By: Danielle Bertini
Being close with your family is not an inherently negative thing. For me, coming from a large Italian family meant that I was constantly around family, sharing stories, food, and details about my life. So, what does it mean to be too close?
Enmeshment within family systems describes a lack of boundaries in which roles and expectations are confused, parents are overly reliant on their children for support, and children are not allowed to become emotionally independent or separated from their parents. Family members become fused together in an unhealthy way (Martin, 2019).
If you grew up in a family system similar to the one stated above, some of these common signs of enmeshment might ring true to you (Martin, 2019):
- Lack of emotional and physical boundaries.
- You don’t know what is best for you or what you want; it’s always about pleasing/taking care of others.
- You feel responsible for other people’s happiness/wellbeing.
- Feeling guilted or shamed if you want less contact or you make a choice that’s good for you.
- You parents’ self-worth seems to hinge on your success or accomplishments.
- Your parents want to know every detail of your life.
- Your parents’ lives center around yours.
- Family members overshare personal experiences and feelings in a way that creates unrealistic expectations, unhealthy dependence, and confused roles (often times parents treat their children as friends).
- You try to avoid conflicts and don’t know how to say no.
- You don’t have a strong sense of who you are.
- You absorb other people’s feelings and feel like you need to fix their problems.
Just as much as it’s important to understand the signs and symptoms of enmeshment, it’s also important to understand what causes this dynamic. Enmeshment is passed through generations. Generally, enmeshment originates from some sort of trauma or illness within the family system (addiction, mental illness, a seriously ill child who is overprotected). Because enmeshment is a generational pattern, it can be difficult to pinpoint the origins of where and when it began (Martin, 2019). Even outside from enmeshment, we tend to recreate family dynamics that we grew up around because they are familiar to us, even if they are not the healthiest.
Within families, boundaries are extremely important as they help to establish appropriate roles. Aside from this, they also help to create safety, harbor physical and emotional space between members, and communicate clear expectations. Boundaries also can shift and change over time as family members grow older. For example, as a child grows up, boundaries begin to shift to allow for greater autonomy, space, privacy, and for them to be able to develop their own beliefs and values (Martin, 2019).
However, in enmeshed families, these kinds of healthy boundaries don’t exist. This could mean that parents overshare personal information, don’t respect privacy, don’t allow children to explore their own identities, and so on.
Part of the ways that we grow to become mature and emotionally healthy adults is to individuate and become independent from your partners. “Individuation is the process of separating yourself both physically, intellectually, spiritually and so forth” (Martin 2019). In part two of this blog, I’ll discuss ways to end enmeshment.
Contact Symmetry Counseling to learn more family therapy in Chicago and talk to a dedicated counselor today.
Martin, S. (2019, October 28). The Enmeshed Family System: What It Is and How to Break Free.