Who does not want to have a loving family? Having a loving family is a blessing. However, many times we confuse a loving family with what’s called an enmeshed family. A family where children are raised not as separate individuals with their own identities, but as mere extensions of their parents. Where there is no respect for each other’s boundaries. Rather, there are none. Differences are neither cherished, nor allowed. Rules are rigid. Children are asked to keep secrets. And going against the wishes and desires of parents or elders, or even thinking differently is considered a rebellious behavior.
Basically, there is no room for differences of opinion, new ideology, or new mindset. In such families, a distorted version of love replaces true love. There is quite an unhealthy dynamic fostering either between various members of such families, mostly between parents or children, siblings, partners, or even between other extended members of the family. Psychologists call this “Enmeshment”.
Enmeshment is a concept that was first introduced by family therapist Salvador Minuchin in the 1970s. Most of the time it is an unconscious dynamic that many family members are not aware of. Even if they know deep down that something is not right, they don’t have the courage to stand up against it. They feel extreme guilt at any attempt to stay out of this umbrella of enmeshment, leading to extremes of anxiety.
In families that are enmeshed, the children are raised to believe that they will obey and exceed their parents’ wishes and should or rather are expected to develop the same ideals and belief systems. Like a mom who always wanted to be a model and could not, so she goes to any extent to ensure that her daughter becomes one. A Father who had a dream of going to an Ivy League and could not, takes extreme steps, which may even include unethical ways to get his son into an Ivy League. Thus many children become someone through whom the parent lives out the dreams that they never attained.
In many cultures, Enmeshment is a norm of life. As a matter of fact, through movies and misinterpretations of certain faiths, many religious scholars, encourage or propagate enmeshment, as if it were some form of a good deed, which might get one a ticket into heaven. Yet every faith that I know stresses the importance of freeing ourselves from worldly ties. So this concept of having to maintain worldly connections by somehow feeling responsible for the wellbeing of our loved ones, our parents, our children in a way that it becomes an unhealthy obsession, sounds somewhat hypocritical and paradoxical.
There are many reasons as to what may lead to enmeshment in a family. Parental discord, where a child might become a confidant for one parent, and start feeling responsible for the emotional wellbeing of that parent. A process also called emotional incest. Parents with mental illness, narcissistic personality disorder, one parent with chronic physical illness, drug addiction in parents, or a child with some chronic physical ailments are some other reasons that can lead to enmeshment.
Here it is important to understand that enmeshment is very different from close relations with a parent or other family members. In loving families, or close families there is respect for each other’s feelings, healthy boundaries, independence is fostered and yet every attempt is made to support each other.
Also in many cultures, close families are a huge blessing, as members feel connected and supported in their ups and downs of life. Which is good for emotional wellbeing. A loving supportive family or a loving parent is the one who attempts to ensure that the child develops a sense of self, where identities and self-esteem are not sacrificed. Relationships outside of the family are encouraged. Children are loved unconditionally and supported throughout their journey to get to their dreams.
But enmeshment goes beyond that. It is an unhealthy obsession where a child feels that he has no right to be happy if a parent is going through sadness. They feel guilty if they are enjoying their lives, or having fun with their friends. There is a constant pressure and an urge for them to remain physically close to their family or their parents, just to make sure that the parent feels happy and safe. So basically they are the ones who start caring about the wellbeing of the parent instead of the other way around.
Enmeshment can have long-term consequences on the emotional well-being of children. It can lead to low self-esteem, people-pleasing qualities, lack of assertive skills, emotional dysregulation, decreased stress tolerance, and substantial difficulty in interpersonal relationships.
If you think you may have been a victim of parental enmeshment while growing up in your family, here are some things you can do to regain back your self-esteem and live a life free from guilt and people-pleasing qualities.
- Understand the difference between true love and enmeshment.
- Take charge of your life.
- Work on your assertive skills.
- Set up healthy boundaries
- Be your own parent.
- Find your hidden skills/hidden talents.
- Take care of your needs.
- Use your empathic skills as your strength.
- Find time for yourself.
- Find a compassionate therapist who deals with attachment/trauma.
- Have faith and a conviction that you can heal from the ill effects of enmeshment.
- And finally, through self-awareness, remember you can stop the cycle of generational enmeshment.
Love and peace!