You’ve heard the term “dysfunctional family” but may not be as familiar with one particular type of dysfunction known as “enmeshment.” An enmeshed family is one in which boundaries rarely exist or don’t exist at all. The result can be detrimental to parents and children, as seen in behaviors that harm family relationships. Let’s look at how enmeshment shows up in families like yours and how to respond by setting healthy boundaries.
You may have experienced enmeshment if you grew up in a family where boundaries were either loose, sporadic or didn’t exist at all. Setting boundaries within families is crucial for promoting respect, healthy relationships, emotional well-being, personal growth, better communication, and positive role modeling.
Identify your needs: Setting boundaries now can start with identifying your needs, communicating your boundaries, staying consistent in how you enforce them, and practicing self-care. You can also find help from professionals in the mental health field who can guide you through the steps of moving towards independence and working on your self-identity.
Signs of Enmeshment Trauma
Low degrees of privacy between parents and children, physically or emotionally, are some symptoms you may see in others or yourself when coping with enmeshment. Other signs can include assumptions that your children will be your closest friends or getting overly involved in your child’s life to the point of limiting their personal growth and development. Enmeshment trauma can also show up when parents expect their children to provide emotional support and reward them for doing so.
What Is an Enmeshed Family?
Family enmeshment occurs when there are no clear limits within the family unit regarding how they interact and the roles they serve. Individuals from enmeshed families may struggle with seeing themselves as distinct persons and tie their views of themselves almost entirely to their families. Parents can grow overly dependent on their children, and children are not allowed to express themselves as individuals and create their own identities. As a parent, you want to know everything about your child’s life. You may even provide personal information that should be kept private. As a child in an enmeshed family, you may feel guilty about your need for space and take on the responsibility to solve challenges faced by the whole family.
Outcomes of Enmeshment Trauma
Enmeshment trauma can have long-term mental health consequences, such as being afraid of conflict, viewing it as dangerous, and avoiding showing any disagreement with a parent. It is not uncommon for someone who has experienced enmeshment trauma to struggle with creating and maintaining friendships or sexual relationships in order to avoid someone new putting emotional expectations on them. Low self-esteem can be a result of years of relying on parents’ approval or fear of being judged. Another issue is a lack of self-identity. Enmeshment includes doing whatever it takes to keep others happy; therefore, someone suffering from enmeshment trauma may know how to please others but have no understanding of what is genuinely useful to them. If you pick a career, relationship, or place to live based on what your parents think is right, it may be difficult to know who you truly are without them.
When Is Setting Boundaries Essential?
If you are experiencing enmeshment and seeking therapy, you will most likely concentrate on learning to create boundaries, understanding that it is okay to take care of your own needs and emotions, gaining independence, boosting self-esteem, and breaking detrimental patterns of behavior. As you work on your own healing, boundary-setting will be very valuable moving forward. Setting boundaries within families is an important way to establish respect and foster healthy relationships, protect your emotional well-being by preventing others from invading your personal space, and promote your personal growth and development by providing you with the freedom to pursue your own interests. Setting boundaries also leads to better communication so everyone knows what is expected and what behaviors are acceptable, as well as modeling respect for the boundaries of others.
How Can I Effectively Set Boundaries with Family Members?
Here are some ideas for setting healthy boundaries.
- Begin by figuring out your needs and the boundaries you wish to establish. Consider what you are comfortable with and what you are not when dealing with family members.
- Communicate your limits by expressing your boundaries openly and assertively. To describe how you feel and what you require, use “I” sentences. For example, “I need some alone time to recharge my batteries, so I won’t be able to come to the family dinner this weekend.”
- Maintain consistency in your boundary enforcement. Allowing others to cross your limits may lead to their not taking your boundaries seriously in the future. Maintain your limits and hold others accountable when they overstep those limits.
- Other ways to set healthy boundaries can include practicing self-care and engaging in activities that help you feel grounded and balanced. You can also look for support from a therapist or a support group. These resources can provide guidance as you continue to focus on creating healthier ways to engage with family members.