Reviewed by Vicky Davis, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
It’s normal to have close, trusting relationships with your family members. However, sometimes, an excessively close, involved relationship with one or more of your family members can lead to enmeshment.
Enmeshment can occur when you fail to develop your individual autonomy and identity as a result of close involvement with your family. It can affect your self-direction, your unique personality and your non-familial relationships.
Although a positive relationship with your family is generally a good thing, being part of a family with few or no boundaries may affect your mental wellbeing.
In some cases, enmeshment can result in enmeshment trauma — a form of distress caused by extremely close family relationships. Enmeshment trauma may affect your development as an adult, including your ability to function independently from your family.
Below, we’ve gone into detail about what enmeshment trauma is, as well as signs that you may have grown up in an enmeshed family environment.
We’ve also explained the effects that enmeshment trauma can have on your mental health and ability to form healthy relationships as an adult.
Finally, we’ve discussed what you can do if you feel that you’ve been affected by enmeshment and want to improve your mental wellbeing.
Enmeshment trauma is a form of trauma that can develop as a result of growing up in a family that lacks clear, healthy boundaries.
It’s a good thing to be close to your family, from your parents and siblings to aunts, uncles and cousins. Having a loving, trusting and supportive family can make it easier to get through challenging, stressful periods of life and help you to develop into a healthy, functional adult.
However, not all families are healthy families. Some families can be excessively close, with no clearly defined personal boundaries between family members.
This high degree of enmeshment can affect your development as an adult and could contribute to emotional dysregulation and mental health issues throughout your life.
No two families are identical, and the specific signs of enmeshment can vary from one family to another. However, common signs of enmeshment include:
Lacking emotional boundaries or physical boundaries between family members, leading to a lack of privacy and personal space
A strong sense that you are responsible for your family members’ needs, emotions and self-worth
Feelings of guilt or shame if you prioritize your own personal needs as an individual over those of your family unit
An excessive need to share your emotions, experiences and details of your daily life with your family members as part of your family dynamics
A sense that your own self-worth depends on the success of your parents, your siblings or other family members, and vice-versa
Pressure from your family members to do what they think is best for you, not what you want to do as an individual
“Helicopter parents,” or a sense that your parents hover around you and focus excessively on your life, including your time with friends and academic success
A sense that it’s important to avoid any conflict with your family members, including by never saying no to their requests
Confusion about who you are, what you’re able to do in life and your ability to live outside the structure of your family
When families lack a healthy level of structure and appropriate boundaries between people, they may be considered dysfunctional. Signs of enmeshment are common in dysfunctional families
Enmeshment trauma can have an impact on your mental wellbeing as an adult. If you suffered from enmeshment as a child or teen, you may find that it has a lasting impact on your thoughts and feelings as you grow older.
Potential effects of enmeshment trauma include:
Having a tough time interacting with others. Growing up in an enmeshed family can affect your ability to have healthy interactions with other people, making it harder to form friendships and romantic relationships.
Unhealthy relationships. Enmeshment trauma may affect how you develop adult relationships. You may be more likely to experience relationship issues or form intimate relationships that are dysfunctional, such as codependent relationships.
Reduced individual identity. Enmeshment can affect your ability to form your identity as an individual. You might find it harder to develop a healthy sense of self and define who you are as a person.
Difficulty dealing with your emotions. You may find it difficult to effectively deal with your emotions, including feelings of stress, anxiety or the symptoms of mental health issues such as depression.
Feelings of guilt or responsibility for your family members. You may feel personally responsible or guilty for your family members, including family members who’ve treated you poorly or unfairly.
When you’re thinking about enmeshment trauma, it’s important to keep in mind that the concept of enmeshment — as well as its potential consequences — can vary between cultures.
The United States and other Western countries tend to be relatively individualistic societies that prioritize a person’s need to develop as a distinct, independent person.
However, many other countries have a more collectivist culture, in which remaining a close part of your family might not have such harmful effects. Enmeshment may even provide benefits for certain people, such as immigrants in a new country.
For example, research shows that although enmeshment is considered unhealthy for personal development among European Americans, children and teenagers from South Korean families living in the United States can benefit from enmeshed family relationships.
Another study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that family enmeshment was associated with poorer psychological wellbeing amongst adolescents in the UK, but not in adolescents from Italy — a country generally considered to have a more collectivistic culture.
Emotional trauma from family enmeshment can have a severe, lasting impact on your feelings, thoughts and behavior, even well into adulthood.
However, like other forms of trauma, enmeshment trauma is often treatable with a combination of professional mental health assistance and changes to your habits and lifestyle.
If you think you have enmeshment trauma, one of the best things that you can do is to talk to a mental health provider about your symptoms and the impact they have on your life.
As part of therapy, you may learn strategies for properly processing your personal experiences as a child, creating emotional space for yourself and establishing healthy relational boundaries with important people in your life.
If you have a specific mental health disorder, such as anxiety or depression, you might also be prescribed medication to control your symptoms and help you recover.
In addition to working with a mental health professional, making changes to your personal habits can have a big impact on your ability to deal with enmeshment trauma.
Try the following tips and lifestyle changes to strengthen your sense of self and make progress towards healing from enmeshment:
Set healthy boundaries with your family. Boundaries are just as important for you during adulthood as they are during your early life. Establishing healthy boundaries can help you to improve enmeshed relationships and gain more control over your life.
Our guide to setting boundaries shares practical tips that you can use to create healthy boundaries with family members, romantic partners and other people in your life.
Learn to put your needs first. Enmeshment can cause you to put your emotional bond with your family ahead of yourself. This may cause you to neglect your needs and avoid healthy behaviors, which can have both short-term and long-term negative consequences.
Our guide to self-care for women shares actionable tips that you can use to take care of yourself, both physically and emotionally.
Consider letting your partner know. Enmeshment trauma can often interfere with your relationships with people, including romantic partners. If you’re in a relationship, consider letting your partner know about your thoughts, fears and past trauma.
Telling your partner about a fear of abandonment, past emotional abuse and other issues may help you to avoid misunderstandings and develop a healthier relationship.
Focus on gradual improvements, not overnight progress. Recovering from any type of trauma takes time, and enmeshment trauma is no exception. It may take months, or in some cases, years, before you feel as if you’ve broken free from enmeshment.
Instead of expecting immediate results, try to focus on making gradual improvements in your ability to set boundaries, respect yourself and form healthy relationships.
Consider taking part in a support group. Sometimes, having other people to talk with can make recovering from enmeshment trauma easier. Our online support groups allow you to learn how to improve your mental wellbeing in a supportive, anonymous setting.
While it’s good to have a close relationship with your parents and siblings, growing up in a family with a lack of boundaries can have real, negative consequences for you as an adult.
Seeking help for enmeshment trauma can help you to identify dysfunctional behavior, overcome harmful childhood experiences, form new habits, establish your own emotional identity and grow into a balanced, functional and healthy adult.
More importantly, it can help you to stop enmeshment from becoming a generational pattern that affects your relationships with other people, including your partner and/or children.
If you need help treating enmeshment trauma, consider asking your primary care provider for a mental health referral. You can also access professional help from home with our online mental health services.
Not sure how to get started? Our guide to seeking help for your mental health explains how you can book your first therapy appointment and get started towards a more stable future.
Start your mental wellness journey today.