Spotting the Signs of Toxic Family Enmeshment

E.B. Johnson
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by: E.B. Johnson

Having a close family can be a great benefit our path in this life, but what happens when those family ties become too entwined? Known as enmeshment, this toxic path to family “bonding” leaves us lost, hurting, and devoid of any personal identity. In order to break free of this poisonous family habit, you have to detach yourself and reassess who you are and what you’re passionate about in your life. Then, we can begin to see our place within the unit and the paths we truly wish to take in order to get to our authentic happiness. Don’t allow yourself to stay trapped and caught up in the pain of other people. Set yourself free and see your family for what it truly is.

Signs of toxic family enmeshment.

Is your family close, or are they enmeshed? While it can sometimes be hard to accept, there are an array of concrete signs that can indicate ties that are too toxic to maintain. From a code of family “honor” to holding on to poisonous secrets — we have to accept reality before we can fix it and move forward. Family enmeshment is poisonous, and it leads us down the road to serious mental and emotional dysfunction.

Total groupthink

Groupthink is yet another common symptom of the enmeshed family. You were probably only allowed to think and believe as your family thought and believed. Perhaps your parents insisted on everyone supporting the same political candidates, or following the same religious doctrine. In the enmeshed family, groupthink is the only think that’s allowed. There’s no space made for unique perspectives, or approaches that differ from what the heads of the family deem to be the “norm”.

Shame and rejection

When it comes to your family, are you riddled with feelings of shame and guilt? Do you always feel like you’re standing on a knife’s edge of rejection? Or do you know that you would be expelled from your family if you did or said what you wanted to do? Again, in the enmeshed family this is all standard. Standing up for yourself or saying “no” results in being shamed or made to feel as though you are less-than. Keep pushing those lines, and you’re looking at the potential for serious rejection.

Holding to secrets

Does your family have a lot of secrets? Do they force you to keep those secrets using coercion, shame, or threats? It’s not healthy to hold on to toxic secrets, especially those that are dangerous and harmful to your safety, happiness, and self-esteem. Because the enmeshed family sees its worth in outward validation (and they see you as a reflection of that) — they need you to keep their secrets. Sharing those secrets risks exposing them to the world and exposing the way they carry themselves and assume power over others.

Over-the-top honor

In the enmeshed family, there is a great sense of “honor,” as well as a sense of worthiness defined by your outward performance in life, school, sports, etc. Because the enmeshed family defines the actions of one as a reflection of the whole, there is a constant need to “prove yourself” or “do better” — even if there’s no more improvements to make. Family honor comes first, and you’re little more than a representative of that honor.

Very little privacy

Do you find that there’s no such thing as privacy around your family? Is your personal space constantly violated, or pushed aside by those “in power” within your family? This is a typical sign of enmeshment. Due to the family being so toxically tied together and self-identified, there’s a constant need to ensure conformity. One way to do this is by ensuring that no one within the family has enough time and space to themselves to cultivate independent thought or sense of identity.

No personal autonomy

If you are someone who was raised in an enmeshed family, then you probably weren’t allowed to be in control of your thoughts, appearance, decisions or behavior. This type of independence is threatening to the power structure of the enmeshed family. Growing your own opinions, sense of style, or even political perspectives is seen as a sense of “betrayal”. You might be told you’ve “embarrassed the family” or you might even find yourself outcast altogether. There's no personal autonomy in the enmeshed family.

Children as caretakers

Enmeshed families don’t always rely on the traditional submission-domination tactics to maintain their enclosed power structures. Be it emotional and physical, some parents create these systems by switching roles. The child becomes the caretaker of the unit, and the parents revert. Your children aren’t your best friends, and they shouldn’t be shouldered with the weight of your personal emotional burdens. When the child becomes the caretaker, however, they become trapped in cycles that are hard to escape from.

Power and submission

Traditional submission and domination fit the enmeshed family well. Often, they will be topped by one (or two) head figures, who overpower the others and insist on their own opinions and perspectives being held. Did you grow up under the pressures of a tyrant who insisted on everyone in the family holding their standards, or living up to their expectations? When you stepped out of line or dared to go it alone, were you swiftly punished and shamed? These are common techniques used to keep you compliant and in fear.

