What is Enmeshment?
Enmeshment is a family systems term that refers to families who do not have healthy interpersonal boundaries. Enmeshment is a form of relational trauma that is typically intergenerational and has negative impacts upon children’s ability to form a healthy sense of self.
What Does a Healthy Family Look Like?
A healthy relationship between parent and child is supportive while simultaneously respectful of the child’s autonomy. In healthy parenting the parent functions as a loving guide and mentor, with the ultimate goal of preparing their child to eventually navigate the world confidently on their own. In healthy families parents understand that their children are individuals with their own preferences, thoughts, opinions, needs, wants, and feelings, and these differences are respected and celebrated.
In healthy family systems emotions are not feared or overreacted to, and the entire range of emotional experience is accepted as an integral part of being human. In healthy family systems children are actively encouraged to explore who they are as unique people, even when their preferences and feelings differ from those of their parents.
In enmeshed family systems the developmental processes of individuation and differentiation, which lead to self-confidence and healthy separation, are prevented from occurring.
Independence and Individuality as Threat
Being successful in adulthood requires knowing ourselves and being able to make decisions on our own. It requires trusting ourselves and creating our own lives, distinct from our family of origin (the family we grew up in). When we grow up in an enmeshed family system the developmental processes that lead to healthy self-trust and self-understanding are not encouraged.
Independence and individuality are seen as threatening in enmeshed families. There is a desire to control and influence the children in a way that is detrimental and unhealthy. As mentioned above, enmeshment is an intergenerational form of trauma. The parents in enmeshed systems typically came from enmeshed families themselves, so their own individuation and emotional maturation processes were also hindered.
Common Characteristics of Enmeshed Families
In enmeshed families the parents are overly involved in their children’s lives. The family system is set up so that the children are emotionally dependent upon the parents, preventing healthy levels of separation and the ability to think and feel for one’s self.
Example: An adult child is afraid to tell his parents who he is dating because he knows his mom will disapprove. In fact, he almost decided to call it off with his girlfriend, even though he really likes her, because he’s so anxious about how his mother might feel. This level of concern regarding a parent’s opinions is indicative of enmeshed family dynamics.
In enmeshed families the family members are emotionally reactive to one another. Emotional reactivity is like emotional contagion: if one person becomes emotionally upset, there is a domino effect and soon everyone is overreacting.
Emotional reactivity comes from a lack of healthy emotional boundaries and a lack of emotional self-awareness. Emotional self-awareness is required in order to recognize our own emotions and the emotions of others. When the adults in a family lack emotional awareness they are unable to recognize the origin of their emotions and to take responsibility for them.
With healthy emotional boundaries, everyone is free to feel whatever it is that they feel at any given time, because it is understood that all feelings are valid and OK to have. In enmeshed families, there is a pattern of over-reactivity and often a desire to control other people’s emotional experiences. Members of enmeshed families also feel responsible for other people’s feelings.
Example: The same adult child from above calls his mother for emotional support; he is feeling sad about something that happened at work. His mother tries to offer support, but due to their emotional enmeshment, her son’s pain causes her to feel anxious. Instead of holding space for her son’s feelings (holding space would sound like: “I’m sorry it’s been such a hard day today. I understand why you would be feeling so down. Do you want to talk about it?”), she ends up shifting the focus to her own anxiety: “Oh no, that’s horrible! Is everything going to be OK? What are you going to do? Something obviously needs to be done!” The son then spends the rest of the conversation supporting his mother emotionally, attempting to lessen her anxiety.
In this example the mother is being emotionally reactive to her son. We can also assume there is likely a pattern of emotional parentification in their dynamic, which is discussed in detail below. Due to their enmeshment, the son did not receive the emotional support and connection he was desiring, instead he ended up in the role of the emotional support person.
3. Passive Aggression
Passive aggression is common in enmeshed families and is another symptom of emotional immaturity and poor emotional boundaries. In enmeshed families, emotions are feared, repressed, and not talked about openly, therefore, family members struggle to identify, own, and communicate their own feelings, wants, and needs in a mature and regulated way. In enmeshed families there can be both passive aggression and explosive and harmful displays of anger, both of which are symptoms of a lack of emotional awareness.
Passive aggression is anger or frustration that is expressed in an indirect manner, instead of directly and clearly. When we behave passive aggressively we are attempting to convey a message to another person about our feelings without owning those feelings. Passive aggression is a form of manipulation, because we are attempting to indirectly influence another person’s behavior instead of asking directly for what we want or need.
In enmeshed families there is often an expectation that members of the family decode and intuit each other's emotional needs. In healthy family systems parents model how to directly communicate their feelings, wants, and needs, even when it’s difficult or uncomfortable.
Example: A mother arrives home from the grocery store and her teenage daughter is sitting at the kitchen table working on her laptop. The daughter says “Hi Mom” and continues focusing on the computer. Mom wants the daughter to help her bring the groceries in from the car, but fails to communicate this because she believes the daughter should know she wants help (mind reading is a common expectation in enmeshed families).
