Enmeshment Trauma: Abuse and Treatment Options

Our Effective Programs for Trauma Treatment at Icarus

As families evolve and change, there’s an array of dynamics that can develop. One of these dynamics, often overlooked, is enmeshment trauma abuse.

For many, growing up in an enmeshed family can have lasting effects, leading to challenges in adult relationships and influencing an individual’s sense of self.

Icarus Behavioral Health, based in the vibrant heart of Albuquerque, New Mexico, aims to shed light on this critical topic. Individuals can pave the way toward healing and establishing emotionally safe environments by understanding enmeshment trauma, its effects, and available treatment options.

Keep reading to learn more about Icarus in New Mexico, and our programs to help you overcome trauma and find a better way of living!

What is Enmeshment?

What is Enmeshment

Enmeshment happens when family members, particularly in parent-child relationships, have few boundaries. In such enmeshed family systems, there’s an over-involvement in the child’s life. Enmeshment and forms of emotional trauma can often resemble the behaviors of helicopter parents.

The National Institute of Health published a study that found the enmeshed relationship often occurs in early childhood.

This childhood trauma may not involve both parents. One overly involved parent or family member may also dictate the children’s lives while the other parent watched the enmeshment happen. The parent who was not excessively involved enabled these boundary issues in silence, allowing children in the home to experience trauma. Perhaps the parent knew the other parent was wrong. But they lacked the coping skills to speak up for the child’s emotional well-being.

Instead of nurturing a child’s growing sense of self, enmeshment trauma hinders it. That often leads to low self-esteem and difficulty establishing personal boundaries in future relationships.

What are Enmeshed Families?

A telltale sign of an enmeshed family is when family members’ emotions, life decisions, and well-being intertwine. It becomes as if they’re living vicariously through each other.

It can manifest in various ways, from childhood emotional trauma due to excessive emotional needs placed on a child by parents to what some therapists term “emotional incest” or “covert incest.” That doesn’t imply physical or other forms of overt abuse. Instead, it’s an unhealthy reliance where the child becomes an emotional support system for adults.

Victims of covert incest may never know it’s wrong, and they perpetuate the cycle with their children. One generation passes this to the next.

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The Effects of Growing Up in an Enmeshed Family

Adult children who have experienced enmeshment trauma often grapple with their own emotions. Emotional and personal boundaries might become so blurred in their family relationships that they struggle to form a separate self-identity.

That can manifest in several ways:

Low Self-Esteem

Low self-esteem is often a pervasive consequence of growing up in an enmeshed family system. Due to the lack of a distinct self-identity, individuals seek validation from others. This need for affirmation arises because the needs and emotions of the family overshadowed their feelings, desires, and choices.

Over time, this can make one feel that their opinions and feelings are of lesser value. The result is self-doubt and insecurity.

Moreover, the fear of rejection or criticism for individuality can further erode confidence. When one’s worth comes from others’ opinions, it becomes challenging to recognize and appreciate one’s intrinsic value.

This cycle of seeking external validation can hinder personal growth. It may also result in submissiveness in various life situations.

Difficulty in Romantic Relationships

Difficulty in Romantic Relationship

Romantic relationships need a balance of independence and interdependence. For those who have grown up in enmeshed family systems, striking this balance can be daunting. They might replicate the enmeshed relationships they grew up seeing.

That can lead to patterns of excessive dependency. It may also cause an inability to recognize and establish personal boundaries within the relationship. This replication is often unconscious. The familiarity of such dynamics can feel like “home,” even if dysfunctional.

Further, the lack of understanding about what makes a healthy relationship dynamic can make one enter or stay in abusive relationships. The fear of abandonment and low self-worth can make one tolerate mistreatment.

Also, individuals might become controlling, trying to recreate the enmeshed environment by merging their life with a partner’s.

As a result, they stifle the partner’s independence. Understanding and unlearning these patterns often demands self-awareness, reflection, and therapeutic intervention in the form of effective trauma treatment.

