Have you ever been in a relationship where every time your partner is in a bad mood, you feel like you’re in a bad mood too, even if their mood has nothing to do with you? Have you ever felt anxious or depressed and in turn, a family member or parent becomes increasingly anxious or depressed about how you’re feeling?
Taking on the emotions of a person you’re close to is common when you and that person have non-definitive (or ‘permeable’) boundaries. This is also known as enmeshment. When you and another person are enmeshed, you are not able to separate your own emotional experience from the other person’s experience. This can often result in over-involvement in each other’s lives and (especially in the case of a parent-child relationship) can hamper an individual’s ability to be independent and responsible for their own choices. You often see attempts to control the other person’s emotions unintentionally (“stop being depressed, you’re making me depressed.”)
The cause of this dysfunctional relationship pattern varies depending on your personal experience. For example, if you developed an illness at a young age that caused your parents to have to step in and increase their level of care for you, you might notice that they have difficulty in stepping back despite your health returning to a more optimal level. It’s also possible for this to be a generational pattern in your family, where they don’t even realize they’re doing it. To further this point, enmeshment can be considered normal in certain cultures, which I have experienced personally as I come from an East Asian family. For example, my mom will get severe anxiety over situations that stress me out to the point that she’s more concerned about it than I am, which can be really exhausting when I am already dealing with soothing myself and do not have the emotional capacity to soothe her as well. Other women I have spoken to from similar cultures often comment on the lack of boundaries displayed by their family members, to a point that improvement in the relationship doesn’t begin to show until they are able to move out and continue the relationship from a distance.
It’s important to understand that enmeshment is not the same thing as simply having a very close relationship with someone. Having someone to turn to with your problems and being able to cry on their shoulder is not the same as someone feeling a responsibility to rescue you from your emotions or being unable to separate their own emotions from yours. The enmeshed person demonstrates an intense fear of abandonment and may feel like saving you from your emotions will “fix” everything, or place upon you the impossible responsibility to save them from theirs. They are unclear on their own identity apart from you and struggle with giving you personal space. It’s an extremely complex and dysfunctional relationship dynamic that could develop into toxic behaviors like exerting control or invading privacy if left unchecked. You can gain autonomy and break these unhealthy patterns by learning how to set healthy boundaries, which is a sign of self-respect. As shame researcher Brené Brown says, "Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others." Learn to be assertive and firm without being judgmental or harsh and you will find boundaries become much easier to set. Often when you grow up in an environment with permeable boundaries, it is difficult to set them without guilt at first but in time, doing what feels best for you becomes easier and more rewarding. It also helps to maintain healthy friendships apart from the enmeshed relationship, as a continuing example of a solid dynamic and different perspectives as well as emotional support. Engaging in the things you enjoy outside of the relationship, like your own hobbies, helps to keep your identity separate and clear. You may notice pushback at first as you attempt to keep lines drawn, but with effective communication and repetition ideally you can untangle yourself from enmeshment without destroying the relationship. For further assistance with setting boundaries and understanding enmeshment, do not be afraid to seek out a qualified family therapist. You can also check out my podcast episodes on boundaries and attachment styles at anchor.fm/brightsoul (available on Spotify and iTunes as well!)