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What Are the Signs of Enmeshment?

Jessica Pontis, LCSW

Close family bonds are important for development and overall mental and physical health. However, healthy boundaries are mandatory when creating a healthy and functional family unit. What happens when a family system fails to create appropriate and healthy boundaries? Often, that family becomes enmeshed with one another. Enmeshment is the phenomenon that occurs when the dynamics of the family don’t allow individuals to maintain their own space, both physical and emotionally (Spears, 2022).  

While enmeshment can exist in romantic relationships, it’s most common within family or origins. Enmeshment can start developing after a traumatic event of some kind, particularly generational trauma. If great-grandma lost a child as a result of an accident then she may become overly protective of grandma, who then became overly protective of mom, who is now overly protective of you. From here we can see how these familial patterns can be passed down from generation to generation. It can be difficult to recognize that your family may be enmeshed until you are able to see how other family systems operate, which usually happens in late adolescents or early adulthood.  

Once we recognize that not every family exists with blurred boundaries, issues of control, unhealthy patterns, and lack of individuality and independence we may want to rethink our own family engagement. Many enmeshed family dynamics expect everyone to adhere to both the spoken and unspoken rules of the family, and starting to set boundaries may feel like a betrayal, particularly to parents. Here are some indicators that your family may be exhibiting patterns of enmeshment.  

  • Significant emotional attachment to family members to the point of feeling out of control. 
  • Sharing emotions, or everyone being expected to react the same to a situation or event. 
  • Struggling to engage with others outside of the family.
  • Lack of alone time, or being questioned for wanting physical and emotional space.
  • Having a lack of identity outside of the family dynamic, or feeling like your identity has been determined by your family without the ability to change.  
  • Significant fear of conflict or abandonment, to the point where setting healthy boundaries, is difficult in general.  
  • Feelings of guilt if/when you do choose to meet your personal needs before the needs of your partner or family.  
  • Feeling like there is an expectation for you to manage a family member’s difficult emotions for them, or always having to be immediately emotionally accessible regardless of your emotional state.  
  • Roles have become inappropriate, such as a child becoming a parent’s best friend or confidant who is expected to keep secrets.  

These are a few examples of how an enmeshed family dynamic may play out and understanding what their symptoms look like is the first step in treating it. If you are noticing these patterns in your own family, then the first step in breaking out of the enmeshment is building awareness of your own emotions through reflection and introspection.  

Acknowledge and take accountability for your feelings as an individual and work to identify areas where you feel pressured to have the same exact feelings as everyone else. A good way to start this practice is to introduce mindfulness into your routine. Begin to form a connection with yourself and your environment, separate and away from your family. And while this next recommendation is often the most difficult for many, setting healthy boundaries for yourself and your family is non-negotiable.  

If you’re interested in discussing the topic of enmeshment, or would like to connect with someone to walk with you on this journey, reach out to one of our Chicago therapists. Visit Symmetry Counseling to explore our therapy services online, and see how counseling can help.

Spears, K. (2022, March 24). The enmeshed family: 14 signs of enmeshment and how to overcome difficult relationship dynamics. ReGain. Retrieved March 25, 2022, from https://www.regain.us/advice/general/the-enmeshed-family-14-signs-of-enmeshment-and-how-to-overcome-difficult-relationship-dynamics/ 

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