"We all want connection without being eclipsed. We want space to be an individual and to know ourselves in relation to others and the world. We want all of this without the threat of having our loved ones withdraw and punish us."
Rachel Tam Nguyen, BA, MBACP is a London based psychotherapeutic counsellor and writer. She’s been counselling for 7 years in various settings, from substance misuse treatment, community mental health centres, and with young children ages 6-11 years old. She is currently a personal development group facilitator for a counselling training program in the city. She’s been in private practice for 2 years, supporting those from diverse walks of life to develop skills to cope with the difficulties of being a human in a world of evolving complexities. She draws upon traditional and contemporary approaches to collaborate with her clients to find agency, foster healthy relationships with self and others.
SWY: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
RN: Hi! I’m Rachel. I’m the youngest of four, my parents and older siblings are refugees, they were boat people who fled Vietnam after the war. As an adult, I am still navigating the mixed heritage of being British-born and Vietnamese.
I am a trauma survivor and I had Adverse Childhood Experiences growing up. I remember how confusing and frightening it was to have big feelings and not knowing what to do with them or how to be with them. The first time I went to therapy, I was 16 years old. It was the first time I was able to safely speak about my experience. My first therapist very much inspired my decision to endeavor on my own training and to normalize therapy. I wanted to learn how to sit in the dark with others and accompany them on what can be an incredibly lonely journey.
The relationship is central in my work, and I believe an emphasis on creating a safe environment is paramount to the efficacy of the tools provided to my clients.
SWY: Can you please tell us more about enmeshment?
RN: We all want connection without being eclipsed. We want space to be an individual and to know ourselves in relation to others and the world. We want all of this without the threat of having our loved ones withdraw and punish us.
Enmeshment is when there is an unhealthy and inappropriate amount of closeness/involvement between people. It exceeds the availability and capacity of individuals often to the extent it stunts their development and well-being.
Although it often affects a family as a whole, enmeshment may be more pronounced between particular individuals. There are usually designated roles for family members, and systems in place to enforce these roles. This can make it incredibly hard to challenge the status quo.
Enmeshment can also be observed in the form of intrusive and monitoring behaviours; a lack of privacy, respect for boundaries, competence, and confidence is often undermined to maintain dependency. These issues can be exacerbated by high stress, substance misuse, mental health issues, sickness, single parenting, or marital discord.
I want to emphasize that sensitivity is necessary for those who come from cultures that have collectivistic values, rather than individualistic. Healthy collectivism is about interdependence; where the need for attachment and the drive for autonomy and authenticity can co-exist. More on how to cultivate and move towards healthy independence and interdependence later.
SWY: How is enmeshment traumatic for a child? How does enmeshment show up in adulthood for children who have experienced it?
RN: Family, belonging, and a sense of home are important and a deep need for all of us. Closeness and connection are crucial to our survival and well-being. Exile and estrangement are primal fears we feel on a deep level. We all want the safety and richness of connection as well as to separate and individualize, without fear or guilt.
We all have an innate desire to become autonomous while remaining safely and securely connected. If the process of establishing a separate sense of self is met with shame, punishment, alienation, or isolation, we will feel on a physiological level that autonomy threatens crucial connections. We learn that we cannot have connection and autonomy at the same time.
It is normal to be upset and hurt when people make decisions, which means there will be more space and time away from us. However, in an enmeshed family, someone moving away for university, a career advancement, or to explore life elsewhere tends to evoke a sense of abandonment in those who are dependent. Leaving those wanting more separateness feeling guilty, ashamed, and disloyal. They may even feel angry and resentful. It can feel incredibly emotionally debilitating to grow up in this environment. Individuals will have learned to compromise their needs, and setting boundaries can be deeply anxiety-provoking.
The narrative that is often passed down and maintained is, “The ONLY way I can feel and be okay is if they’re okay.”
Alternatively, detachment can co-exist with enmeshment as an attempt to create more separation and cope with the overwhelm. Especially if conflict resolution skills are unavailable or people are unable to communicate healthy boundaries. It is not uncommon for some people to find it difficult to be close and intimate later in adult relationships for fear of being engulfed. The narrative here is, “It hurts to be close. I lose myself. To be safe, I have to disconnect.” Individuals may find themselves pendulating between the two. Nuance matters and individuals can respond in varying ways.
SWY: Can you please tell us more about parentification?
RN: Parentification is when a child or young adult is expected to, or voluntarily takes on, the responsibility for adults or siblings from sensing that the adults aren’t there or able to carry out their roles. It is beyond their capacity and developmental maturity. It can be considered a role reversal.
This can look like the child completing practical tasks and life admin for the family: such as paying bills, looking after siblings, or a sick relative. It is also common for emotional parentification to occur, when the child or adolescent takes on the role of confidant or mediator for/between parents and/or other family members.
It can also be common in families where English is not the parent's or grandparent's first language, children are often the ones that help to translate the world to them. This often means they have to contextualize society for their family, at times with issues they don’t even understand fully themselves, and while not having developed the vocabulary in their mother tongue to competently translate either.
SWY: Can you explain the risks to a child who has experienced parentification?
RN: Childhood and adolescence is interrupted and there can be a lot to mourn for that reason. I think many of the impacts overlap with those I’ve described for enmeshment.
What I often hear from my clients who experienced either or both, enmeshment and parentification is the deep longing and frustration to just be a child to their parents and not be a caregiver, confidant, therapist, partner. They can also feel alienated from their peers growing up and feel mature beyond their years.
What can also be common is that in the process of being parentified they were neglected and may find it difficult to recognize and tend to their own needs or ask for help. It can also be difficult to get in touch with and to explore their own feelings, needs and interests. They may find themselves getting into relationships that sustain the dynamics they experienced growing up, such as taking other people under their wing and hiding behind caring for others.
SWY: What would you suggest to individuals who are healing from enmeshment or parentification?
RN: I think at the heart of enmeshment and parentification is fear and overwhelm for all involved. Where support is necessary but may not be available, inaccessible, or shameful to approach.
Go gently. Changing any deeply ingrained patterns is hard and requires time and self-compassion. You deserve to feel safe being authentic in your relationships. Your worth is not based on how useful you are. It is not your job to carry the unresolved issues belonging to others.
Awareness is key. Looking at the roles and the dynamics in our families, how members relate to each other and as a system is a powerful understanding to have. We can’t change what we can’t recognize is happening.
Give yourself permission to be connected, involved, and care without becoming the rescuing or fixing others. Learn to recognize your capacity and needs. Practice boundary setting, starting slow and with what feels comfortable, for example instead of saying “I don’t mind” when choosing a restaurant, state what you don’t want to eat.
Learn to be receptive to, and maintain balanced and reciprocal relationships. Nurture and prioritize your interests and follow your curiosities, even if there is no guarantee that you’ll enjoy it or sustain it. It’s a powerful way to reclaim our child-like self. Practice self-compassion as you mourn your childhood disrupted and the burden you had to take on. Exploring and holding space for your fears. Learning to cultivate more interdependence in your relationships. Accessing the ways that you too, maybe establishing and maintaining patterns.
It can be incredibly lonely and difficult to navigate shifting out of these dynamics, especially as you attempt to shift long-standing dynamics. It isn’t always possible to remain in connection with the people we’re enmeshed with. In some cases, the threat of estrangement can make it feel dangerous to create change.
Grief often accompanies this difficult work. Allow yourself to mourn your losses.
If possible, work with a practitioner to help who can help you explore this at your own pace, change on your terms and with your context in mind.