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  • Surrinder Johal

What is Enmeshment and How To Identify It

Surrinder Johal and daughter

When families are close it is often regarded as a good thing, but in reality it can be possible for the relations to be too close, so much so that it becomes dysfunctional.

Enmeshment is a dysfunctional family dynamic which frequently occurs as a result of family patterns being passed down through the generations. It is a result of family and personal boundaries becoming more and more permeable, differentiated and fluid - and often hard to identify when you’re entangled in this type of relationship.

This can often be a result of the previous generation whose relations were loose in personal boundaries ultimately shaping the next generation to be the same. Family relationships are characterised by weak boundaries, lack of emotional separation and excessive demands for attention that prevent family members from developing a strong and independent sense of self.

What are the common signs of enmeshment?

1) A lack of emotional and physical boundaries.

2) Your parents impose their dreams on you for the future rather than allow you to follow your dreams. Children in enmeshed family relationships are more likely to choose a lifestyle or career that suits the needs of their caregivers. For example, my husband wanted my daughter to study Information Technology at university, which she did, even though she hated the subject. My daughter chose that career path that made her dad happy as opposed to following what she wanted.

3) Feeling responsible for your parents needs and happiness rather than your own. There is an expectation to conform to the family norms and traditions, otherwise guilt and shame is used to maintain the status quo.

4) Family members over share personal experiences and feelings in a way that creates unrealistic expectations, unhealthy dependence and confused roles. Parents treat their children as friends, relying on them for emotional support plus sharing inappropriate personal information.

5) Children are not encouraged to become individuals and become emotionally dependent.

6) Lack of identity. You don't have a strong sense of who you are. Enmeshed children may see themselves solely as their parents' support network or the glue keeping their parents together.

7) It is extremely difficult and painful for the child to know how to say “No“ or to express their thoughts and feelings in the presence of enmeshed family dynamics. Enmeshed children tend to surrender to the parent to avoid conflict

8) Complicated relationships outside the family dynamic - you may struggle to thrive in friendships and romantic relationships as they find it hard to identify their needs and boundaries.

9) Lack of privacy around personal life

How has enmeshment played out in my life?

Enmeshment is usually repeated intergenerationally.

In families with unprocessed trauma, children who served as their parents' surrogate partner may find themselves repeating the cycle with their children.

Looking back on my childhood l can tick most of the boxes above but just thought that it was the norm. My relationship with my mum was strong; l could always feel it when she was sad and depressed and l would have done anything to make her happy. Even after l was married, l always worried about her and when l was experiencing hard times I felt l could not tell her as l didn't want to let her down. She already thought that she was not important, powerless, lived to please others, had no personal self worth and just did as she was told and that's how I felt, despite having lived most of my life in the UK and being educated here.

After l got married l followed the same patterns subconsciously and as my children were growing up I relied on them for my happiness, expecting them to follow cultural norms, emotional blackmailing them to do things otherwise they would receive silent treatment from me, not allowing them to decide on their dreams for the future and much more.

The worst part was that my daughter became more than my child. She became my protector when I couldn't speak up to my husband. The impact of this on my daughter was that she became extremely codependent, felt guilty for living her own life, made decisions to please me rather than herself, emotionally eating to numb her feelings and her relationships with both men and women became needy.

All this was not good but we did not have the tools to change. That’s why I do what I do now, to help people and families life mine…

How to break to enmeshment cycles and heal

Processing enmeshed relationships can be hard work and painful but it is possible to move forward and provide yourself with what you didn't receive as a child to cultivate happy and healthy relationships with your family. And like in my case, with your children…

As part of my healing journey l changed the dynamics with my children so we could all support each other in a healthy way. In the case of my relationship with my daughter, we both took a step back from our relationship and focused on our own healing first. Throughout this tough period, I learnt a lot about myself, my trauma and could carve out a way to fix it from the distance we’d given each other.

Here are the 4 components I used to reverse my enmeshment trauma and how I became happier and healthier in my relationships. Not only that, but it allowed me to show up as my more authentic self…

Figure out who you are

Having grown up as a people pleaser for my parents, siblings, and then husband and his family, l did not have a clear sense of myself. Therefore it was difficult for me to figure out who l was, what mattered to me and what I wanted. I felt the obligation to please everyone else at the expense of my interests, goals and dreams because I feared others wouldn’t approve.

Therefore, an important part of separating yourself from the enmeshed relationships is to discover who you really want to be, and what your interests ,values and goals are.

Think about what your strengths are, where do your passions and beliefs really lie? Figure out what is important to you so you can create a life you are energised about and want to live.

This is an uncomfortable process and it does bring up feelings of guilt and betrayal. However it is important to remember that 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.

Set boundaries

Learning to set healthy boundaries is the most important part to changing the dynamics in enmeshed relationships. They create a healthy separation between you and others around you.

We need physical boundaries such as privacy, personal space and the right to refuse a hug or other physical touch. We also need emotional boundaries such as the right to your own feelings, being able to say “no” and to be treated with respect. Another important boundary is time.

Understanding your priorities enables you to decide on the amount of time you have left to give to others rather than the other way round.

To get started you will need to identify the specific boundaries that you need. Notice when you feel resentful, angry, guilty or unappreciated.

Try journaling why these feelings are coming up and it's likely that it is a boundary issue which you need to dig deeper into. You don't have to change everything in one go - start small and pick one change to focus on and work consistently to improve that area and as you become stronger you can build up the amount you take on and change.

Stop feeling guilty

A huge barrier to setting up boundaries is guilt.

It almost sounds alien to be assertive and develop a separate sense of self but it is important to do what's right for you and not what’s right according to others.

Guilt is often used in enmeshed families as a manipulation tactic. Often we would have been told that we are being selfish, bringing shame to the family or are uncaring if we go against the grain. Over the years this guilt becomes internalised and we come to believe that setting boundaries or having our own opinions is wrong.

Most of my life I didn't think I could set boundaries against family members especially older members as it was seen as a sign of disrespect, but as my self worth increased l came to realise that I mattered too and I saw the biggest changes when I finally put myself first.

Get support

Breaking free from enmeshment is tough because this trauma is often deeply rooted in your relationship patterns that you would have seen since birth. Plus those that benefited from your enmeshment are always going to try to make it difficult for you to change. Making the changes to family dynamics can be overwhelming so it is important to get help from a therapist or a support group like Codependents Anonymous.

This can be invaluable for learning new skills and reducing shame, guilt and redefining your relationships with family members - preserving the parts of the relationship that are healthy and rewarding.

If you can relate to these feelings and could use some support in putting these healthy boundaries in place then visit my services page, website and blog for more information.

Surrinder Johal - Becoming Visible Therapy
Surrinder Johal - Becoming Visible Therapy

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