The Enmeshment Schema

Tammy* was estranged from her parents. “They can’t accept I’m an adult now”. With the support of her girlfriend she had completely cut them off. She now spent all her free time with her girlfriend and her girlfriend’s friends and family. “I need help with the anger I feel every time they try to contact me” she explained.

Children need to be able to stand on their own two feet. The ability to stand on your own two feet is called independence, autonomy or competence. Children who are too closely aligned with one or both of their parents can fail to form an independent identity from them. They can feel that their life is an extension of their parents. That they are inseparable in some way. This is called enmeshment.

Some parenting styles make enmeshment more likely. Parents who are highly involved in their children’s activities and social lives. Parents who have few friends or who are highly narcissistic. Parents who heavily use guilt or rejection as a behavioural management tool. Sometimes enmeshment can arise from parents who prioritise their own emotional needs, expect their children to also prioritise their needs too.

Some children are more likely to become enmeshed. Children who are temperamentally more passive or compliant. Children who have a sibling who is naughty and rebellious, who gets scapegoated, may become enmeshed – they become the Good Child.

For Tammy, she had grown up as the younger, more compliant daughter. Her older sister had been a rebel, openly defying her parents. Tammy’s parents, in return, openly showed preference to Tammy. She was the Good Girl. Tammy got plenty of validation and attention for being obedient, and saw her sister getting rejection and scorn for her disobedient stance. Tammy’s mother was especially involved and heavily influenced Tammy’s decisions about hobbies, friends, and in high school, subject choice.

The enmeshed adult can find difficulty separating from their parents. They might feel the need to get the ok from their parents for normal adult decisions. They might feel like they have their mother’s (or father’s) voice in their head when making a decision. Guilt is a strong emotion associated with this schema. The parental bond is often a source of comfort, but also a source of resentment. The enmeshed adult can feel stifled and trapped.

Sometimes the enmeshed adult pushes the other way. Overcompensating for the schema by trying to forge a super strong sense of independence from their parents. Sometimes this results in being lonely and separated from other people, living in fear of being controlled and dominated by the other. Other times, the enmeshed adult falls into a similar enmeshed relationship with a partner or a friend. This is what happened to Tammy.

Tammy’s healing involved focussing on what felt good for her, quite aside from what her girlfriend and family wanted. This was difficult. She learnt that underneath her compliance was the need for validation and acceptance. She became braver in trusting her feelings and found that others often validated and accepted her when she did what she wanted. She learnt about boundaries. She learnt assertiveness skills, which she used when she re-established a (more equal) relationship with her parents. She learnt that guilt underlaid her anger. She learnt to quieten her mother’s guilt inducing inner voice.

She was standing on her own two feet.


* names and key details changed to protect anonymity

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