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Enmeshment Trauma: When Living Without Boundaries Is the Norm
Mental Health

Enmeshment Trauma: When Living Without Boundaries Is the Norm

HR_author_photo_Edibel
Written by Edibel Quintero, RD | Medically reviewed by Medically reviewed by Rosmy Barrios, MD check
Published on December 13, 2022
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8 min

Enmeshment trauma arises because of the blurred boundaries between family members. They are not aware that they are not respecting their children’s physical and mental spaces. Why is this happening? How can this trauma be overcome?

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One of the parents’ functions is to set boundaries between their children, so that they would know how far they can go. When there are no clear boundaries, the parents are not present, or the roles are not defined in the home, the child may develop enmeshment trauma.

A person who suffers the effects of enmeshment trauma may have problems being independent, as, during their childhood, they did not receive support from their caregivers. Like all trauma, if the exact origin and the ways to work on it are not known, the person cannot lead a better life.

This article aims to teach people how to identify enmeshment trauma and what steps to take to heal.

Enmeshment Trauma – What Is It?

Enmeshment trauma results from relationships with undefined and diffused boundaries between family members or other relationships that the person has had. Extreme cases of enmeshment trauma can be viewed as abusive and manipulative.

It is necessary to analyze the enmeshed family system to understand how enmeshment trauma can develop. One example is when the father does not respect the child’s space and wants to control them. The father does not allow the child to develop a sense of independence, which creates confusion about who they are and their role in the family. The child can normalize it and grow up repeating similar patterns. These actions are part of the childhood emotional trauma that a child may experience.

Another example is the mother who uses the child as an outlet for her problems. The mother does not filter what things she can share with the child and how this can affect them. The mother sees the child as an equal and does not prioritize their needs over her own, which can be considered emotional incest. Due to this dynamic, children, after becoming adults, may tend to go out of their way to satisfy their parents’ demands.

The person suffering enmeshment trauma often does not recognize it and normalizes the behaviors in their family or other relationships. They may see it as normal to let others cross boundaries and put their interests last, which can lead to defending abusive behavior.

What Is Enmeshment?

Enmeshment is the extreme closeness between people, especially family members. Here, the boundaries are not present or difficult to distinguish, creating problematic situations that can later become traumas.

Enmeshment can occur in any relationship but is more common in families, which are called enmeshed families. The dynamic can occur between a mother or father and their child, being the most common in this type of trauma.

Family enmeshment is characterized by little respect for emotional and personal boundaries, exaggerated emotional involvement with others, little or zero tolerance for opinions that are different from the rest of the family, and a lack of identity. Children under the roof of enmeshed family systems may have trouble developing their independence outside of the home as their caregivers did not focus on helping them develop the skills necessary for their healthy growth.

In the case of enmeshed relationships, this is characterized by the lack of independence of a person towards their partner. In this type of relationship, one of the partners is excessively focused on fulfilling the needs and desires of the other, leaving their own aside.

The person in an enmeshed relationship does nothing without the other person’s approval, and their happiness depends on how their partner feels. This can often lead to isolation from friends and family since their partner is their priority.

What Are Boundaries in a Relationship?

Boundaries are lines that one person defines and shows the other how far they should go. When they are established, the dynamics in any relationship are healthy since each person knows to what extent they can do and say things.

There are boundaries in romantic relationships. When two people decide to form a relationship, they talk about what they want from each other. The couple understands the respect they must have for one another and knows they are both individuals who need their personal space and work in other aspects alone.

There may be problems when the lines are unclear in a relationship. One person thinks they are not crossing the line, while the other feels the line has been crossed. That is why both must know the limits of the other.

5 Signs of Enmeshment Trauma

Although the dynamics in families and other types of relationships may be different, some signs are common and allow people to identify enmeshment trauma.

 #1 Lack of self-worth

Someone who grew up in an enmeshed family has a high chance of developing low self-worth. This happens because the father or mother did not take care of the child’s well-being and didn’t cultivate healthy self-esteem, which would have allowed the child to function in the world.

The lack of self-esteem makes the child vulnerable to mistreatment from others. The child cannot defend themselves and identify which actions affect them positively or negatively. Additionally, the child has difficulty establishing healthy relationships and detaching themselves from their environment.

#2 Conflict avoidance

Victims of enmeshment trauma avoid conflict. This is because when they try to solve a problem, they are villainized by others, which makes the conflict worse. Faced with these reactions, the victim prefers avoiding any conflict, which then repeats in other relationships.

#3 Complicated relationships

A person with enmeshment trauma has difficulty establishing relationships with others. This is because they believe the cycle of trauma will repeat in new relationships with a partner or friends. 

They find it difficult to trust others, have problems leaving their environment, and don’t know how to meet the demands of people outside the family.

#4 Constant pressure

The pressure that parents put on their children to be what they think they should be is something that generates trauma. One of the reasons that parents exert so much pressure is because of the search for validation.

