What Enmeshed Relationships Look Like and How To Get Out of Them
Being enmeshed means that you’re so connected to your family or another person that you don’t know where you end and they begin. Getting out of enmeshment requires that you set boundaries around your life. This enables you to take care of yourself, rather than taking care of others.
Enmeshed people don’t feel free to make choices about their own preferences. They don’t feel free to choose how they live their lives, what habits they form, their hobbies, their careers, their partners, where they live, etc.
Sometimes enmeshed people don’t know they’re enmeshed because they don’t know anything different. They might believe they’re “close” to their family or that “this is intimacy.” But true intimacy allows for the parties involved to be their real selves with others. It allows them to make choices according to their own preferences.
When we’re enmeshed, we aren’t allowed to express our individuality and we aren’t capable of focusing on ourselves. We’re overly concerned with other people. We may think that we’re involved in life, but we’re not really involved in our own life. We’re involved in other peoples’ lives.
The antidote to enmeshment.
The antidote to enmeshment is to differentiate yourself. It’s to establish your own, individual chosen identity. That’s sometimes called individuation. Learning to individuate requires that you set boundaries to take care of yourself. I have tons to say about boundaries (here, for example). But I’ll only touch on the “tip of the iceberg” about boundaries in this piece though. It’s important for enmeshed people to first understand that they are enmeshed.
Enmeshment = no boundaries.
I’ve had a lot of conversations with clients about enmeshment. Typically, what they talk about is not about enmeshment, however. They usually talk about a lack of boundaries. They say things like, “I don’t have boundaries” or “I don’t even know what a boundary is.” Or maybe they say, “I don’t know how to set them,” or even “when I set a boundary, I don’t hold it.”
Boundaries are about freely making choices about your life.
I had no idea that I was enmeshed with people (or my family) until I got into 12 step recovery. It wasn’t until I began setting boundaries that I realized it. I’m not even sure I realized at the time that setting boundaries was what I was doing. The way I understood my behavior was that I was beginning to make choices. Real choices.
For example, I was taught that real music is rock ’n’ roll music, other music is shit. It wasn’t until my 50’s that I started to see my superior attitude about rock music, and to start exploring other genres of music. I was so enmeshed in my family that I wasn’t able to develop my own attitude about music. I didn’t realize how narrow-minded (and wrong) it was until my 50’s!
And choice is what it’s really all about. Having well-established, healthy boundaries is about freely making choices. Choice about how you want to live your life, regardless of what others think and feel about those choices.
When I started to learn about boundaries, the stuff I read was pretty simplistic. I read things like, “Use clear, direct language” as if the only thing I needed was a script. What I really needed was the belief that it was okay for me to set boundaries!
Before I got into recovery, I didn’t have the wherewithal to say something like, “this isn’t working for me.” Setting boundaries with certain people just didn’t seem like an option. I literally thought things like, “That’s not possible” and “I can’t do that.” As if setting a boundary was a crime. Like me, you might not realize that you’re not truly making choices about how you live your life.
This is what enmeshment looks like.
Enmeshed relationships can be with your family of origin, your significant other, a friend, social group, or with colleagues. The type of relationship doesn’t really matter.
- have recurring unhealthy patterns
- there are rigid roles within the relationship
- exhibit recurring patterns that enable toxic behavior
- don’t allow for individuality
- have boundaries that are very permeable
- limits don’t exist
- you’re defined by the relationship, not by your individuality
- certain behaviors and roles are expected and encouraged
- there’s a lack of appropriate privacy
I want to make the distinction here between privacy and secrecy. Secrecy has an element of shame involved in it, whereas privacy has to do with boundaries and is healthy. You get to decide for yourself what you want to keep private.
When you feel like you want to individuate from the person or family you’re enmeshed with…
- you may feel like you’re a failure, and/or that you’ve betrayed the person or the relationship
- you’re afraid to let go of the rigid role you’ve been assigned (or taken on) such as the rescuer, fixer, savior, scapegoat, or know-it-all because it feels like your identity
- typically, guilt is used to sanction you for trying to be an individual, for trying to create your own identity outside what was prescribed for you
In an enmeshed or unhealthy relationship, when you feel like you want to get your own needs met, it may very well trigger anxiety, shame, and guilt. Psychologically healthy people don’t feel guilty for trying to be their own person!
Characteristics of people in enmeshed relationships.
- neglecting yourself and your other relationships
- your contentment relies on your relationship with the other person rather than in your own self, your own life
- your self-esteem relies on the relationship or the status of the relationship
- conflict in that relationship leads to extreme anxiety and you feel compelled to fix the problem at whatever the cost
- usually the other person’s feelings become your feelings
Getting out of enmeshed relationships.
If you want to get out of enmeshed relationships, you may very well need to get professional help. This could be from a psychologist, social worker, marriage and family therapist, or a coach.
But there are things you can do on your own. I know this because I’ve done it. It was helpful to have a therapist at the same time. However, I was in therapy for 37 years before recovery and the issue of enmeshment never came up! So for me, therapy wasn’t enough.
To begin getting out of enmeshed relationships, you’re going to have to differentiate yourself from the other person. It’s about really being connected to who you are. That is, you’re creating your own differentiated, individual identity — by choice.
That means you want to connect with yourself by doing things you enjoy. If you don’t know what you enjoy, then you’re probably enmeshed with others!! A great way to start is by trying out things you’ve always been interested in. It doesn’t matter if they seem silly or “that’s for kids” or “that’s for dreamers.” That desire is in you for a reason! Follow it and see where it leads you!
An example of becoming your own person.
One of the things I did early in recovery was take singing lessons. I’ve always loved singing and was in chorus through middle and high school. I started singing lessons at age 53.