Mom conveys through her body language that she’s frustrated by stomping her feet, sighing loudly, and slamming grocery bags down on the counter, until the daughter gets the hint and starts helping (this is manipulation through passive aggression). Mom then gives her daughter the cold shoulder the rest of the night, because she still feels angry. She’s telling herself it was rude and disrespectful of her daughter to not notice she needed help sooner.
Daughter notices that Mom is ignoring things she says and is giving only short, tense responses when she does respond, so she asks Mom if there is anything wrong. Mom denies that anything is happening (which is called gaslighting) because she lacks the emotional awareness to recognize, own, and then communicate her feelings to her daughter.
Mom grew up in a family where she was expected to anticipate her parent’s needs and felt responsible for their feelings. She now unconsciously expects the same from her daughter. She feels angry when other people don’t anticipate her needs and feelings, and then punishes them for it.
In enmeshed family systems there is an expectation that children emotionally support the parents; this is called emotional parentification. This training to prioritize the parents' emotional needs over the child’s own needs starts very young, which can lead to feelings of intense guilt and shame when the child begins to explore their identity separate from the family.
This guilt often extends into adulthood, interfering with adult childrens’ ability to bond fully with and prioritize their relationships with their romantic partners. They have been trained to automatically prioritize their parents.
Coming from an enmeshed family system presents the ultimate developmental Catch 22. As these children enter adulthood they are forced to choose between themselves and the love, approval, affection, and acceptance of their parents. This, for obvious reasons, has severe consequences on mental health throughout adulthood.
Check out my article on emotional parentification for more information.
5. Emotional Incongruence
In enmeshed families there are mixed messages. Because parents in enmeshed families lack emotional self-awareness, there is an incongruence (a misalignment) between what they say and what they do. The emotional control exerted upon the children is often covert and outside of conscious awareness, which is one of several reasons why children from enmeshed families have a hard time trusting themselves. They sense that something is off, they just can’t quite pinpoint what it is.
This leads to additional layers of confusion and self-doubt in adult children of enmeshed families. It’s common for adults who grew up in these families to say “My parent’s love me so much. They provided everything I needed. They want me to be happy. I don’t understand why I feel so anxious and have such a hard time trusting myself.”
Adults Raised in Enmeshed Families Often...
- struggle to know who they are.
- worry about offending others or hurting their feelings.
- feel responsible for other people’s feelings.
- are hyper aware of other people’s body language and non-verbal cues.
- automatically anticipate others’ needs.
- have a difficult time asking for what they want and need.
- have a difficult time fully differentiating from their family of origin and creating their own family/partnership.
- experience feelings of guilt and/or shame for having their own thoughts, wants, needs.
- tend to overfunction in their relationships.
- expect other people to anticipate their needs, without having to state them directly.
- have a hard time asserting themselves and navigating conflict directly.
- engage in passive aggressive behavior.
- have a difficult time trusting themselves, especially when their perception is not validated by others.
- are overly dependent upon external validation.
- look for clues from others about how to act and what to think.
- feel guilty for not sharing everything with their parents.
- struggle to think for themselves, separate from their parents, and when they do, it feels like a betrayal and/or brings up intense anxiety.
Healing from Enmeshment
As we've discussed, enmeshment is a type of trauma passed down generationally through families. The parent’s in enmeshed families were once children themselves, experiencing the trauma of enmeshment, where their own emotional development and processes of individuation and differentiation were prevented. Essentially, enmeshment is a sign of arrested emotional development that is passed down intergenerationally.
The key to stopping its transmission? Becoming aware of the patterns and healing our relationship with our emotional selves; increasing our emotional intelligence and our capacity to maturely feel and navigate the inevitable emotional ups and downs of life; and by learning what healthy interpersonal boundaries look like and making the conscious effort to apply that knowledge in our own lives.
When we do this for ourselves, we can then model this same behavior for our children, giving them the freedom to have their own emotional experiences, to learn what healthy boundaries are, and to fully individuate into the competent, confident people they are meant to be. We heal intergenerational trauma by healing ourselves.
Meet the Author
Ready to heal yourself?
Maggie is a therapist based out of Lawrence, Kansas who specializes in therapy for highly sensitive adults, therapy for self-esteem, therapy for anxiety, therapy for childhood trauma, and grief and bereavement counseling.
Maggie is passionate about helping people overcome shame and the fear of being their true selves. Breaking the cycles of people-pleasing and self-abandonment is possible; you don't have to suffer alone. Maggie offers online therapy throughout the state of Kansas.
Reach out today to schedule your free 15 minute phone consultation!
Other Services Offered by Maggie
In addition to providing online therapy anywhere in Kansas, Maggie is also a professional astrologer, and offers Birth Chart Readings anywhere in the United States, as well as abroad.
Astrology is a powerful tool for gaining self-awareness, finding meaning in and understanding of our difficult experiences, and for receiving validation regarding our own unique life path. All of which supports our mental health in a positive way!
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