I came across this image yesterday and it reminded me of something I had delved more deeply into in the morning – the topic of enmeshment, and particularly how it relates to health. It inspired me to write about it, so here it is:
Wonderful words – however, I will add to this – pure love sets boundaries and pure love respects boundaries.
This morning’s learning was about enmeshment. Enmeshment is where two people (or more) have no clear defined personal boundaries and sense of individuality and therefore don’t know where one person starts and other person ends. Basically, it is a loss of personal identity.
This can play out in a multitude of ways:
– an overly controlling parent
– co-dependency in a relationship
– a child being a surrogate spouse
– overly attached siblings
The ultimate outcome of being in an enmeshed relationship is a loss of freedom, an inability to speak up and state your truth for fear of being cast out and ultimately the loss of self-worth (a common precursor to suicidal thoughts). The enmeshed individual forgoes their sense of self, become overly concerned by the thoughts and feelings of another and gives up everything that identifies them, such as the way they dress, the sorts of foods they like, the places they go and activities they take part in – just so that they can be accepted and loved by another.
Often those that are enmeshed consider the behaviour to be quite normal, loving even, as they are unaware there is an alternative that would empower them more.
One of the things that can happen with enmeshment is that the weaker of the two people can end up experiencing and carrying the emotions of the other. This can present itself in many ways. Firstly, it may show as the individual believing the emotions are actually their own, causing them to try and solve a problem that isn’t theirs and secondly, it can result in a health condition in the weaker person – the most common ones being autoimmune diseases and Chronic Fatigue/ME.
In Gabor Maté’s book When the Body Says No, he talks about how highly sensitive children of enmeshed families can end up being the counter-balance to a parent’s unresolved emotions. The child soon learns that in order for their parent(s) to be able to function as a parent and thus care for their child, he/she must bear the weight of the parents emotions, and thus absorbs them as their own. In doing so, they violate their own boundaries, often adding an additional emotional burden and conflict within themselves. Wittingly or unwittingly, many parents allow this because it benefits them, and so the child becomes a crutch on which the parent becomes reliant upon in order to function and keep up an appearance – whilst the child’s mysterious (and sometimes severe) illness is palmed off as unfortunate or bad luck. In my clinic I have seen this many, many times.
Reading this, many of you are probably thinking – oh my god – that is me, or at least someone you know.
Before you panic, it is important to contextualise things, and make you aware that 1) to some degree everyone has experienced some level of enmeshment – we are human after all, and few people are devoid of all challenges, 2) awareness is the first step to turning an enmeshed experience around and 3) I speak from my own experience that even the most challenging enmeshed experiences can be dealt with to the benefit of both parties – resulting in a win-win situation.
So how do you deal with an enmeshed situation?
First of all, I would highly recommend you find someone that you can trust that you can talk to. Realising you are in an enmeshed situation can be a relief, and it can also bring up all sorts of emotions of your own that can be difficult to deal with. Seeing as having a strong and healthy support network is one of the things that helps us to emotionally regulate ourselves and promotes health, if you don’t have this valuable asset (sometimes due to enmeshment with another) put the wheels in motion to bring that into play. Even if this is difficult to do, you will thank me for it.
“Know IT IS YOUR RIGHT to have your own thoughts and feelings.”
Secondly, know IT IS YOUR RIGHT to have your own thoughts and feelings. This means it is ok to disagree with a spouse about how shared finances are to be spent, it is ok to have different political or environmental views to your parents and it is ok to have a different vision or expectation on how a piece of work is going to turn out than your boss or co-worker. We are different people, with different perspectives and with different wants and likes, AND THAT IS OK! Your differences is actually what makes life interesting.