At the urging of my teacher, I performed a song at the open mic night at the studio where I was taking lessons. When that was over, I was done. My friends asked if I was going to continue and I said, “Nope. I’m done. I like singing. I don’t like singing lessons. I don’t link singing scales or vocal exercises. I like singing.” This was one of the ways I worked on discovering my real identity (which is an endless pursuit now!).
Start small in low-stakes situations.
What I found helpful at the beginning of getting out of my enmeshed relationships was to start by setting small, less significant boundaries that only I knew about. For example, I used to feel like I HAD TO open an email from my ex as soon as I saw it. It didn’t feel like an option to wait to open it. I started by realizing “I get to decide when I will open that email.”
The way I thought about it was “I don’t have the psychic space right now to open that, so I’ll wait until I do.” Waiting to open the email until I determined was the right time was a tiny little boundary I set for myself. It was a tiny little way of taking care of myself.
Don’t get me wrong — it wasn’t easy! And I obsessed about it for a while. Then I got caught up in other things and forgot about it. Over time, I was able to delete his emails without opening them. But that was a process that took several months. Then later, I eventually blocked him. It took me a couple of years before it ever occurred to me that I could block him!
Get help from supportive others.
Getting support from other people was extremely helpful in this process. They’d say, “Keep your hands away from that keyboard!” It was enormously helpful to talk to trusted others while I was going through this process. I’d share how I was feeling, tell them what I wanted to do, and ask what they thought.
One thing we say in 12 step recovery is, “Don’t use your broken brain to fix your broken brain.” That is, my fucked-up thinking and ways of behaving are what got me into recovery in the first place! So asking for help is always a good idea!
So I got help from other people. That included running things by them before I did them. When I knew I was going to interact with someone who would be difficult to set boundaries with, I’d “book end” that interaction.
For those of you who don’t know what book ending is, it’s a technique we often use in recovery. Before you do something difficult (like set a boundary for the first time) you tell somebody, “I’m about to do this difficult thing.” This could be on a phone call or via text. It depends on how difficult the thing is and how much support you need. When you’re done doing the difficult thing, you contact them again and say, “I did it.”
Book ending does several things for you. First, you hold yourself accountable. If you’ve often abandoned yourself in the past, you might need this kind of support to show up for yourself. Second, you know there’s at least one other human being out there in the world who knows where you are, what you’re doing, and what you’re going through. This helps you feel connected to at least one other person while you’re doing the difficult thing. You won’t feel alone.
The other thing is that if you’re enmeshed, you’re not used to healthy separation. You probably fear abandonment. That means setting a healthy boundary for the first time can feel like abandonment rather than a healthy separation. Staying connected to a supportive person when beginning to set boundaries helps alleviate the fear of abandonment.
The other thing that’s helpful about staying connected to a supportive person through this is that you can process your difficult emotions with them. If you do this before and after setting your new boundary, you won’t feel the need to dump your emotions on the person you’re setting a boundary with. You’ll be able to focus on the interaction, knowing that you’ll be able to process the emotions with your support person.
If the idea of asking someone to help you with this process seems impossible for you, it’s probably because you’re not used to reaching out and asking for help. Since I’ve been in recovery, reaching out for help is my #2 tool of recovery (it’s that important!).
When I first got into recovery, thinking of reaching out to ask for help made me feel like I was going to die! I’m not exaggerating. In fact, for much of my life, the idea of reaching out for help didn’t even occur to me! It wasn’t an option. So if that’s how you feel, you’re not alone! And you can change that — I’m living proof!
A common example of beginning to get out of enmeshed relationships.
Here’s another example of starting small as you begin to set boundaries and get out of enmeshment. Let’s say you’re enmeshed with your family of origin. That means you always go to your parent’s house for holiday celebrations. Your partner is upset because you’ve never visited their family for the holidays.
You can start small in setting a boundary by saying something like this to your family, “I know you want us to come this holiday. And we’d like to see you too. My partner’s family wants us to see them as well. We’ve never visited them on this holiday, so we’re going to have our holiday meal with them this year. We’ll come to your place for dessert. Then next year we’ll have a holiday meal with you again.”
If you’ve done the things in this example, you’ve accomplished several things. First, you’ve made it clear that you understand what they want. Second, you’ve let them know that it’s not a matter of you not wanting to spend time with them, you do. Third, you’ve been kind and gentle and not put them on the defensive by saying something like, “I feel trapped” or “I’m tired of doing what you want all the time!” If they get defensive, they’re likely to get angry and/or passive-aggressive which you don’t want (especially not the first time you’re trying to become your own person!). Those are the kinds of dysfunctional behaviors that support enmeshed relationships.
Defensiveness, anger, passive/aggressive behavior, laying guilt trips, and shame are the kinds of behaviors that support enmeshed relationships. We often stay in enmeshed relationships to escape those kinds of behaviors. You want to do what you can to avoid triggering them without walking on eggshells and while still voicing your desires. This can be a hard balance to strike and takes practice. This is where professional help can come in handy.
One of the keys to becoming un-enmeshed is that you don’t want to put the other person on the defensive if you can avoid it. Fourth, you’ve told them exactly what you want. Fifth, you’ve also given them something, which is that you’re going to come over for dessert and for dinner next year.
Recap of getting out of enmeshment.
· Start small to practice setting boundaries in low-stakes situations. Get used to how that feels, and progress from there.
· Stay connected to yourself and your preferences.
· Stay connected to other people, perhaps by book ending the conversation you have with the person you’ve been enmeshed with.
· Get professional help if you need it, perhaps from a therapist or coach.
Getting out of enmeshed relationships is about being connected to who you are and creating your own differentiated individual identity around that. It’s about living your life on purpose.
If you liked this article, you might want to check out this page on my website, it’s full of free resources on how to start setting boundaries.
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