By: Bria Wannamaker
What is Enmeshment?
This is that “fear of commitment” that everyone talks about. The “emotionally unavailable person” The reason for this is simply – commitment poses a threat to your self-identity. It’s fragile. Not to be confused with Disorganized Attachment Style (an insecure attachment) and also not to be confused with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) which is a complex mental health diagnosis. Though the characteristics can be similar in relationship dynamics such as pulling partners in close and then pushing them away, this happens with disorganized attachment styles due to abuse and neglect as a child – these adults don’t know who and how to trust. While BPD involve more extreme behavioural components and severe mental health difficulties due to a lack of emotional regulation skills. Enmeshment is simply a learned behaviour about the ways of relating to others. You can work to heal enmeshment in many ways, and most importantly, learning what your boundaries are and honouring them.
You might think it’s great that you’re neutral and up for anything and can go with the flow in relationships – but is that you acting in your power? Do you feel resentful at times that you don’t have time to yourself,? Are your needs, commitments, and desires?
While adults who were raised with little intimacy and openness in their household might experience fear of abandonment because they haven’t had the experience of unconditional closeness, adults who were raised with limited boundaries might fear this type of closeness in adult relationships because they fear losing their sense of self, becoming engulfed in the relationship, or feeling controlled as they did when they were a child.
9 Signs That show up in Adulthood:
- You Identify heavily with one thing (ex. being “the fit friend”, a certain job status, a certain extra curricular), you cling to this because you did not have a chance to fully create a sense of self as an individual throughout your upbringing.
- You feel like you’re ALL IN, and then you’re ALL OUT in relationships, you might not handle conflict well. Though you’re good at communicating, you feel personally victimized when someone doesn’t agree with you and feel like if you agree with them then you’re lost, invalidated, and this shatters your fragile sense of self.
- You want to create meaningful relationships as an adult but you struggle to stay committed to them and always feel like you have 1 foot out the door, whether it’s romantic, work, friendships, etc.
- In romantic relationships you feel trapped, engulfed, confused, stuck. You’re used to being agreeable in conflict, used to smoothing things over, used to abandoning yourself.
- At work you feel controlled, like you have no say and no voice. You’ve been in this position before – as a child you depended on your family unit, and so you had to make sacrifices involving giving up your autonomy and individuality in order to receive safety, love, resources and security. At work, you feel like if you speak up, then people might not like you or you might lose your job.
- In friendships you feel like you have so much to contribute but never really get to be yourself, you either take the backseat and observe, or, you put on a façade that you think will fit in with everyone else.
- In family you feel guilty, you feel like you’ve never done enough. You try to connect with everyone and be there for everyone, but your work is never done. You don’t even enjoy it because it takes away from your other priorities.
- In relationships in general you feel EXHAUSTED, even though you might be an extravert, you find that you really need time to yourself to recharge
- You want to cocoon and have tons of alone time. You need time to reset and connect with yourself and your sovereignty again.
What to do if you had an enmeshed childhood
Sense of Self
You have to get to know yourself; who are you at your core? What are your values? Your likes? Your dislikes?
Reflect, journal, go to therapy, meditate.
Create boundaries with proximity, create boundaries with your time, create boundaries with what you’re comfortable sharing and with whom. Also create energetic boundaries – notice when you’re taking on other people’s emotions and challenges that are not yours.
Hobbies & Passions
Take your self on dates, do things alone, spend time with others do things that you enjoy – give yourself a variety of options!
Pause before everything that you do
Your instinct is to be impulsive- to ask how high when someone says jump, to say yes, to abandon yourself, to do before being, to fix. It’s a blessing and a curse.
Say “let me reflect on it, let me look at my calendar, I’ll check if I’m available.” before committing to things that people request of you.
YOU CAN’T GO DEEPER in adult relationships or be more intimate and vulnerable until you have a safe container of boundaries to act within. The only person responsible for creating this safe container is YOU. You have to attune to your needs and honour them. You do not need to tolerate or accept if others aren’t able to recognize and respect your boundaries.
If you’re a parent right now…
- According to Coe, Davies, and Sturge-Apple (2018), if parents are able to compartmentalize and separate their roles from parents and spouses- this can help to mitigate the risk of enmeshment. Compartmentalize distress so that your children do not take it on as their own. Talk to your partner separately, talk to your friends outside of areas with little listening ears, get a therapist and go see them in person versus online – create a sacred space to care for yourself outside of the family unit.
- Do not use your child to fill an emotional void, they are not your partner, they are not your best friend, they are not ready to hear about big problems. The prefrontal regions of their brain are still developing (used for executive functioning: problem solving, planning, organization etc.) They need YOU to co-regulate with them, not the other way around. Their brains are not fully developed until age 25. They need you to model emotional regulation.
- Your child is not your everything or your world. They are a part of your world yes, but take some time to reflect on how much pressure that is to feel like you are someone’s whole world. It doesn’t leave much room to make mistakes, to fall short, to try something new, to carve out your own authentic path. It leaves a very narrow, controlled version of self identity for the child to step into. The messaging and narrative that one receives as a child is “My work here is never done”. Cue future workaholics in the making. You are responsible for your own happiness.
- Here is your permission slip to take time to yourself for self-care. This is the best way to model boundaries and to show that it’s OK to take time for yourself and that you don’t need your child to give you life. You pour into your own cup so that you can overflow and other reap the benefits by extension of your commitment to yourself.