If you are in the field of self-help or psychology or spirituality, you have probably heard people using the term enmeshment and/or enmeshment trauma. Today, I’m going to explain to you what enmeshment is and also the common effects that it has on a person’s life.
I want you to imagine a child who is sitting at a high chair. This child is not hungry and pushes the spoon away from his mouth. His mother refuses to acknowledge that “I’m not hungry” is the truth for this child and so she gets angry and shoves the spoon in the child’s mouth anyway.
Now I want you to imagine that a father has always wanted significance and status. He imagines that he will get that significance by making sure that his daughter goes to an ivy league school and becomes a doctor. He puts pressure on his daughter all of her life relative to academic achievement and she finally becomes a doctor to please him, despite not even knowing whether she ever in fact wanted to be a doctor.
Now I want you to imagine that a woman’s husband is absent emotionally and physically. She decides subconsciously to make her son her surrogate husband. She leans on him emotionally and tells all of her secrets to him and calls him her ‘best friend’. Suddenly, he feels torn because he finds himself in a situation where he is filling a role that is both threatening and all wrong for him. Only he feels he has no way out of it. But he also loves the specialness and importance that being in that role guarantees him.
There are many more examples that I could give you. But what any scenario I could give you, including these last three, have in common is that there is no real recognition of “self” in the family or relationship. Autonomy (having a sense of self vs. other) is an important part of physical existence for a person within a social group. What people need is to be able to have themselves and have other people too at the same time.
Most people think of a boundary as being a kind of fence between themselves and others. This is not a good way of thinking about boundaries. It is better to think of boundaries as that which defines you relative to everything else. A boundary is the imaginary line that uniquely defines your personal happiness, your personal feelings, your personal thoughts, your personal integrity, your personal desires, your personal needs and therefore most importantly, your personal truth from the rest of the universe. If you want to understand boundaries on a deeper level, you can watch my video titled: Personal Boundaries Vs. Oneness (How To Develop Healthy Boundaries). In an enmeshed relationship, personal boundaries are permeable, undifferentiated and unclear.
An enmeshed family or enmeshed relationship does not recognize or accept boundaries. Therefore, enmeshment trauma happens when in a relationship, the person does not recognize or accept or acknowledge the reality of your personal feelings, your personal thoughts, your personal integrity, your personal desires, your personal needs and therefore most importantly, your personal truth. In fact, differentiating yourself puts you at risk of consequences such as punishment or abandonment. The result is that you either choose those consequences and allow yourself to be controlled. Or, in order to maintain harmony in the relationship and closeness, you have to ‘give yourself up’ and mirror the other person so that your thoughts and feelings and needs and desires and truth and choices are either the same as theirs or what they want them to be. The payoff of doing this is that in enmeshed relationships, there is usually a more intense feeling of belonging. But that intensified belonging comes at a serious price.
Most parents alive today have children because of some need they have that they think the child will meet. The thing is, the child that is born to a parent is their own person with their own preferences and destiny and wants and needs and feelings. So children rarely ever conform to the real reason that the parent had the child in the first place. The child does not meet the parent’s needs. And this is a recipe for disaster. To understand more about this, you can watch my video titled: The Defective Doll.
If a person is in an enmeshed adult relationship, it is because they learned that style of relationship from their childhood. So, childhood is where you need to focus so as to understand enmeshment trauma. Enmeshment trauma is almost always present in dysfunctional families and the unfortunate reality is that most parenting today is dysfunctional. The reason is that most parents today still see their child as something that ‘belongs’ to them. They see their child rather like a ball of clay to mold into what they would like the child to become, which is really often about their own best interests rather than the child’s. Of course, no parent who is creating enmeshment trauma for their child will admit to this. Instead, they will think and say that everything they are doing, they are doing for their child’s best interests. And this becomes gaslighting for a child. If your parents are doing things that don’t feel good to you, but are telling you that everything that you can feel they are actually doing for themselves, they are doing for you, you start to doubt your own sanity and also learn that love means pain and love means sacrificing your needs and wants and truths for another person.
