around, I don’t know what I want. I don't know what I need. I don't know who I am.

Inability to act or think for themselves

Enmeshment can limit the child’s autonomy. They may have trouble making decisions or acting independently. Everything they do may be what their parents or other people want.

The child often feels pressured to follow their family’s wishes rather than their own, even when it comes to major life decisions such as their career, who they should date or marry, how they should live their life, and so on.

People-pleasing and fear of conflict

Children who are in enmeshed relationships with their parents may be very afraid of conflict and may do anything to avoid it.

It wasn’t emotionally safe for them to disagree with their parents growing up, so they learned that disagreeing with anyone as an adult won’t be safe either.

They were so used to pleasing their parents and making sure they were emotionally fine that they continued that people-pleasing behavior into adulthood.

Someone who grew up in an enmeshed relationship with their parent may tend to do things simply to please others. Everything they do is likely to please someone rather than for their own enjoyment.

Relationship problems

People who are in an enmeshed relationship with their parents tend to have difficulty forming and sustaining healthy relationships – friendships or romantic ones.

The unhealthy patterns from their relationship with their parent usually carry onto other relationships in their life.

They may have become so used to the unhealthy patterns and dynamics of their enmeshed family that anything healthy is threatening or intimidating, leading them to avoid or leave the relationship.

Reliance on external validation

External validation means seeking or relying on external sources to feel good about yourself, such as through compliments, recognition, material possessions, social status, or achievements.

Enmeshed individuals tend to struggle with low self-esteem. Their self-esteem is usually influenced by outsiders’ perspectives and opinions, which can also lead to a fear of failure or rejection.

People who grew up in enmeshed families tend to rely on others for their self-worth because it’s what they learned growing up, such as “I’m only pretty if mom says so” or “I’m only good enough if I perform well.”

Lack of emotional regulation

As mentioned before, emotional fusion is a sign of enmeshment, which makes it difficult for individuals to identify and express their own emotions. In other words, you may struggle with emotional regulation, learning how to appropriately and healthily manage your emotions.

Learn more about emotions and how to deal with them in a healthy way.

How to Heal from Enmeshment

The first step to being able to solve any problem is to recognize it. Thus, the first step in healing from enmeshment is to recognize that you are or were in an enmeshed relationship.

Here’s another quote from McCurdy’s book. It describes the dilemma of the child perfectly once they recognize the enmeshment they had with their parent.

If Mom really didn’t want what was best for me, or do what was best for me, or know what was best for me, that means my entire life, my entire point of view, and my entire identity have been built on a false foundation. And if my entire life and point of view and identity have been built on a false foundation, confronting that false foundation would mean destroying it and rebuilding a new foundation from the ground up. I have no idea how to go about doing this. I have no idea how to go about life without doing it in the shadow of my mother, without my every move being dictated by her wants, her needs, her approval.

Set boundaries

Enmeshment is a form of emotional control that’s often achieved through manipulation. As a result, it’s often hard to form boundaries. In fact, boundaries are mostly nonexistent.

Since members feel as though they must depend on each other for their sense of self, there’s no room for functioning independently.

So a big way to start healing and moving forward from the enmeshment is to start setting boundaries – in your general relationships and the one with your toxic parent.

It won’t be easy, at all. But it is necessary for your well-being.

Discover yourself

In an enmeshed family, individual identities can be lost in the group dynamic. So to heal from the enmeshment, it’s essential to develop your sense of self and learn to prioritize your own needs and desires.

Explore your interests, values, and goals. Learn to start making decisions that aligns with what YOU want.

Related: How to Find Yourself After Narcissistic Abuse

Reach out for support

Healing from enmeshment is a complex process. Thus, a mental health professional can be a great help to your healing journey.

They can help you recognize signs of enmeshment in your life, how it’s affecting you, what you can do to heal, and how you can break the cycle. You can connect with a certified therapist here.

A social support network is also helpful because it can serve as an objective voice. They can point out whether what you’re doing is really for you or for someone else.

However, it can be hard to find people, especially if your parent isolated you or kept you from meeting people. Check out How to Build and Maintain a Social Support Network for more information.

Practice self-care

When you’re enmeshed with your parents, you don’t really do things for yourself. Everything you do is what your parent or other people want you to do. So practicing self-care is essential. Learn to listen to you.

Do things that help you relax and recharge. Do things that make you feel good – mentally, physically, and emotionally. In the end, do what pleases YOU.

Related: 230+ Self-Care Ideas for Your Healing Journey

Strive for balance if possible

If you are on good terms with your parents and they’re willing to actually work on the enmeshment, try to strive for balance in the relationship.

As adults, it’s okay to be your parent’s friend more than their child. But there is still the dynamic of parent and child no matter what. There are certain lines that shouldn’t be crossed. Like with any relationship, codependency is not healthy. You are your own person!

It’s okay to recognize and feel empathy for each other’s feelings. However, it’s not okay to start feeling what the other person is feeling or feel like you have to fix it.

In other words, it’s okay to show support and provide validation and reassurance. But it’s not okay to solve the other person’s issues and emotions for them. That’s something everyone needs to work through themselves.

Enmeshment - Signs, Possible Causes, Effects, & How to Heal | Hopeful Panda

Conclusion

As you heal from your enmeshment, try to be patient.

It took a long time to create your current identity, so it’ll take a while to undo it. And remember, healing is a journey that takes time and effort.

Learning how to set boundaries, say no, and find yourself won’t be easy. But it is essential for your healing and well-being.

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Hi there, I’m Estee. Having grown up with an abusive mother, I know how isolating, frustrating, and hopeless everything could feel – back then as a child and even now as an adult.

I am always trying to better understand and manage the effects of the abuse I experienced. And this journey I’m on inspired me to create Hopeful Panda. Learn more here.

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