7 Steps to Help Untangle Yourself From Enmeshment
When my mom passed away, I don’t think I realized how enmeshed with her I was. Around the same time, many of my siblings experienced similar experiences and deep issues with depression, anxiety and seriously unhealthy behaviors. It seems we were all enmeshed, in a degree, with my mother. My mom had serious mental issues and from childhood, I cannot remember a time without feeling scared about my standing with her.
I think of enmeshment — relationships wherein boundaries are unclear and emotions are fused which inhibits the individuation process and keeps a person from developing psychological maturity — as a kraken (a destructive sea creature with huge tentacles capable of destroying anything it comes across). Once latched on, there is no escaping the kraken. During my development and adolescence, I was completely enmeshed with my mother. It was like two krakens battling it out in the open sea. She was enmeshed with me — and my siblings of course — and I was enmeshed with her. When she died, my host was no longer available and my enmeshment tentacles latched onto whatever happened to be available.
Unfortunately for my wife, she became the target of the enmeshment I used to have with my mom.
Now I didn’t get along with my mom and our relationship was not close, so when she died, I felt little remorse at her loss. However, that unhealthy relationship was such a part of me I unconsciously pursued a surrogate. This is a new realization for me. I started noticing recently that whenever my wife would get in a bad space or be angry or irritated, I started to take on those emotions as though they were my own and began to parentify her — meaning I treated her as if she were my parent. When she would struggle, I would go into childhood programming and become very submissive, very cautious, very insecure and very afraid of what might happen if I didn’t comply. My wife became my surrogate mother. The tentacles that used to be latched onto my mother found their way into my relationship with my wife and I started treating her and acting with her the way I did with my mother. It was like a fucking kraken Armageddon. Everything she and I had built was suddenly being destroyed by my enmeshment with her. It seems the death of my mother impacted me more than I wanted to admit.
Here’s the deal. I enmeshed with my wife. My kraken’s tentacles dug into her…something that can be unhealthy for any relationship. My emotions, my desires, my worries, were no longer solely mine. They were ours and healthy relationships deserve independence. When my wife would struggle and fight my tentacles of enmeshment, I would get scared and latch on tighter. I would get controlling and jealous and accusatory, anything to try and not let her go… only making our relationship worse. A healthy family system consists of two opposing but instinctually rooted life forces. In other words, a healthy relationship consists of two — or more in some cases — individuals who honor and maintain their independence. That is what we need to strive for.
Allowing the kraken to destroy our lives is unhealthy and will ruin everything. We have to learn to develop independence. As children, that opportunity was missed. Our parents failed us in that regard, so now we have to re-parent ourselves and develop the independence we so desperately needed as children. Let’s face it; acting like a kraken is an unhealthy coping mechanism. Here’s how I propose we change it:
1. Recognize you have the kraken of enmeshment. I meet tons of people who think they are “fine” and that everyone else has the problem. They never pause to recognize they might have fallacious thinking or faulty behaviors. I want you to pause and take an inventory of yourself and your behavior. Start with the question, “Could I be/have…?” Here is how Ann Chanler, Ph. D. says you know if you are in an enmeshed relationship:
- Inability to control emotional involvement with another person.
- Exaggerated sense of empathy or responsibility for another person’s feelings.
- Guilt or anxiety when not preoccupied with the other person’s experience.
- Intense fear of conflict in the relationship.
- An inability to feel happy if the other person is unhappy.
2. Realize the kraken is not you and that you can change it. We often develop enmeshment as a coping strategy during development. The problem is that this strategy affects our ability to develop a unique identity and hurts our ability to develop healthy interpersonal relationships, but it doesn’t mean that is who we are, as though it is some genetic death sentence. It is a behavior and distinct from you, so it is something you can change.
3. Notice your triggers and eliminate or prepare for them. Our bodies are all about efficiency; even when it is damaging. Science tells us about heuristics — quick mental calculations and physical behaviors that bypass conscious awareness for speed and efficiency. With heuristics, our bodies are primed to start responding to triggers in our environment before we are even aware of them. When you notice enmeshing behavior, pause for a minute and notice what got you into that behavior. Was it a thought? Something in your environment? Did you see/smell/hear/touch/taste something? What was it that triggered that behavior? Next, take steps to eliminate or minimize your triggers. If the trigger can be removed, get rid of it. If you can’t get rid of it — like with family members — notice your behaviors and prepare yourself for when they appear.
4. Set healthy boundaries and for God’s sake…stick to them! When my wife set boundaries, it was so uncomfortable. It was like my kraken was trying to get ahold of her, and she was a knight fighting off the tentacles with sword and shield. I learned to respect her boundaries and in watching her set boundaries, I learned to create my own. I’m not very good at boundaries because enmeshed people generally do not learn how to do that. If you are unsure on how to set boundaries, get a book on it, read blog posts about it, listen to podcasts; do something to learn how to set boundaries. Once they are set guard them with your life. If you mess up and enmesh again, stop and start again. I used to tell my coaching clients, “To get what you want out of life, you have to be willing to suck at something long enough to get good at it.” That’s the truth! Just because you revert to old behaviors doesn’t mean you have to stay there. Get back at it and guard your boundaries. Eventually it will happen naturally… remember…heuristics!
5. Declare your independence and start developing your needs and interests. You need to have your own life, separate from your partner or close relationships. It is OK — I give you permission — to declare your independence. This doesn’t mean you need to shut that partner out or get rid of them. It just means you are going to start taking care of your own needs and wants. When my wife started pursuing her interests, I was scared — that’s what enmeshed partners do. I got really clingy and sad and jealous and hurt…. and on… and on. She wasn’t trying to hurt me or leave me. She was just declaring her independence and standing up for her needs. That is a healthy behavior, but I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that is what healthy people do. I am learning to pursue my own interests now and it is hard. I’ve never done this before and I’m not very good at it, and I often resort to old behaviors, but I am not quitting. Remember step four! Stick with it and allow your partner or relationship to do the same.
6. Accept yourself and accept that none of us are perfect. Acceptance is hard. I find myself hating my behaviors, impulses and thoughts. They are so hard sometimes. But I am a good person and it is OK for me to be where I am. It is OK for me to mess up. It is OK for me to set boundaries and stick to them even when others feel hurt. It is OK for me to declare my independence. It is OK for me to accept myself. It is OK! It is for you, too. It’s just time for us to start saying it and acting into it.
7. Notice your wins! This is hard. When fighting your kraken you may often feel like you are losing. I have a quote on my computer that says, “Always concentrate on how far you’ve come, rather than how far you have left to go.” Hang onto those wins. You will need them. Get support if you need it, but above all hang in there and notice how far you’ve come.
Fighting the kraken of enmeshment isn’t easy, but it can be done. The steps I outlined in this post will help. Get help if you need. Get a professional to help you break the grips of your own kraken. It won’t be easy, but it is doable. Be patient with yourself and accept yourself. One day you might wake up free from the kraken and free from the pain that comes from unhealthy enmeshed relationships. I wish you the best, and as always, if you want to talk, leave a comment below.
Resources used to write this piece:
- “Tangled Up in Enmeshment?” by Ann Chanler, Ph.D., Psychology Today
- “Maternal Enmeshment: The Chosen Child” by Dee Hann-Morrison, Sage Journals
- “Chronic anxiety and defining a self” by Michael E Kerr, The Atlantic Monthly
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