At a certain point in childhood, it is critical for a child to be able to develop a healthy sense of ‘self’. This is where the child starts to sort through the world and define their unique feelings and thoughts and preferences and aversions and needs and desires and personal truth. This is what a toddler is doing when he or she says “no” or begins to want to choose the outfit he or she wants to wear. If a parent does not recognize and mirror and work with (instead of against) that process of differentiation, the child has to try to establish a sense of himself or herself despite the parent. The problem is that humans are a relationally dependent species and so closeness withing the social group is the most important need. This means, at a biological level, we know that what we risk for upsetting our parents is our actual survival. This means that if a parent does not see or sees but turns against a child’s ‘self’, most children will abandon the self in favor of closeness with the parent. But this child never goes on to develop a core and a sense of self. This child becomes an adult who loses himself or herself in relationships. As a result, this person experiences a deep need for relationships, but at the same time, he or she pushes people away because having no strong sense of self and therefore autonomy, he or she feels rather like he or she is disappearing or being consumed by the other person that he or she is in a relationship with. This is a very emotionally claustrophobic experience.
An adult who has experienced enmeshment trauma either winds up in relationships with people who have very strong personalities and subsequently gives up everything about themselves willingly (whether or not this is actually what the other person wants) which creates huge issues in the relationship down the road. Or they get into relationships with people who exhibit a narcissistic style of relating to others and so it is an actual expectation that they do the same thing they did in childhood all over again. And giving themselves up becomes an expectation in that relationship. People with enmeshment trauma have learned a codependent style of relationship. They are at war with themselves because all at once, they want to be the same as the other person so as to establish closeness with them, but also to push them away and define themselves as different because they crave a sense of self and independence. They are constantly trapped between the thoughts and feelings of the other and their own thoughts and feelings. The needs and wishes of the other and their own needs and wishes. The personal truth of the other and their own personal truth. They see intimacy as both needed and also a serious threat. Therefore, people who are in a relationship with them tend to suffer from a constant push and pull.
Enmeshment trauma is in fact developmental trauma. A person who has experienced enmeshment trauma never got to develop normally relative to healthy autonomy. And so, it is a process to learn how to have a healthy relationship and to create this development of selfhood within relationships. A person with enmeshment trauma usually can either only feel a sense of self when they are in a relationship where they are specifically in opposition to the other person, or when they are totally on their own with no one near them. As you can see, this leads to a painful life either way.
In order to heal from enmeshment trauma, you must do what you were never able to do in childhood. You must begin to develop a healthy sense of self (boundaries) and then learn how to have that self within the context of relationship, without resorting to either codependent or narcissistic strategies. Obviously, this process goes much better when your entire family is involved in altering the way that each member relates to the other so that each can have a sense of self and maintain closeness with each other too. To understand more about this, watch my video titled: Family (The Truth About Family). But when this is not possible, this can be done within a friendship or within a partnership. And again, it is best if this process is something that the other person you are in a relationship with is involved in too. This makes the process of working to define yourself (ie. figuring out what you feel and think and like and dislike and need and want) and then the process of making changes and determining the course of action that best suits your needs, and communicating effectively with the other person easier.
Don’t forget that healing from enmeshment does not mean becoming narcissistic, that is simply a common albeit an unhealthy pendulum swing. You are looking to establish your own feelings, thoughts, needs, wants and personal truths while recognizing that other people also have thoughts, feelings, needs, wants and personal truths. And your decisions affect them, just like theirs affect you.
The reality is that if you suffered from enmeshment trauma and you haven’t healed, you are not living an authentic life. This means many of the choices you have made are not actually the right ones for you and the relationships you have chosen may not actually be compatible to you. This is both scary for you and other people in your life. It means that becoming authentic may imply many, many changes to your life. Changes that will affect you and everyone around you. But life satisfaction is not possible unless you are authentic and make choices in your life accordingly. To learn how to live an authentic life, you can watch my video titled: How To Be Authentic. Living an authentic life is dependent upon living in alignment with your personal thoughts, feelings, preferences, wants, needs and truths. The good news is, the life you’ve always been looking for and missing out on is on the other side of doing so.