What is Enmeshment in Psychology? (Distinguishing Between You & Others)


In 1929 Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own was published. Once considered revolutionary, most people probably wouldn't bat an eye nowadays at the thought of someone claiming their need for their own room - for independence and space. Personal space and free time to explores ones own ideas and hobbies is pretty widely accepted today - at least in theory. So what is enmeshment in psychology, and how is it impacting us on an individual and societal level?

You see, just because we have the literal time and space to express ourselves, be creative, and construct a life we desire - it doesn't mean we're actually doing it.

Why?

Countless people who've gone before us have fought for our freedoms - many of which we squander. A room of our own, a personal bank account, freedom to study what we want, marry who we want, eat what we want, etc, etc.

Why do so many of us still feel enslaved and unable to take action on what we want? Why do we overwork ourselves at jobs we hate, get into terrible relationships, waste our money, and just generally not stand up for our rights?

In a word, enmeshment. While there are many reasons for broad problems like these, today I want to address specifically how enmeshed people get themselves into these situations.

In psychology, enmeshment is a term typically used to describe households where children are raised in overbearing and/or neglectful families that don't acknowledge the child's individuality or boundaries (ever watch the show Arrested Development?) In this social environment, the identity of an individual becomes blurry and "enmeshed" with the family's expectations (codependence ties right in to this). Thus as adults, these people fail to establish a strong sense of self and reach out for what they need.

(Note: There is a difference between enmeshment and empathy (Empathy is healthy and natural, and allows you to feel emotionally connected to people even during hard times. Enmeshment, on the other hand, may involve guilt, obligation, people-pleasing, needing approval, an inability to make your own decisions, taking too much responsibility for others, etc). Highly empathic people typically find it harder to decipher these boundaries and may slip into enmeshment easier - more on that here.)

I would argue that enmeshment can be applied culturally too, on a broader scale - perhaps in every culture that has ever existed. We are culturally trained out of individuality so that even when we gain freedoms, we lack the autonomy to use them meaningfully. (Some people react to enmeshment by becoming super-independent and uncomfortable with emotional closeness, but we'll save that for another blog post).

"It is easy in the world to live after the worlds opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude." - Emerson

This is a challenge that we can meet by taking deliberate steps to reclaim our individual identities: our likes/dislikes, desires, personal boundaries, and aspirations.

We begin this reclamation process by carving out space for ourselves - both literally and figuratively. Just as Virginia Wolfe stressed, we need to carve out space to deliberately cultivate our power and get acquainted with our creative potential. Everyone needs a "room of their own" - even if partnership and family is important and fulfilling for you. What is enmeshment's opposite? A healthy level of independence... self respect... finding ways to meet our emotional needs... and most importantly, ending our addiction to people pleasing.

Next Wednesday I'll be talking about practical things you can do to start carving out space - e.g. rituals/habits you can use to start honing personal power and confidence, and move out of the all-too-common enmeshment trap. (this one will be emailed - join our subscribers here!) I have no idea what these rituals will be yet - but I know I need to create them, so I'll be sharing them with you folks!

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