11 Hallmarks of Enmeshed Relationships and Three Ways to Get Out Of Them

Issue 27. June 16, 2023 ✨ Higher Power Coaching & Consulting

photo credit: Kamran Abdullayev

When we’re enmeshed, we aren’t allowed to express our individuality and we aren’t capable of focusing on ourselves. We’re overly concerned with other people. We may think we’re involved in life, but we’re really not involved in our own life. We’re involved in other people’s lives.

Often, people are in enmeshed relationships and don’t even know it. The relationship may look on the surface like intimacy when it’s actually enmeshment. These could be family-of-origin relationships, romantic relationships, friendships – any kind of relationship can become enmeshed.

Here are some hallmarks of enmeshed relationships:

  • recurring unhealthy patterns 
  • rigid roles 
  • no room for individuality
  • guilt and shame are used to sanction those who try to be their own person
  • permeable boundaries
  • those in the relationship are defined by the relationship, not by their individuality
  • certain behaviors and roles are expected
  • lack of privacy
  • contentment relies on the relationship with the other person rather than in self
  • self-esteem is contingent on the status of the relationship
  • conflict in the relationship leads to extreme anxiety

If you’re in an enmeshed relationship, you might…

  • neglect yourself and your other relationships
  • feel like a failure or disloyal for wanting to do something different
  • become anxious, feel guilty or shameful for even thinking of trying to be your own person
  • feel compelled to fix whatever the problem is, no matter what the cost 
  • experience the other person’s feelings as your feelings 

If you want to get out of enmeshed relationships, you may very well need to get professional help (such as a boundaries coach!) but there are things you can do on your own.
I know this because I’ve done it through my recovery process, primarily through building healthy boundaries. To begin getting out of enmeshed relationships, you have to differentiate yourself from the other person, family or group. Getting out of enmeshed relationships is about really being connected to who you are and creating your own individual identity.

You can connect with yourself by doing things you enjoy. If you don’t know what you enjoy, then you’re probably enmeshed!! It might be helpful to start trying out things you’ve always been interested in.

Another thing I found helpful as I started extricating myself from my enmeshed relationships was to start by setting small, less significant boundaries that only I knew about. For example, I used to feel like I had to open email messages from my ex as soon as I saw them. A small boundary I set for myself was wait to open that email until I felt ready to. That had previously not even occurred to me as an option!

It wasn’t easy and I obsessed about it for a while, but then I got caught up in other things and forgot about it. I eventually moved to deciding whether to even open his emails at all! Over time, I was able to delete them and (much) later I blocked him. The process took several months.

Getting support from others was also extremely helpful. I’d share how I was feeling, what I wanted to do and asked what they thought so I wasn’t on my own through the process. If the idea of asking someone to help you with this process seems impossible for you, you’re not alone! That was me too in the beginning. But it got easier and easier over time, and now it’s pretty easy for me to ask for help.

To summarize the process of getting out of enmeshment:

  • stay connected to yourself and your preferences
  • start small by setting boundaries that only you know about
  • stay connected to others who are supportive

As you get better at those types of boundaries, progress to setting boundaries in low-stakes environments (e.g., with a store clerk you’ll never see again). As you get better and better in low-stakes environments, move to higher-stakes situations such as with people you’ve known for a while or at work.

Getting out of enmeshed relationships is about really being connected to who you are so you can create your own individual identity. Knowing who you are and what you like will enable you to set boundaries according to your preferences. You’ll get to experience much more joy in life as you begin to live your life on purpose, not by compulsion.

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