The best ways to deal with family enmeshment.

Holding on to these toxic patterns will corrode your self-worth and destroy all sense of self you might hold. In order to establish your independence, you have to take action in the name of your own happiness and authenticity.

1. Create some internal control

One of the many reasons that enmeshment is so effectively toxic is because it requires us to internalize the behaviors and emotions of the family unity — losing sight (and control) of our own emotions and thoughts. We have to take back this sense of internal control and begin to separate our identities from that of our parents and siblings. All of this requires letting go, though, and re-engaging with life — and your family — in a new way.

You can’t control your parents, or who your siblings are as people — but you can control your thoughts and responses; let go of the idea that you are somehow beholden to your family’s behavior. Stop internalizing their beliefs and all their hangups and making them your own.

Establish a greater sense of internal control and peace. See yourself as your own individual and seek to cultivate a greater awareness of self and feeling. Whenever your family makes you sad, or hurt, or angry, allow yourself to feel those things. Stop running from reality. Find the courage to accept it for what it is so that you can begin to take action in the name of your future. Once you establish this awareness and control, you won’t feel the need to give in all the time or conform to their constant pressure.

2. Set stronger boundaries

Though we often imagine confrontation to be a scary and explosive battle, rarely are we truly prepared for just how nasty the reaction can be. A toxic person who is confronted with their behavior is like a cornered animal, and they will try all sorts of intimidating and manipulating tactics to make you withdraw your complaints and “fall back in line”.

Hold tight to your boundaries and don’t allow the confronted party to spin the conflict onto your side of the table. You know who you are and you know what you want. Stick to that and know that no one has the right to push you out of your comfort zones (only you have the power to do that).

Be direct and be assertive. Don’t back down and make it clear that you’re not here to compromise anymore — you’re here to get answers and resolutions that work. Be clear about what’s wrong and what you want to do moving forward. Leave enough space for them to express themselves and their desires, but let them know (in no uncertain terms) that moving forward you will safeguard your wellbeing and happiness before any other interactions with them.

3. Create more space for authenticity

Your authenticity is key in breaking the patterns of toxic attachment and enmeshment that have developed between you and your family. By finding your authentic self, you are better able to make your own decisions and stand strong in your confidence; self-assured and quiet in the knowledge that you’re doing what’s right for your future. Break the ties slowly by creating more room for your own authenticity, inside and out.

Who are you? Who do you want to be? Spend time considering these questions and do it without the opinion or input of your family. Leave their emotions and their beliefs out of it. When you’ve come to the end of the road, what life do you want to look back over? What will make you proud and what will make this life seem worthwhile for you?

Once you have a picture of this life in your head, allow yourself to accept this new person that is blossoming inside. Next, you can work on creating more space for yourself in the outside world. Develop some interests outside of your family and invest in them; create more room in your life for authenticity and new, authentic experiences. Take some courses, get out and explore your local community (safely).

Putting it all together…

Family can be a powerful benefit in this life, but it can be a damaging burden too. When our family ties grow thick and toxic, we become ensnared and enmeshed in bonds based around submission and control. Our homes become toxic environments and our heads become clouded by the forced (and incessant) groupthink that permeates the family’s sense of worth.

Get control of yourself before you make any attempts to change your environment. Learn how to control your emotions from your family and hold back those parts of self which don’t belong to them. Get to know who you are and embrace that person, then you can set some boundaries to protect that person’s happiness and their future wellbeing. You don’t need the permission of your family to be happy. Create more space for your authenticity and find new ways to interact with the world around you. A great way to do this is by finding and building a chosen family, who value you for who you are without needing to keep their secrets. Accept who you are and fill your world with people who accept you as you are. Extend that same acceptance to your family, though, accept them for who and what they are so that you can find happiness apart from them.

  • DAVIES, P., CUMMINGS, E., & WINTER, M. (2004). Pathways between profiles of family functioning, child security in the interparental subsystem, and child psychological problems. Development And Psychopathology, 16(03). doi: 10.1017/s0954579404004651

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