Do you have a strong sense of who you are?
Do you tend to take responsibility for other people’s feelings?
Do you carry the weight of other people’s problems on your shoulders?
Creating a strong identity and sense of self is a fundamental part of our mental, emotional, and spiritual development growing up.
All children undergo a natural process of attachment to their parents as babies and then disconnected from their parents during toddlerhood through to adolescence. Detaching from our parents is essential if we are to function in a healthy and mature way in the world as adults.
But often times we are not permitted by our parents to go through our detachment phase. In other words, we are not allowed to develop an individual identity and a clear sense of IAMness. Instead, we are enmeshed and undifferentiated from our parents, just as a baby is.
The Dangers of Not Having a Clear Sense of Self
What happens when we remain undifferentiated from our parents? What happens when we don’t have a strong identity?
The answer is that we cannot function in a healthy way in our relationships. We may face issues such as:
- Social anxiety
- Toxic/abusive relationships
- Attracting needy/unhealthy friendships
- Empathic overload
- Low self-worth
And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
If you have trouble with human connection and relationships, you might have experienced toxic family enmeshment growing up.
As psychologist Dr. Tim Clinton writes:
Enmeshed relationships leave a legacy of heartache and manipulation. But that legacy can be changed if we are willing to open our eyes…It is possible to break the pattern of enmeshment and break through to freedom—to that place where we are able to give and receive true love.
There is always hope for change.
Keep reading to educate yourself, find answers, and gain clarity.
What is Enmeshment?
Enmeshment is a psychological term that refers to blurred, weak or absent boundaries between people, often occurring in families and romantic relationships.
When a person experiences enmeshment with their mother and father, for instance, they will be incapable of separating their feelings and thoughts from their parent’s feelings and thoughts. In other words, they will have a poor sense of self and no clearly formed identity. Enmeshment creates tremendous dysfunction within families and damaging impacts later in adult life.
10 Signs You Experienced Toxic Family Enmeshment
Enmeshment usually begins in childhood within our families. Think about your upbringing for a few moments. Can you relate to any of the following signs?
1. Being autonomous, doing your own thing or making unique choices was seen as a sign of betrayal
2. Everyone in the family was overly involved in each other’s lives and there was little privacy
3. You felt shamed or rejected for saying “no” to any of your family members
4. One or both of your parents were controlling and strict
5. You felt that you had to be who your parents wanted you to be – you weren’t allowed to be your authentic self
6. Your family made decisions as one entity (groupthink), not as individuals coming together sharing their opinions
7. If one family member felt anxious, angry or depressed, everyone felt and absorbed it
8. You felt the need to caretake your mother or father AND/OR you felt the need to parent your mother or father (also known as parentification)
9. Your achievements or failures defined your family’s sense of worthiness
10. Your family was built on the foundation of power and submission, rather than equality and respect
Take a deep breath and let the above points sink in.
Now assess how you feel. Do any of these signs ring a bell? Does this list describe your family in a scarily accurate way? If so, you can bet your bottom dollar that you’ve struggled with toxic enmeshment growing up.
Why Did Your Parents Create an Enmeshed Environment?
Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They came through you, but not from you and though they are with you, yet they belong not to you. – Kahlil Gibran
There are a number of different reasons why your parents created an enmeshed environment growing up – mostly, the reasons were unintentional and unconscious. In other words, your parents likely did not deliberately set out to put a stop to your mental/emotional differentiation … it kind of just happened.