When the child makes decisions other than what they want, the parents often feel uncomfortable and try to manipulate the child to do what is asked, not considering how this kind of pressure can affect the child.

#5 Feeling responsible for other people’s feelings

In enmeshed families, the boundaries are unclear, and the parents may rely on their children and demand their needs met. When this happens, the child grows up with the idea that they must look after the welfare of others and does not understand that their parents are the ones who must take care of them.

When the caregiver does not feel well, the child feels responsible. Even though it is not their fault, they assimilate it as such, and often they cannot set boundaries so that the parent does not take it badly.

Types of Enmeshment Trauma

Enmeshment trauma has different ways of manifesting itself in families.

#1 Disabled parent

The child takes on the role of the caregiver for a family member who is disabled. This can exhaust the child both physically and psychologically, as they have to use all of their strength to take care of others, which affects the child’s development since they do not focus on their identity.

#2 Sentimentalized parent

The parent treats the child beyond the parent-child relationship, seeking an intimacy that should not exist in their relationship. This is also known as emotional incest, where the parent treats the child as a friend or partner. Although there is no physical or sexual component, there are words with sexual content unsuitable for children, which can affect their mental health.

#3 Cosseting parent

Also known as helicopter parents, this is when parents become overprotective, which makes the child insecure and dependent on them. The parent seeks to control everything the child does and invades their privacy, justifying that they do it because they care about them.

#4 Favoritism

This refers to the family’s favorite child – the child that is never blamed for anything, that is seen as perfect, and to who the rest must aspire to be. When one of the parents shows favoritism towards one of the children, the rest can feel underestimated and that they are not enough, which hurts their self-esteem.

#5 Scapegoating

Scapegoating refers to the child who is guilty of everything that happens. Unlike the favorite, who receives all the good treatment, the scapegoat is responsible for everything bad that happens in the family.

What Is the Impact of Enmeshment Trauma?

Enmeshment trauma harms the people who experience it. Because boundaries are not established early on, it is difficult for the child who becomes an adult to set limits and establish healthy relationships with other people.

Self-esteem also suffers a lot. Childhood is when the person develops their self-concept and self-esteem. Because of the dynamics present in an enmeshed family, it is possible that the child grows up without a clear identity and struggles with independence and trusting their decisions.

Their mental health suffers a lot. Anxiety and depression are also part of the impact of enmeshment trauma, as the people who live with it have developed these symptoms due to the situations experienced in the family.

 3 Tips for How to Heal From Enmeshment Trauma

At first, it may seem challenging to heal from enmeshment trauma, but there are several strategies that the person can do to start their recovery process.

#1 Seek help

The help of a mental health professional is key to healing from this type of trauma. A family therapist can help the person understand the trauma they are suffering from, find how they can heal from it, and avoid replicating learned behaviors.

#2 Allow yourself to grow

Allow yourself to try different things and expose yourself to never considered situations. Focus on knowing yourself beyond the negative experiences of the past, understand what you like and don’t, and identify your value.

Apps like Sensa will help you reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression that you may have developed because of the trauma you experienced. It will serve as a guide for rediscovering yourself.

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#3 Do not feel guilty

The person experiencing the trauma may think that what they experienced was their fault, which is not true. It is not their fault that the family dynamics were unhealthy, and that they weren’t provided the attention they needed when they were young.

A Word From a Psychologist

The term enmeshment is a psychological concept describing family systems where boundaries are diffused or not present. This concept was developed by family therapist Salvador Minuchin as part of his structural family therapy, which focused on analyzing family systems, relationships, boundaries, and power struggles.

Minuchin also explains how the extreme approach of parents can affect the development and independence of the child, where they do not understand that crossing the boundaries is not protection but an invasion of privacy.

Conclusion

Growing up under the nucleus of an enmeshed family is difficult, and even more so when the person develops enmeshment trauma. This type of trauma occurs when the boundaries at home are unclear, which makes parents unaware of the damage they can cause to their children when they cross them.

However, currently there are many strategies to heal from this type of trauma. Consulting a psychologist and having the initiative to change those learned behaviors are ways in which the person with this trauma can start the path of recovery.

Sensa Health
Your calm mind assistant
  • Lessons based on the CBT method
  • Mood journal
  • Challenges & self-improvement activities
  • Quick relief function
  • Assessments to help you grow
Our rating:
4.5
Start Free Quiz Now
HR_author_photo_Edibel
Written by
Edibel Quintero is a medical doctor who graduated in 2013 from the University of Zulia and has been working in her profession since then. She specializes in obesity and nutrition, physical rehabilitation, sports massage and post-operative rehabilitation. Edibel’s goal is to help people live healthier lives by educating them about food, exercise, mental wellness and other lifestyle choices that can improve their quality of life.
Medically reviewed by Rosmy Barrios, MD
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