People usually want a close-knit family, but it's definitely possible to have too much of a good thing.
Enmeshed families lack boundaries and differentiation- family members overly rely on one another for support, and children often grow up feeling like they don't know how to act as independent people. These families also have intense covert rules that tend to be rigid and, at times, punitive.
Enmeshment Vs. Healthy Closeness
Families who are healthily close to one another offer support and connection unconditionally. Everyone knows they can depend on their family for love. But there's no sense of accountability over someone else's emotions or needs. Each person is responsible for looking after themselves.
Enhesmed families, on the other hand, tend to totally rely on the family for emotional support.
8 Signs You Grew up In An Enmeshed Family
Enmeshed families aren't always obvious, and it's always important to consider specific family dynamics and cultural considerations when examining the system. The most apparent sign of enmeshment is that family members often feel like they don't have space from one another.
Children tend to feel like their parents control their lives, and even adults often feel like they don't have the freedom to act like themselves when it doesn't align with the family's values.
Here are some other signs of enmeshment:
There Are No Real Boundaries for Privacy
In an enmeshed family, people often think that anything is "fair game" in the family home.
Children often grow up without much privacy, and boundaries are seen as cruel limits that prevent people from enjoying the family's closeness.
Parents believe that 'too much privacy' will foster 'too much independent thinking,' and that makes them worried. Furthermore, enmeshed parents often perceive their children to be extensions of themselves, so they don't necessarily see why the child has any need for their own physical or emotional space.
There’s Lots of Guilt-Tripping
Are you sure you can't come to Christmas? It's the one time of year we all get together...
Your grandma said you haven't called lately. You do know she's getting sicker and sicker.
I just wish you didn't live so far away. I feel like I never see you anymore!
The enmeshed family system becomes threatened when someone wants more space or distance from family members. Adult children, who can and should differentiate from their family of origin often feel guilty for wanting other relationships.
Guilt-tripping maintains the dysfunctional family dynamic. Where close families want their children to successfully launch into the world and enjoy their new lives, an enmeshed parent tends to feel profoundly threatened by this. There's no separate sense of self from the family.
Parents Base Their Self-Worth on Their Children’s Well-Being/Success
There's nothing wrong with wanting your children to have a good life and be happy. In healthy families, caregivers aim to support their children to grow up autonomously, and the child is not just an extension of the parents.
But in an enmeshed family, the parents' lives center around what's happening with their children. From a young age, they connect their worth to what's happening within the family unit. The child often feels punished for having their own interests or own identity.
People Consistently Overshare
In enmeshed families, secrets are seen as problematic, and family members often sacrifice the concept of personal space and self-esteem for family closeness.
Many times, enmeshed parents treat their children like best friends or miniature therapists. They may lack their own healthy relationships with friends or other family members their own age, so they "borrow" their children for emotional support.
Children, who just want to be close to and loved by their parents, tend to eagerly step into these roles. They can't quite understand the concept of emotional boundaries, and they often grow up just assuming that most people have this same level of family enmeshment.
You Lack a Sense of Identity
Children of enmeshed families often grow up with a limited or nonexistent sense of self. They often take on whatever the family instilled in them, whether that's specific religious or spiritual beliefs, academic interests, or communication styles.
They are so used to having their family members overly involved in their lives that they don't really consider their own emotional needs or desires. It's no secret that this dynamic creates unrealistic expectations for everyone. The parent feels they must cultivate the child's life, and the child becomes dependent on the parent for their own needs and feelings.
You Don’t Know How to Say No
People who grow up in an enmeshed family often lack the ability to set boundaries or look after their own feelings. Likewise, enmeshed families treat the word no like it's a personal insult. From their perspective, boundaries create distance, which creates problems.
As a result, many adult children repeat enmeshed family characteristics in their adult relationships. They simply assume that an enmeshed family is a close family. They often have no idea how healthy relationships work, and this can exacerbate mental illness and foster codependent relationships with others.
Family Members Are Suspicious of Outsiders
Another sign of an enmeshed relationship is intense mistrust of other influencers. Parents often go to great lengths to limit contact with the outside world.
This is often because, on a core level, people know the family lacks healthy boundaries. They don't want anyone else drawing attention to this lack of physical and emotional space.
Sometimes, family enmeshment is so problematic that parents will forbid their children from engaging with anyone outside of the family. They might even avoid letting kids build peer relationships or taking a seriously ill child to the doctor.
There Are Scapegoats And/or Golden Children
These dynamics are at the heart of enmeshment trauma. Children often feel pitted against each other, and they remain emotionally dependent on dysfunctional family relationships for approval and love.
They often feel so connected to their roles that the roles define everything they do (even if they move out of the family home). A scapegoat, for instance, often lacks the confidence to try to succeed in life. A golden child tends to feel immense pressure to perform well at everything they do.
How We Help Enmeshed Families Heal
If you recognize signs of enmeshment in your family, it can be painful (and scary) to think about changing these dynamics. However, dysfunctional relationships often exacerbate mental health problems and low self-esteem.
We believe healthy family relationships are the cornerstone of healing and happiness. Setting emotional and physical boundaries may feel uncomfortable, but these limits provide each family member with the opportunity to build healthier family cohesion.
We are here for you and your family. Contact us today to get started!