How can therapy can help with healing from family enmeshment?

Enmeshed relationships can be defined as those where the boundaries between individuals are fused together and there is no clear separation emotionally. When this happens lives, thoughts and feelings can become intertwined. These blurred boundaries are accepted in some families and may even be seen as a sign of loyalty, safety, and love.


As a result of these dynamics, there can be an over-identification with others. Lots of worrying for others, excessive need for others, and guilt felt for others.

All this emotional noise can be confusing and can result in finding it hard to know who we are as individuals. The noise of the others you may be enmeshed with can make it difficult to tune into your own needs both psychically and mentally. Enmeshment is a kind of control that can injure self-esteem, identity and mental health. 

One way enmeshed relationships are created is when parents over-identify with their children’s lives and identities. When parents see children only as an extension of themselves, a great deal of anxiety and stress can occur around any healthy separation and individuation. For those raised in these kinds of families, even in adulthood, you may struggle, and this can have a knock-on effect on other relationships you have, such as romantic partners, friendships and with your own kids.

How do I know if I am part of enmeshed relationships?

When a way of relating is all we have known, it can be tricky to work out if there is something about it that is off or dysfunctional. Below are some ways of being that people in enmeshed relationships can identify with:

  • Difficulty distinguishing your feelings from theirs.
  • You struggle to be happy if they are unhappy.
  • You are comforted when they share the same feelings and worldview as you.
  • You feel very guilty for spending time alone or engaging in individual pursuits.
  • You are scared or uneasy about engaging in debates or disagreements as you feel like you are personally hurting or offending them.
  • You are threatened by their dreams and desires, especially if they do not include or centre you.
  • One or both of you overstep each other’s boundaries. Boundaries are continuously shut down, ridiculed, or ignored.
  • You prioritise their needs above your own. Or you presume that they should have the same needs.
  • You feel pressure to spend any free time or holidays with family.
  • You feel shame or rejection when saying no.
  • You do not have much of a concept of privacy.
  • You struggle to make decisions about your own life.
  • You find it hard to spend time alone.

Why does enmeshment happen? 

Generational pattern

It is common that enmeshment is a generational pattern. The reasons for this are varied and many. Discovering your own family story will be a key aspect to explore in personal therapy.

One example is generational trauma. If something awful happened within a family, they could understandably develop a suspicion of outsiders and increased feelings of urgency around staying together. Another example is having parents with untreated mental illnesses or addictions; those without adequate support can turn to their children for help.


This is when parents/a parent requires children to give to them and meet their needs. This can be emotionally, for example providing comfort and support regularly to a depressed, angry or upset parent. Another example is when a child must listen to adult problems or worries such as knowing about bills or debt or being involved as a mediator between parent’s arguments.

Parentification can also be defined through functional or physical tasks that are not age-appropriate for a child. Some examples include caring for younger siblings, paying bills, being a translator, physically taking care of parents or cooking and cleaning.

When as children we are leant on inappropriately, we can grow up into adults who feel like our parents cannot really function without us (and that we cannot function safely without them). Parents who behave in some of the ways above may always quietly discourage their adult children’s separation. This can be fear-based i.e. ‘It’s not safe to travel, what if you hurt yourself’. Or it can seem on the surface at least like practical advice ‘Do not move out, you could save money if you and your girlfriend just live here with us'. It may also be linked to customs and traditions e.g. ‘That is not an appropriate career path and will make us look bad in the community’.

How can therapy help with healing from enmeshment? 

Finding your own voice, your own ideas and feelings are paramount. The only way to feel better, in the long run, is to engage in some short-term discomfort by gently becoming more individual. This does not mean cutting off your family or never caring what they think! Rather, it is a process that takes time where you try and make some room in your life to discover what it's like to give to yourself and nurture who you are.

Therapy provides a space to begin that journey. It provides a relationship, unlike enmeshed relationships, where your autonomy and individuality will be nurtured and listened to.

Enmeshment can be confusing and disorientating, your therapist will work with you to gain more clarity in a safe environment.

Regaining a sense of self is a hard thing to do after enmeshment and you will likely have conflicting feelings and desires. Working with a counsellor to guide and support you through this transition is valuable. They can help you work through and better understand any shame and anxiety that may come up as you make changes in how you relate to your family of origin. It is important to offer yourself compassion and grace. Being kind to yourself will aid the therapeutic process, but your therapist will understand deeply why this might be hard for you too.

Making changes to the way we show up in relationships can feel scary to do alone. In therapy, you are not alone. You have a place of support and empathy to come back to each week to explore and sit with your feelings. You deserve more peace and a place to help find personal permission to live your life as you wish.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London W9 & NW3
Written by Billie Dunlevy, MBACP (Accred) Online and In Person Therapy
London W9 & NW3

I'm a London based qualified Integrative Counsellor currently working both in person and online with clients across the UK. and EU. 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.

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