Overwhelming Guilt and Obligation

Individuals with a background of emotional abuse may feel a sense of guilt or obligation towards other family members. Every decision, even in their best interest, might carry the weight of disappointing or upsetting their family.

Fear of Abandonment

The heightened emotional dependency often breeds a deep-seated fear of abandonment. Individuals may seek reassurance in adult relationships – especially new relationships. They fear setting boundaries or expressing their needs might lead to rejection or isolation.

Challenges in Establishing Boundaries

Establishing boundaries is integral to fixing an abusive relationship once and for all. It can also foster a strong sense of self.

For individuals recovering from enmeshment trauma, the task of setting and maintaining boundaries can be challenging.

What are Appropriate Boundaries in a Parent-Child Relationship?

Boundaries in a Parent Child Relationship

Growing up with this emotional abuse means boundaries were nonexistent or often violated. This can result in individuals unfamiliar with the concept of personal boundaries. That may lead to two common reactions:

  • Very Loose Boundaries: Recovering individuals might have difficulty understanding where they end and others begin. Lacking boundaries can manifest in various ways. They might overshare personal information, struggle to say no even when uncomfortable, or let others decide for them. Such individuals might feel responsible for others’ emotions. They might also take on burdens that aren’t theirs to bear. This can lead to feeling overwhelmed, taken advantage of, or constantly trying to please others. They may become dependent on their partners in romantic relationships. They fail to set boundaries because they fear being alone.
  • Forming Rigid Walls: In contrast, some individuals recognize the negative impact of enmeshment as a family dynamic. Thus, they might swing to the other extreme. They may form rigid walls as a defense mechanism. That happens when they fear the vulnerabilities of closeness. This can manifest as a reluctance to open up emotionally, a resistance to intimacy, or an overemphasizing personal independence. It may also lead to isolation. Such individuals might avoid deep connections. That’s because they fear letting someone in might lead to a loss of self, as they did when they experienced family enmeshment.

Navigating the middle ground – healthy boundaries that allow for intimacy without losing one’s identity – is often challenging. It requires understanding and asserting one’s needs, recognizing personal limits, and communicating them.

Learning about boundary setting after enmeshment trauma is a journey of understanding that giving and receiving love without sacrificing oneself is possible.

Dependency on External Approval

They may rely on external approval. That’s because they learn to focus on other family members’ feelings and needs over their own.

This constant need for validation can often lead to decision paralysis – the inability to make major life decisions without the input or approval of others.

Stress and Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety Disorder

The pressure of managing their emotions and their enmeshed family members can result in chronic stress. That can, over time, lead to anxiety disorders, where they might feel on edge or overwhelmed.

Repression of True Feelings

To maintain harmony in the family, these individuals learn to suppress their emotions and needs. This repression can cause internal conflict, resentment, and unexpected emotional outbursts.

Challenges with Independence

Adult children of addicts and alcoholics from a background of enmeshment trauma may struggle to function independently. They often question their judgment and capabilities. It can hinder personal growth and discourage them from pursuing educational, career, and opportunities.

Inability to Advocate for Oneself

These individuals might find it challenging to stand up for themselves. Since their concerns and feelings were often sidelined in the family, they may feel their needs are unimportant.

Thus, growing up with helicopter parents leads to difficulties in advocating for their rights. So those who carry this childhood trauma may also hesitate to express their needs.

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Avoidance of Conflict

Conflict can be particularly triggering for those with an unhealthy parent-child relationship. They may go to great lengths to avoid confrontation in other relationships. That happens even if it means compromising their well-being or values.

Seeking Similar Dynamics

Despite the pain it causes, some individuals may seek out friends or romantic partners with enmeshed behaviors. This replication of familiarity can be a way of seeking comfort, even if it’s detrimental.

Identity Crises

Apart from low self-esteem, they might undergo periods of identity crises. They may question their values, beliefs, and desires. Separating what they want from what they learned to believe can be a long and challenging process.

