Fears of Engulfment ~ When Love Feels Smothering

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” ~ Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

Lara was captivated when she started dating Max. She stated with conviction that this time she was ready to go the distance. After all, here was a man who held her interest in every way. Besides, she was tired of being alone and depleted by the emptiness of serial dating. Aware of her pattern of quickly losing interest and creating a dossier of misgivings once a relationship reached a more serious stage, she was determined to confront whatever fears held her back.

As was predicted, once Max suggested they take a vacation together, Lara’s captivation turned to indifference. Rather than flee this time, she buckled down in therapy to address the true source of her apprehensions. Staying present for what she shared with Max awakened a heightened threat of being swallowed up by the relationship. She was terrified of forfeiting her freedom, which she interpreted as losing herself by committing to another.

Although most folks realize that personal freedom and relational bonding can co-exist, for many like Lara, this feels like an impossible feat.

I can relate. As one who struggled with intimacy disorders throughout my early adult life, I wasn’t aware of how threatened by engulfment I was until I completely stepped away from pursuing emotionally unavailable men.

Like Lara, when I re-engaged with dating after a five-year hiatus, overtures of healthy consistent interest ignited strong aversion, even rancor. Typically polarized in fears of abandonment, my fears of being engulfed by intimacy were kept at bay. When encountered, I knew I had to revisit my extensive history of early relational trauma if I was ever going to actualize mature adult love.

For those of us who have been groomed to exist solely for a mentally disordered parent, the relational trauma incurred from that toxic dynamic makes intimacy feel like a trap. What results is a pervasive anxiety of having one’s tenuous sense of self usurped by another’s needs.

The reptilian brain goes on high alert, activating the limbic system to the threat of engulfment. Emotional flooding ignites panic and resentment. Ultimately numbness takes over along with antipathy towards the perceived ‘hostage taker’. The urgency to bolt kicks in.

First described by Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing, the experience of engulfment anxiety is rooted in what he refers to as ontological insecurity. Laing described ontological insecurity as an unstable state of being in the world in which one is consumed by the threat of losing one’s identity.

According to Laing the ontologically insecure person is, “Precariously differentiated from the rest of the world, so that his identity and autonomy are always in question of preserving his identity, in efforts, as he will often put it, to prevent himself losing his self.” (The Divided Self)

Laing contends, preserving a fragile sense of self is the driving force for the individual who fears engulfment. Fears of being possessed by insatiable unmet dependency needs within oneself and another are intense. A pervasive dread exists that perspective and control will be lost and one will be rendered vulnerable to having their reality dictated by a person they are attached to. This projected fear emanates from spousification in childhood.

Spousification aka parentification and emotional incest, is a term that describes a form of enmeshment between a parent and child that impedes the child’s development of autonomy and agency. The child’s life is intruded upon by the inappropriate emotional needs of the parent, rendering the child permeable, anxious, and depressed. This intrusive dynamic establishes an ambivalent or avoidant attachment template characterized by fears of exploitation and deprivation.

If the child is also dragged into a dysfunctional marital dynamic a sexualized, confidant role may be imposed on the child, resulting in intensified feelings of entrapment and peril when others attempt to get too close later in life. Consequently, as adults they might give up hope with having their dependency needs met, tormented by a generalized terror that there is a hidden caveat that will make them enslaved to another.

The absence of appropriate parental boundaries underscores consequential fears of abandonment and fears of engulfment in the adult child. The vacillation between both states of abandonment panic and engulfment panic are common in people who were episodically violated and ignored by parental abusers. In adulthood, the relational ambiguity of either being left or taken over by another’s needs cannot be tolerated, due to an attachment template lacking in object constancy.

Object constancy pertains to the relational milestone of sustaining a loving, meaningful and supportive connection with one’s primary caregivers, even when they are temporarily not accessible. The introjection of a stable bond with one’s parent(s) helps the child through necessary separations and assists with tolerating autonomous pursuits and the natural ambivalence that characterizes the early stages of relationship development. It also allows one to safely navigate intimacy, while maintaining a secure connection to oneself.

The fundamental purpose of object constancy is to attain relational dynamics that can tolerate the ebb and flow of autonomy and closeness, defined by respectful expectations and boundaries that allow for personal space, individuality, and negotiable differences. The absence of object constancy fosters the core belief that relationships cannot be trusted. Its absence purports that like one’s parents, others will arbitrarily abandon, exploit, dominate, and devour.

Cultivating object constancy is critical to assuaging engulfment panic ignited by intimacy.

The child who was victimized by the inappropriate needs and behaviors of an adult caregiver had to survive through compliance. Dissociative defenses may have kicked in to thwart irreversible psychological fragmentation. To offset the pain of the dysregulation caused by unmet dependency needs, oppositional bonding and addictive disorders may result.

Fortunately, this can be rectified in adulthood. Intensive psychodynamic therapy can enable the cultivation of a stable holistic self-identity along with the capacity to realistically accept others' strengths and flaws. Tolerating internal ambiguities and paradoxes extends to others. Acceptance of self and others establishes a sturdy trajectory to access an adult ego so that relational disappointments can be endured and do not have to result in immediate ruptures. Rather the adult self, unlike the child can articulate grievances, erect boundaries, and define limits.

Laing posited that for the person with engulfment anxiety, taking the risk to be loved may need to be balanced with bouts of complete isolation. This premise is substantiated by the retreat into a numb insular state triggered by either actual invasive relational overtures or projected danger of engulfment. This is an attempt to cope with the dysregulation so that the impulse to sabotage the relationship is managed.

Finding that ‘safe spot’ where one can be relationally spontaneous, without the feared reprisal of condemnation, abandonment, or hostage-taking, is the ultimate objective for the person plagued by engulfment panic.

When an adult sense of self and relational volition is attained, feelings of engulfment morph into instinctual indicators of limits being crossed or needs being denied. From this place, responsible measures can be taken to ensure that one’s individual intimacy needs can be upheld. This might result in a discerning common ground or having to exit a relationship that opposes what one fundamentally needs to flourish.

When the one who lives in fear of engulfment can safely engage in intimacy with the full confidence that the connection to oneself is impervious to being swept up in the needs of the other, to the exclusion of oneself, mature abiding love is possible. Having achieved a loving adult bond with a man that will culminate in the sacrament of marriage this summer, I can attest that it is this milestone that affords one the true ‘freedom’ that can only come from loving oneself enough to love another.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY

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