7 Signs of Enmeshment

Enmeshment is often described as being “too close.” But in enmeshed families, closeness is not the problem.

Being emotionally close is good for family members. Their relationships with others outside the family are also close. They feel secure in who they are. And they tend to enjoy good mental health. 

Enmeshed families don’t produce those benefits. Instead, enmeshment is associated with anxiety, depression, poor communication, and troubled relationships both within and outside the family.

So how do you know if yours is a close family, or an enmeshed one? 

Symptoms of Enmeshment

An estranged adult child with complaints of enmeshment might not use the word “enmeshed.” They may instead describe the family as “too close,” “smothering,” or “suffocating.” They might accuse you of not knowing them. You might feel as though their personality has changed since they left home. 

The following seven symptoms of enmeshment can help make sense of your child’s experience, and your own. This is not an exhaustive list:

1. Trouble distinguishing thoughts from feelings.

Enmeshment hinders differentiation of thoughts and feelings. Without this ability, we believe things to be true based solely on how we feel. It’s hard to step back far enough to gain perspective and examine facts objectively.

2. Taking on other people’s feelings

Family members exist in a shared emotional “soup” known as emotional fusion. E.g., If there’s anxiety in the home, it’s not clear who it belongs to. If there’s anger, it’s hard to tell where it originated. If there’s sadness, no one can be happy. Etc.

3. Not having a filter

In enmeshed families, self-talk and other-talk are largely the same. “Are you really going out looking like that?” is an example of something an enmeshed family member would never say to a friend, but might say to a parent, sibling, or child without a second thought.

(Accepting or engaging with the implied criticism without labeling it as such, may be another symptom of enmeshment.)

4. Socializing mainly with family

In enmeshed families, outside relationships take a distant back seat. Members may be encouraged to make friends outside the family, but if friends become too important, other members can feel threatened by those relationships.

5. Not understanding boundaries

Enmeshed families often view the idea of personal boundaries with confusion, ridicule, or hostility. Control and cohesion may be highly valued, in which case, boundaries are merely speed bumps. Without boundaries, individuality and personal freedom are necessarily limited.

6. Having an underdeveloped sense of identity

It’s hard to know who you are when you’re enmeshed. This is particularly true for children who are still developing, but can also be true of adults. For some, parenting becomes so fused with identity that estrangement by adult children is not just stressful, but devastating to their sense of self.

7. Experiencing chronic stress, anxiety, or depression

Given all of the foregoing, being enmeshed is stressful. Enmeshment has been associated with anxiety and depression. And on a subclinical level, with excessive worry and fear. Families that are close but not enmeshed don’t exhibit the same tension.

Untangling Yourself

Freeing yourself from enmeshment doesn’t mean giving up on being close. In fact, taking steps to address enmeshment can make it easier and safer to be genuinely close to others.

Most of the work required to resolve and replace enmeshed relationship patterns can be undertaken individually, at least to start. Here are some ideas to help you focus your activities:

That’s a short list. But it’s a lot of work!

You can have an impact on your life and relationships by taking small steps, one at a time. Choose an item from the list above that intrigues you. Do one thing today that takes you in that direction. Repeat tomorrow.

 – Tina Gilbertson, LPC

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