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Enmeshed families: How to hold better boundaries for yourself

Having closeness within our family is widely considered to be a good thing. A close family can offer valuable support to each other. Having close trusted bonds helps give us a sense of belonging and safety. A healthy family is made up of people who feel connected and loving towards each other but who also have a good sense of self and see others as individuals with separate lives.  

Enmeshed family: What does that mean? 

Imagine two pieces of string that have become intertwined and knotted together in a ball. It can be hard to see when one piece ends and the other begins. When something is enmeshed it has become entangled with something else.

When this word is used to talk about family dynamics it simply means that personal boundaries are unclear and permeable. This is often experienced on an emotional level where family members ‘feel’ each other’s emotions. This can result in there being an over responsibility to one another. If parents become excessively reliant on their children for emotional support or treat them like a little helper with adult responsibilities; enmeshment occurs that is sometimes referred to as emotional incest.

The focus of this article is what it’s like when you are an adult with an enmeshed relationship with your family. This can be both with parents or siblings. Here are some characteristics you might notice about yourself if your family relates to one another in this way.

 If you have enmeshed relationships with your family as an adult you may find that you:

  • struggle to make decisions
  • feel shame or rejection if you say no to family members
  • feel your achievements are attached to your families idea of worth
  • sense that going against any consensus within the family is seen as an act of betrayal
  • don’t feel able to be your authentic self
  • believe you can’t achieve things without your family
  • notice that privacy is an alien concept
  • feel pressure to spend time together
  • feel responsible for other people’s happiness

Remember, you are not alone 

If the list above resonates with your experiences, know that you are not alone. The good news is that you can heal from the effects of enmeshment. This may be something that professional support and guidance from a counsellor can help you with.

A core aspect of this family dynamic is that your individuality has been compromised and your autonomy denied.

It’s OK to set boundaries around family

Your well-being and happiness matter. Setting boundaries helps us to have more effective relationships with the people we are close to. However, it might be daunting to consider taking these steps as setting boundaries within our family can be tricky.

You might find it useful to try and keep focused on your reason for wanting change and the aspects of self you’d like to get back. One way of restoring your independence is by setting small, manageable boundaries for yourself.

Getting some support for you 

Family may take offence to the idea that you want separation of any kind as this is a break away from the norm. Perhaps they don’t see anything wrong with your relationship and aren’t used to hearing ‘no’. These behaviours could have been passed down from generation to generation and you going against the grain might be viewed as ungrateful, disruptive, or even unkind.

Working with a counsellor to guide and support you during this transition is valuable. They can help you to work through and better understand any shame or anxiety that might come up as you make these changes in how you relate to your family of origin.

Often when we begin to make changes in our behaviour and show people how to treat us there can be some resistance from others. It can be uncomfortable for us too! Even when we really want to change, learnt behaviour and patterns we’ve come to do almost automatically can be hard to shift. It’s important to practice lots of self-compassion, be kind to yourself and offer yourself understanding for how you have behaved previously within your family.

The boundaries you start to set will be unique to your personal circumstances and what you feel comfortable with. Below are just some ideas to help get you started.

11 ways to hold better boundaries within an enmeshed family

Practice saying no

This can be small things. It might relate to your life schedule, for example, if the family want to meet on Tuesday evening for dinner and you don’t want to or can’t - let them know it’s not going to work for you. Or if you don’t agree with something and find yourself saying yes when you mean no, pay attention to this. It can even be a simple as saying no to a pizza as really you'd prefer a Chinese when ordering take away together!

Let people know what you have the capacity for

Enmeshed families members do not think to ask first if you have mental or emotional space for them to talk about their issues. Let people know if you don’t have the headroom for certain conversations. Perhaps direct them towards friends or professionals for support.

Limit your time commitments to family events

Do what makes you comfortable, e.g. for an all-day event, agree to go for a couple of hours.

Consider what information you feel comfortable sharing with family

You might feel obliged to tell your parents or siblings every aspect of your life, start thinking about what you share. Consider, is that something I want them to know? Is that something they need to know? Who else can I talk to about this?

Give yourself permission not to feel responsible for other people’s emotions or reactions

This one takes work and it takes time. But it can help to know that even though you might feel responsible for how others feel we are responsible only for our own feelings and our own actions.

Mute all message notifications

This means you get to decide when and if you want to engage in conversations. 

Limit contact if it feels overwhelming and intrusive

If you speak to your family every day and that doesn’t sit right with you anymore, decide a day in the week where you have no phone calls with them. You don’t need to tell them if you don’t want to.

Challenge possessive behaviour

A good way to do this when you are starting out with initiating change is to simply detach more. Separate and focus on yourself. This can teach people a great deal about how we want to interact with them that arguing or trying to convince people of our point of view often doesn’t do. 

Get to know yourself: What is important to you?

Being overly concerned with others means we forget or sometimes don’t ever find out what we like and what is important to us. Boundary setting is also with ourselves. Promise yourself some time in your week to research something that interests you. Set aside time to have a think about what you enjoy and what you’d like more of in your life.

Connect with family one-on-one

It's OK to connect with individuals within your family without including everyone.

Practice self-care

It is vital to take care of yourself and do things that are relaxing and fun. It is not selfish to take time to recharge and process your own thoughts and feelings.

Setting boundaries is a process and a learning experience for many of us. It is OK to move at your own pace and reevaluate as you go along. It can be helpful to journal your thoughts and feelings and to remind yourself of the healthier relationships you are aiming for. This includes a healthier relationship with yourself. 

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Billie Dunlevy - Modern online counselling for peace of mind during Coronavirus

I'm a London based qualified Integrative Counsellor currently working online with clients across the UK. I can help you to reach a deeper understanding of your issues allowing you to make changes and move forward. My approach is direct and supportive. I’m here to gently challenge and guide you to realisations and clarity.… Read more

Written by Billie Dunlevy - Modern online counselling for peace of mind during Coronavirus

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