Unraveling the Threads:  Understanding Enmeshment Trauma

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When family members become overly involved in each other’s lives, personal boundaries become blurred and may eventually disappear altogether.  A daughter takes an instant disliking to her father’s new girlfriend, refusing to engage in respectful discourse, fearful that his love and affection will be taken away.  A mother calls her son’s girlfriend, inquiring about a recent fight that has left her son distraught.  An adult child finds it difficult to make life decisions without first calling their parent(s) for advice, reassurance and/or validation.  This is called enmeshment.  When this reliance upon others for approval and psychological well-being becomes excessive, and it is difficult to differentiate one’s own emotions, needs, and values from those of another, this is known as enmeshment trauma.

Manifestations of enmeshment trauma include codependency; identity confusion; feeling responsible for the behavior, thoughts and happiness of another; and an inability to set and maintain healthy boundaries.  Many who experience this trauma find it difficult to make independent decisions or pursue personal goals, leading to a belief that most aspects of their lives are dictated by external factors outside of their control.

Oftentimes, enmeshment originates within the family, and unhealthy patterns insidiously infiltrate generations to come.  Exceedingly overprotective parents may unwittingly hinder a child’s ability to develop a strong sense of self.  The child then develops an attachment style wherein they seek psychological fulfillment from others which often leads to codependency both within the family unit and in interpersonal relationships with friends and romantic partners.  A responsibility for, and reliance upon, the contentment of others for personal security and serenity creates instability, anxiety, and a loss of self.  In turn, the child may become controlling in parenthood, both relying upon their own child for emotional support and limiting their personal growth.  Societal expectations may also contribute to enmeshment, with some cultures placing a strong emphasis on family unity at the expense of individual autonomy.  And the cycle of trauma continues.

Therapeutic intervention is the crucial first step on the road to disengagement.  Individual or family therapy provides a safe, comfortable space to explore the elements of enmeshment patterns and offers restorative tools to assist in understanding the origin of these patterns and creating new, healthy ones. 

Establishing boundaries; recognizing and asserting personal needs and wants; and fostering independence by making decisions based on preferences, values, and goals comes with self-exploration.  Through guided reflection, individuals are able to gain a deeper understanding of their identity and distinguish themselves from the expectations and desires of others.

Enmeshment, and the trauma that often manifests as a result, is a complex and sometimes challenging aspect of human psychology.  It is not insurmountable.  By unraveling the threads of enmeshment with the guidance of a skilled counselor, and actively working with tools designed to establish healthy boundaries and authentic connections with others, a return to self is within reach.  With therapeutic support and a commitment to mental health, it is possible to break free from the morass of enmeshment and reap the profound and lasting benefits of emotional, social, and physical well-being. If you are struggling with codependency or problems in your relationships, starting therapy with Erin Pallard Therapy can be the first step in your journey to developing healthier relationships.

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