The first person that it is important to acknowledge your thoughts and feelings is you. Those that have grown up in an enmeshed environment have often spent so long putting their thoughts and feelings to one side in order to make room for another they have become completely out of touch with their own. Outlets and clues for many of these thoughts or feelings can be found in the areas where the person is still able to express themselves. This might be in the types of books, music, clothes or art that people like – or if they are artists themselves, the words, images, style or the energy behind the things they create. It wasn’t until a friend pointed out that all my music was sad that I became aware that I was drawn to music that resonated the same way I was feeling (she was a big fan of cheesy pop – no idea what that says about her!!). I had no idea I was so sad – it was my norm – but once it was pointed out to me, I was able to consciously decide whether I wanted to be sad or not, and if not, what was it I wanted to be instead (I’ve always wanted to be happy, ever since I was very small). I decided I was up for being more cheerful, so I choose to address the things that were making me sad so I could experience being more upbeat, resulting in the need for a whole new set of music – woo hoo!
How you feel about things counts
Once you are aware that you have your own thoughts and feelings, I encourage you to to take steps to honour them. To start with, if all this feels very challenging and overwhelming you can do this via a private journal. People that are brave enough to honour their own thoughts and feelings are far more likely to have them honoured by those around them – because we generally lead by example.
The next step is to ask the other enmeshed person to be responsible for their thoughts and feelings. So in a situation where a parent/spouse/boss blames their child/husband/employee for their anxiety let’s say, the child/husband/employee would remain clear in their mind that the anxiety is the parent/spouse/boss’s choice – knowingly or not. We know this because different people respond to the same stimulus in different ways and we are able to change that we feel about things. In this situation, the parent/spouse/boss is the only one capable of dealing with that anxiety – and despite what they say, they are capable.
In the horse work I do, we share a safety agreement that explicitly asks people to take responsibility for themselves.
The same principles apply to you. If you find yourself blaming others, leaning on someone else and wanting them to solve your problems for you or burying your problems in your relationships, stop. You will not find solutions there. Problems are a sign you are being one sided in your thinking and it is time to look at some new, life sustaining alternatives that will serve you much better in the long run. Just as you have a right to have your boundaries respected, so do others – remember that.
Empowering yourself to deal with your own thoughts and feelings and asking others to be responsible for theirs is actually a very empowering and positive thing to do. No matter how much I may want to, I cannot change how someone else feels because I am not them. What I can do though, is be aware of someone else’s thoughts and feelings and put my light of consciousness on it. In some instances I am in a position to hold up a mirror and show them what they are feeling and let them know I will support them to explore that and that I have every faith they can achieve the outcome they desire.
You empower people most when you make them responsible (response-able) for how they think and feel. Being empowered is a wonderful experience because it allows people to be themselves, without judgement. Empowerment also knows we don’t have to be experts at something straight away, we can start small, and grow our skills bit by bit.
Some people are able to deal with enmeshment on their own, however, I personally needed help to learn how to set healthy boundaries and assert myself in a conflict situation. Often those from enmeshed situations are lacking good role models for how to deal with strong and overbearing people, so a good friend, therapist or coach can be useful to help you develop your skill set and put it into practice. My biggest personal success has come in the last 7 years, where I found someone I could trust and I have learnt to speak my truth with (I intentionally sought out such a person). It is an enormous source of comfort to know that when I speak up I am listened to, my thoughts and feelings are acknowledged and if necessary acted on and I am left with the knowing that how I am matters to them, which allows me to feel ok about asking for what I need. This one positive relationship has given me the opportunity to explore what healthy relationships are like, and has helped me transfer this knowing into family, workplace and friend relationships to good effect – yeay!
You’re doing just fine
If this article does apply to you and you find yourself feeling down rather than empowered by it remember, we rarely learn about these sorts of things till we have to. Life presents us obstacles not to floor us, but to develop our skills and resources as people. Once you have tackled enmeshment once, it becomes part of your educational vocabulary, meaning you are unlikely to let yourself experience it so vividly and without skill again. This makes you strong not weak. So don’t judge yourself on your outcomes, but instead aware of how much you try. For a person that has multiple goes is far more likely to succeed in the way they want to than someone that never tries at all.
Like I say to my clients all the time, you are amazing, and I am really proud of the effort you make.