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Tangled Up in Enmeshment?

Using mindfulness to lessen the confusion of fusion.

Key points

  • Enmeshment is characterized by an inability to control one's emotional involvement with another person.
  • If one's identity is wrapped up in meeting another person’s needs, then their own life goals are thwarted.
  • Exiting an enmeshed relationship requires deepening one's relationship with oneself.

By Ann Chanler, Ph.D.

For years, my patient Jean was so preoccupied with her mother’s inability to move forward that she didn’t realize her own life was on hold. Jean’s feelings about her mother obscured other emotions Jean needed to experience to grow. Verbal therapy didn’t seem to be working so I suggested a short, guided meditation to anchor herself in her body and create an internal space of calm in which other feelings could surface. As her capacity to focus on herself increased, the irritation with her mother receded. A few months later she said, mournfully, for the first time, “My mother is crazy, but I need to take charge of my life.”

What is enmeshment?

My patient was enmeshed with her mother. Enmeshed relationships are those that lack healthy psychic boundaries. We lose a sense of where we leave off and another begins. Our sense of individuality is compromised.

If our identity is wrapped up in meeting the other person’s needs, our own life goals are thwarted. We become a stranger to our own desires and our confidence can take a hit. The following may be signs of enmeshment:

  • An inability to control our emotional involvement with another person
  • An exaggerated sense of empathy and responsibility for the other person’s feelings
  • Guilt or anxiety when not preoccupied with the other person’s experience
  • Intense fear of conflict in the relationship
  • An inability to feel happy if the other person is unhappy

Enmeshment can take a physical toll on us as well. A migraine, back or neck pain, and stomach upset can all be somatic manifestations of a relationship that’s too fused. Our bodies speak a pain that our minds have yet to discover. Consider, for example, the daughter who doesn’t understand why she feels lethargic for hours after she gets off the phone with her depressed mother. In this way, the daughter is identified with the mother’s psychic pain.

Enmeshment doesn’t discriminate. We can be enmeshed with a parent, sibling, or partner. In my practice, enmeshment shows up in a variety of relationships. There’s the 40-year old man who is afraid to move to another city because his father, who lives next door, might disown him. There’s the 35-year old woman who can’t find her own voice because she’s afraid of stirring up conflict with her overanxious husband. And there’s the 50-year old woman who feels responsible for her sister’s alcoholic rages.

If you can release yourself from a relationship that’s too fused, a lot can change. Personal as well as professional goals can be identified and then realized. Jean, for example, completed her college degree and started a family of her own once she began to separate from her mother.

How do you disentangle an enmeshed relationship?

One way out is to get back in. By this, I mean deepening your relationship with yourself, beginning with increasing your connection to your body. A good place to start is with the practice of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is paying attention to thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations with acceptance and without judgment. Sit quietly for as little as 5 or 10 minutes a day, listen to and feel your breath entering and exiting your body, and notice the tingling in your toes, the pulsing in your fingers.

By heightening awareness and sensitivity to our own physical experience we become more self-loving. We gain a deeper appreciation of our psychological boundaries. Our investment and preoccupation with others loosens.

As you remain still, observe your thoughts without attachment as though they were clouds passing through the sky. By decreasing reactivity, we gain control over our feelings and behavior. We have the freedom to choose what to do with how we feel. And we are more able to tolerate pain and discomfort as we get better at “sitting” with our experience.

Mindfulness helps improve mental and behavioral control as we face challenging relationships. We stay grounded in our own experience, focusing on what we feel while we separate psychically from others—we can clear up the confusion that comes with fusion. We feel less afraid of conflict because we feel calmer and less invested in the other person’s experience.

The internal space provided by practicing mindfulness offers a path toward separation from those with whom we are enmeshed, as well as one toward renewed and balanced closeness to oneself and others.


Mindfulness Resources:

Gateway to Presence by Tara Brach: 10-minute guided meditation

Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn

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