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Understanding Enmeshment — When a Bond Becomes a Ball and Chain

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The nagging feeling that you don’t really know yourself could have its roots in dysfunctional family relationships. Establishing yourself as an individual outside the family unit is critical in cultivating good relationships and a healthy sense of self.

The degree with which we often measure the strength of our family bonds is typically measured through the concept of “closeness,” in which we share deep emotional connections. We often associate closeness with a sense of warmth and love within the family. However, in some cases this “closeness” can be suffocating, and limit the growth and development of the family members’ individual selves. You might feel a tremendous sense of responsibility for your family’s happiness or wellbeing, or constant guilt or pressure around their expectations of you. If these feelings are the norm in your family, you may be experiencing a type of familial relationship called “enmeshment.”

What is Enmeshment?

Enmeshment is a term used to describe the lack of appropriate boundaries, both emotional and physical, in a relationship. As a result, parent and child roles are confused or completely swapped, and families are bonded through unhealthy emotional attachments. This often leads to grown children lacking a strong sense of self or independence. 

Some classic symptoms of enmeshment include:

  • Persistent and frequent guilt over not meeting family expectations or requests
  • Lack of privacy, both in your physical space as well as your personal affairs
  • Pressure to conform to family demands or expectations
  • Lack of respect or space for individual needs, wants, and expressions of self
  • Regular oversharing 
  • Inappropriate reliance of parents on children for emotional, psychological, or physical support

Enmeshment is usually a pattern of dysfunctional family relationships that is passed down from generation to generation. Often enmeshment starts because of a trauma, illness or addiction that disrupts normal roles and relationships between family members. 

How Does Enmeshment Affect You as an Adult?

In an enmeshed family, your needs, beliefs and interests are constantly pushed aside or suppressed, which has long-term effects as you move into adulthood. If you have grown up with an enmeshed family, you may notice things about yourself like:

  • You have a difficult time distinguishing your preferences or values
  • You avoid conflict and have a hard time saying “no.”
  • You struggle with knowing how to calm yourself or deal with difficult emotions.
  • You show signs of co-dependency, meaning your emotions and self-worth are often dependent on the emotional state of others.
  • You feel nervous about expressing your true feelings, needs or desires, and often anticipate an extreme or negative response when you do.
  • You feel empty or out-of-touch with your inner self, and even question who you really are.

These characteristics often lead to toxic relationships with others, including friends or romantic partners, as well as low self-worth and self-esteem, depression, and anxiety. However, when you are able to reflect and recognise that you have experienced or are currently living with enmeshment, this enables you to start the process of untangling who you are from the family network, and begin to discover your true self.

The Emerging: How to Move from Enmeshment to Independence

Awakening to the fact that your family dynamics have kept you from knowing yourself is an important first step in moving towards self-discovery and acceptance. The next steps involve learning how to lay down boundaries between yourself and your family so that you have room to grow into yourself.  There are a few things you can do immediately to start carving out some space for yourself.

Don’t Make Immediate Decisions

You’ve just gotten a phone call from your family with yet another demand on your time and energy. Before you default to yes, tell them that you are in the middle of something and you’ll call back. This gives you a moment to regroup and consider whether what they are asking is something that is necessary and healthy for you to engage with, or if it is better to sit this one out. 

Go Separately

There’s a big family event coming up, and though you’ve agreed to go, you realise it is probably better for you to be able to leave when you need to. Arranging your own transportation is a habit you need to get into in order to do this. Whether it’s persistent and inappropriate questioning about your life, or proximity to family members that have few to no boundaries, it is important to have the ability to call it quits when you feel yourself getting pulled into a situation that is not conducive to your personal growth or wellbeing.

Make Time for Yourself

Every adult needs time to reflect and recharge in a way that suits them. If you’ve grown up in an enmeshed household, it may take you some time to figure out exactly what helps you do this. If you’re not sure of what relaxes you or helps you process your emotions, start by setting aside some time each week to try different activities. It can be as simple as cooking a new recipe for yourself, joining a fitness class, trying meditation, taking a walk, or making art. If it makes you feel satisfied, engaged, and at peace, you’re on the right track.

Take Control of Decision-Making

At some points in your life, you might have been frustrated by what you perceive as your own indecisiveness, or on the other hand, exhausted by constantly having to make decisions for others. Enmeshed families often result in situations where you are unable to make any decisions on your own, or you are forced to take responsibility for making decisions that are not really yours to make. Being conscious of where you’re at with decision-making and taking steps to either start making small decisions on your own, or pull back from making decisions that other people should be making themselves, is an important part of deconstructing enmeshment. 

Reach Out for Professional Support

Enmeshment is not easily resolved, as it involves unlearning deeply ingrained behaviours, and overcoming resistance from family members. For these reasons, most people find professional support critical in breaking free of enmeshment and making progress in self-discovery. Joining a support group or connecting with a therapist can help provide you with valuable insights and useful tools as you continue on your own path. 

Getting to Know Yourself at The Dawn

The Dawn Mental Health Retreat Thailand is an exquisite facility that allows you to heal under the relaxing and calming environment.

The Dawn Wellness Centre and Rehab Thailand specialises in highly customised mental health treatment, facilitating personal discovery, understanding and growth. We work with each of our clients to create a treatment plan based on your specific needs, and geared towards healthy, long-term change. 

Mental Health Treatment in Thailand or Online 

Our renowned residential treatment programme is based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, just an hour’s flight from the capital city of Bangkok, but a world away from the stressors and triggers of everyday life. The Dawn is located amidst lush grounds on a scenic riverside, and well-appointed with individual rooms and amenities including a gym, wellness studio, swimming pool and games room. You’ll benefit from regular psychotherapeutic sessions, as well as an array of wellness practices to help you grow and heal in a holistic, healthy way.

It’s never too late to get to know who you really are. Contact The Dawn today to learn more about how to reclaim your independence and embrace yourself.

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