by Jennifer Newton Martin, LPC
There is a lot of content on the web regarding boundaries and the need for boundaries in one’s life. For those new to the Psychological concept of boundaries, this idea has to do with what a person is and is not in charge of. It has a lot to do with responsibility. I often think of the word “domain” when I think of boundaries. I alone have dominion over my thoughts, feelings, attitudes, behaviors, beliefs, etc. This seems like a simple enough concept to grasp, and yet boundary problems are among the most common issues that come up in counseling sessions, especially for those of us that identify with with being un-needy or identify ourself as “helpers” (see my previous post for more information on schemas and how this schema may come about).
Often enough, we can readily think of one or more individuals in our lives that we feel bullied by at times. We refer to these people as controlling people and often feel that we are trapped in a constant cycle of attempting to please them. We might even attempt to completely disengage with them and try not to need them in our lives at all. It can really feel like we have absolutely no control in the relationship and that we are forever tangled in a sloppy mess of hurt feelings, accusations, and mistrust. Here is when the schema of enmeshment may come into play.
Individuals who have a strong enmeshment schema typically have a very poor understanding or belief in their own dominion – what is theirs and what is not. For example, a grown woman who had an extremely close relationship to her mother when she was a child believes that every Sunday she must visit her mother. Her mother likely will express feelings of anger or despair if her daughter states that she has something else to do. The daughter will then feel guilty and, in order to avoid the unpleasantness of this guilt, will give in and do whatever her mother asks in order to get rid of her emotional discomfort.
The next time a similar incident occurs between the mother and daughter the exact same thing will happen. The problem with this scenario is that basic Behaviorism tells us that all behaviors are purposeful, even if the person is not consciously aware of the purpose of the behavior. By responding to the mother’s anger or despair by giving into her request, the daughter is reinforcing the undesirable behavior. Although the mother is likely not intending to be manipulative, the principles of Behaviorism still apply. Mom has uncomfortable feelings when her daughter tells her that she isn’t coming over (think rejection, abandonment, or whatever schemas she holds) and she subconsciously knows that by expressing anger or despair her daughter will give into her request and her own unpleasant feelings will go away. The daughter gives in and the cycle continues.
You can pretty readily start to see how this works. Returning to the concept of boundaries, we can really hone in on where the dominion of each party is getting mixed up. The daughter is feeling responsible for her mother’s distress.
“Returning to the concept of boundaries, we can really hone in on where the dominion of each party is getting mixed up.”
Because of this she is feeling guilt. But who has dominion over the mother’s feelings? The mother. The same is true in reverse. The mother is trying to control the daughter’s behaviors in order to get rid of her own emotional distress, likely related to her own schemas. Her daughter’s behaviors are in her daughter’s domain and her feelings are in her domain. This can get really messy and confusing if one or neither party is aware of the boundaries between themselves and others. This is where the schema of enmeshment comes into play.
Enmeshment is a schema of confused responsibility and confused boundaries. Imagine if you grew up in a home where your father was an alcoholic and your mother was in emotional distress over his behavior. As a child, perhaps your mother came to you for comfort. Whenever she was feeling sad she came to you and you cheered her up. Her sad feelings essentially became your responsibility. You alone were responsible for making her bad feelings go away. If this was largely the relationship that you had with your mother, then it makes sense that as an adult when other adults come to you with their distress you likely feel responsible to help. It is quite possible that you don’t even question this dynamic, as you see yourself as a helper and comforter. It also stands to reason that in this scenario you may never have had access to your mother as a comforter for you because she was too distracted and distressed by her own marriage. This may launch you into adulthood not knowing that you deserve to have your needs met too, that others can provide comfort for you, and that you aren’t responsible for other people’s distressing feelings.
“This may launch you into adulthood not knowing that you deserve to have your needs met too, that others can provide comfort for you, and that you aren’t responsible for other people’s distressing feelings.”
If enmeshment is something that you identify with and you see patterns in your life and relationships that are similar to what I just described, change is possible. Counseling can help you to tease out all of the ways that enmeshment is impacting your adult relationships. You can challenge your core schema of enmeshment and be intentional about refusing to reinforce the behaviors of others that unfortunately have allowed you to give into things that you didn’t want. Guilt doesn’t have to drive your behavior. There is a good chance that some people will resent your new boundaries. There is also a good chance that you will eventually find healthy other people who will allow you to be the giver AND the receiver. Hopefully these people will be self-aware enough to know what they are feeling and need, and will ask for it free of manipulative tactics or boundary violations. Trying to stay afloat while attempting to over-own things that you have no dominion over is an impossible task for anyone and at the core of many people’s mental health symptoms.
Read more about caregiving versus narcissism and how to balance give and take in relationships.