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We Need to Talk About ‘Family Enmeshment’ (And How to Deal With It)

Do you often find yourself overextended, trying to do everything your parents ask you to do, even if you don’t want to or really don’t have time? Do you have a hard time being yourself around your family? Do you struggle to even really know who you are?

These are all signs that your family might be enmeshed.

Although enmeshment can also occur in friendships and romantic relationships, those patterns typically start in childhood with the family unit, and since I have a lot more experience with family enmeshment, I’ll be focusing on those dynamics specifically. If you’re looking for more information on enmeshment in romantic relationships or friendships, you can check out this incredibly helpful article from Grand Rapids Therapy Group.

What is Enmeshment?

Enmeshment is a dysfunctional relationship dynamic where the identity of the individual is less important than the identity of the family unit. Boundaries between people are blurred or nonexistent. Boundaries are the delineations between you and other people, and they are absolutely essential for healthy relationships. Boundaries define what you are and are not comfortable with, what you want, what you need and who you are. When boundaries are violated or treated as a threat to the family unit, individuals become enmeshed with one another.

An enmeshed family often looks like a very happy one, even to the people living it. And to a certain extent, they really are happy. The problem is, that happiness shatters whenever an individual in the family unit tries to assert their own boundaries. Instead of being seen as natural and important and valuable, boundaries are seen as a threat, and the person trying to set up boundaries can be seen as a “problem.” This leads to a very unhealthy family dynamic where the family as a whole is only happy if each individual denies their needs.

If you grew up in an enmeshed family, you may take on the emotions of other people in the enmeshed relationship, sacrifice your own needs for the needs of other people, feel afraid to grow or change in your personal life because you feel stuck in your family role, or experience a total lack of privacy. Enmeshment can cause issues with identity development, self-worth and future relationships.

Possible Issues Caused by Coping With Enmeshment

People in enmeshed family units typically use some coping mechanisms to survive the dysfunction. At the time, they’re absolutely essential and helpful, but in the future they may cause problems. Some common coping mechanisms include:

  • Keeping secrets in order to have some semblance of privacy. You may struggle to break that pattern and be truly honest and vulnerable in future relationships, romantic or platonic.
  • Oversharing in order to gain validation of your needs and identity from other members of the enmeshed family unit rather than from within yourself. This could lead to codependency in future relationships.
  • People-pleasing in order to carve out an identity within the family unit as the “helper” or the “good one.” This can lead to control issues when you confront the reality that you can’t please everyone.

5 Tips for Disengaging From Enmeshment

I only learned the word “enmeshment” about a year ago, but I’ve spent the last three or four years working on disengaging from some dysfunctional, enmeshed dynamics in my own family to develop my own boundaries and sense of self. I still have a lot of work left to do, but I have learned a few things that I’m happy to share. These five tips are some of the best ways you can start disengaging from enmeshment in your life:

1. Don’t agree to plans right away.

Whenever someone from the enmeshed family unit tells you about upcoming plans, whether by inviting you or simply implying that you have to be there, don’t agree to go right away. Don’t deny the invite immediately either. Instead, deflect, saying you need to check your calendar or talk with your partner, and then either change the subject or leave/hang up. Then, when you’ve had some time away from the enmeshed person, consider your own needs to determine if you want to go. When you respond in the moment, you are very likely to make your decision based on past enmeshment, which means you might ignore your needs and just do whatever the family unit wants you to do. When you don’t have clear boundaries with people, you can create boundaries with time and physical space.

2. Always drive yourself separately from the family unit.

This might seem like a really small thing, but always drive yourself separately from your family unit, even when you’re going to the same place. When you drive with the enmeshed unit, your boundaries are much more likely to be violated. If you are at an event and you start to get tired, overwhelmed, or you’re just ready to be back home, you can honor those needs if you drove by yourself. But if you drove with the enmeshed family unit, your needs have to be balanced with everyone else’s needs, which means they are likely to be ignored. If you grew up with enmeshment, you may actually sense that other family members want to stay and not even voice your desire to leave, thus denying your own needs and violating your boundaries yourself. And all of this can be avoided simply by driving separately. (P.S., The enmeshed family unit will likely resist your decision to drive on your own, but don’t engage. Just drive yourself and pretend not to notice that they’re upset about it. Eventually, they will come around.)

3. Set aside time to process and decompress.

When you’re working on disengaging from patterns of enmeshment, spending time with the enmeshed family unit can be utterly exhausting. Even if nothing necessarily goes “wrong,” it can bring up a lot of feelings that you’ll need to process afterward. Give yourself that space. Let a safe, non-enmeshed friend or loved one know that you’d like to talk to them after you spend time with your family, and give yourself permission to say how you’re truly feeling, even if you aren’t proud of your feelings. You may even feel guilty, but that is also a result of enmeshment. Remember, you aren’t hurting anyone by acknowledging the reality of enmeshment and sorting through your feelings about it. Denying the reality of enmeshment won’t make it go away or make it any less unhealthy, so you might as well process it.

4. Make small decisions just for yourself.

As often as you can, make a point to make small decisions without considering what the enmeshed family unit will think. If you’re like me and you literally physically cannot do that, then try the next best thing: acknowledge what those family members would think about your decision, and then make the conscious choice to focus on how you feel about the decision instead. It may take a lot of hard work to get in touch with your own feelings and learn to separate them from the feelings of the enmeshed family unit, but it is possible. One way you can work on this is by making these small decisions on a regular basis.

5. Limit your time spent together.

This by no means implies that you should cut off your family just because they’re a little (or a lot) fuzzy on the concept of boundaries. That is the right choice for some, but for many of us, we just need enough time away in order to develop our own identity. So that’s all you have to do. Make sure you’re spending enough time away from the enmeshed family unit that you can safely and peacefully develop your own identity and honor your needs. If you notice that you’re struggling to follow the previous tips listed above, you may need to create some boundaries using time and space, and spend a little more time on your own.

Do you have your own tips for establishing boundaries and disengaging from dysfunctional enmeshment? Like I said, I’m still learning and working on all of this, so I’d love to hear more about how others deal with this complicated family issue. Share in the comments if you’re comfortable, or you can always talk to me directly through my Instagram.

A version of this article was previously published on the author’s blog, Megan Writes Everything.

Photo by Nirmal Rajendharkumar on Unsplash

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