The effects of growing up in an enmeshed family can be profound. The impacts of enmeshed parents and covert incest can affect many facets of an individual’s life.

Yet, one can overcome these challenges with awareness, professional help, and dedicated effort. They can also build healthy relationships while rediscovering and asserting their unique identity.

The Connection Between Enmeshment Trauma and Drug and Substance Use Disorders

Abusing Substances to Cope With Enmeshment Trauma

One of the more subtle yet devastating repercussions of enmeshment trauma is its potential link to drug and substance use disorders. It might seem counterintuitive at first. How can a family system that is so intertwined and involved result in such harmful behaviors?

To understand this, we must dive deeper into the psyche of individuals who grow up in enmeshed families.

Abusing Substances to Cope With Enmeshment Trauma

Individuals from enmeshed family systems often experience overwhelming emotions. The blurred boundaries mean they are constantly processing not just their emotions but also the intense feelings of their family members.

Drugs and substances can become a way to numb these overwhelming emotions, offering temporary respite from the emotional chaos.

Engaging in Risky Behaviors to Distance One’s Self

In their quest to form a separate identity, some individuals might rebel against the enmeshment by indulging in behaviors that are starkly different from family norms. Substance use can be seen as a form of rebellion, an attempt to assert one’s individuality.

Relying on Alcohol and Drugs to Feed Unmet Emotional Needs

As mentioned, decreases self-esteem is a common aftermath of enmeshment trauma. Drugs and alcohol can temporarily boost confidence, replacing enmeshed relationships. It can lead to making one feel empowered and valued.

Dealing With Incapacitated Parents

In some enmeshed families, parents might be incapacitated due to their own substance use disorders. In such situations, the child might feel an even greater burden to become the emotional pillar, further pushing them towards substances as a way to cope with the added pressure.

Substances Help to Avoid Confronting Family Enmeshment

Substance use can be a way to avoid confronting the real mental health issues stemming from enmeshment trauma. Instead of addressing the lack of boundaries, suppressed emotions, and the need for validation, drugs, and alcohol provide a temporary escape.

Becoming Reliant on the Approval of Others

The constant need for validation and acceptance can make individuals from enmeshed families more susceptible to peer pressure. In their quest to fit in and be accepted, they might indulge in drug use if it’s a norm within their peer group.

Healing From Enmeshment Trauma

Healing From Enmeshment Trauma

Recognizing signs of enmeshment and understanding the impact on mental health is the first step toward healing from enmeshment trauma. Here are some steps one can take to heal from enmeshment.

  • Seek Professional Help: It’s crucial to seek professional guidance, like family therapy. It can help unpack and address the trauma. Icarus Behavioral Health offers specialized sessions for those recovering from such trauma.
  • Establish Boundaries: Learning to set healthy boundaries ensures one’s emotional safety. It also fosters healthy relationships in the future.
  • Join Support Groups: Engaging with others who’ve experienced similar traumas can be therapeutic. It can also help provide coping skills.

Acknowledging the connection between enmeshment trauma and substance use disorders is the first step to restoring mental health. Healing from such deep-rooted issues requires expertise, understanding, and a holistic approach.

This is where you can rely on Icarus Behavioral Health in New Mexico, with our proven residential PTSD programs and outpatient trauma offerings.

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Reach Out to Icarus Behavioral Health for Trauma Treatment

At Icarus Behavioral Health in Albuquerque, New Mexico, we recognize the nuances of enmeshment trauma. Our trained professionals work hard to provide emotional support. We also equip individuals and families with tools to navigate their way to good mental health.

If you, or a family member, have experienced the effects of an enmeshed family and crave healthy relationships and a strong sense of self, don’t hesitate. Reach out to Icarus Behavioral Health – you can start treatment today.

Your journey toward healing, establishing boundaries, and forming new, healthier relationships is just a call away.

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