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.
But why? And how?
The first reason may have been that you experienced a dangerous illness, trauma, or significant issue in school that caused your parents to become protective of you. As you grew older they struggled to let go of the role of the protector (fearing you would become vulnerable again) which squashed your development.
The second, more common and likely reason enmeshment occurred was that your parents learned it from their parents growing up. If your grandmother or grandfather were overly involved in your parent’s life, this style of parenting may have been passed along as a toxic cross-generational pattern. The root of this behavior is fear, and this fear can spread like a virus.
“What is there to be fearful of?” you might wonder. There are many reasons why parents are scared of letting their children develop mature identities. Some reasons include:
- Fear of the child growing up and moving away (or abandoning the parent) which stems from a fear of being alone
- Fear of being obsolete in the child’s life (and thus serving no purpose or being worthless) which stems from low self-worth
- Fear of being independent and autonomous in the world (and therefore keeping the child dependent on them)
- Fear of having one’s role as a caretaker/parent obliterated (thus a fear of emptiness/nothingness or the obliteration of their identity)
- Fear of having one’s purpose taken away (being child-rearing) thus a fear of purposelessness
… and many other complex fears which cannot fully be covered here. Here you might like to pause and ask yourself, “What fear was at the root of my parent’s behavior?” Take a few moments to reflect.
How Enmeshment Impacts Us As Adults
Enmeshment is a pattern that becomes deeply embedded within us. As adults, many of us are so oblivious to it that we can go years, even decades, without understanding what is happening to us in our relationships.
With enmeshment, we were raised to see ourselves as an entity, as “us,“ instead of being raised in a healthy family dynamic that permitted us to be our unique selves.
Let me tell you about a textbook case of toxic family enmeshment that came from my own childhood.
Growing up, I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian family. My family believed that their religion was the “one true path” on earth and everyone who didn’t have the same beliefs as them was destined to burn in hell eternally as decreed by an “unconditionally loving” God. I shit you not. This is actually what I was raised believing.
Thankfully I cut away from all that BS in my early twenties. It has taken me years to understand just how toxically enmeshed I was with my parents – which they likely adopted from their own parents. I remember my mother saying, “If mother ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy” over and over again growing up. Now, if this isn’t a textbook catchphrase of toxic enmeshment, I don’t know what is.
And it was true: if my mother wasn’t happy, everyone in the family felt it. If she was sad, we all felt sad. If she was angry, we all felt angry. I once remember witnessing how angry she was at being mistreated and feeling so angry myself that I was physically shaking and felt like I would explode. There were no clear lines, no clear boundaries, no clear sense of “me” or “mine.” Instead, the lines were vague, blurred or non-existent. Individuality and personal sovereignty were in most cases rejected or shunned.
Later, as I entered a relationship with Mateo, I felt myself become consumed in the fires of romance. But this was not a healthy type of romance for me: it was a matter of life and death. I remember thinking, very early after leaving my fundamentalist Christian family that if Mateo were to leave me I would kill myself. I couldn’t stand the idea of not having him in my life. Thankfully I have done a lot of inner work and soul-searching since then. I no longer see him as “completing me” but as complimenting me. Thanks to my intentional process of individuation, I now have a much stronger sense of self (although I still do struggle with taking responsibility for other people’s mess – but that’s a work in progress).
Enmeshment has far-reaching and profound effects on our lives.
Here are 14 ways enmeshment may impact you as an adult:
1) You feel the need to rescue everyone around you
2) You feel the need to be rescued
3) You take responsibility for other people’s feelings, habits, and choices
4) You can’t tell the difference between your emotions and the emotions from those around you
5) You struggle to give yourself (or others close to you) personal space
6) You feel like your partner “completes” you and without them, you would be nothing
7) You get tangled up in the drama of other people’s lives easily
8) You feel betrayed when someone close to you wants to do their own thing without you
9) You define your worth by how useful you are to others
10) You confuse obsession with care
11) You don’t really know who you are (your sense of self is weak)
12) You easily lose your identity in the presence of others
13) You don’t have many interests or hobbies outside of your family/friend/romantic relationships
14) You might make other people responsible for your emotions (rather than taking responsibility yourself)
Stop and reflect. What is your response to the list of symptoms above? How do you feel when you read them? Take a few moments to breathe and tune into your body. Do any strong feelings emerge? If so, what are they? It’s normal to feel triggered by these symptoms if you struggle with enmeshment.