What is an "Enmeshed" Family?
Salvador Minuchen introduced the concept of "enmeshed" families in his family systems theory in the mid-1970s.
An enmeshed family allows individual members little to no autonomy or personal boundaries. The roles among family members can be very rigid. One person might be "the scapegoat," another person might be "the hero" and so on.
These roles are not explicitly assigned. It's usually an unconscious process and much more subtle than that. The point is that individuals in this type of family often grow up not knowing how they really feel or what they want to do in their lives because they are encouraged to feel whatever the rest of the family feels (usually initiated by one or both of the parents) and strongly discouraged from developing their own feelings and preferences.
There is often a strong sense of shame in enmeshed families. The family might designate a particular family member to contain these feelings of shame by making that member "the scapegoat" of the family.
When families scapegoat a particular family member, rather than looking at the dysfunctional family dynamic, they point to this family member and say that he or she is the cause of the family's problems.
Often, the scapegoated person is the one who strives to be an individual, which is threatening to the rest of the family. He or she is often the healthiest one in the family, but other family members don't see it this way. In their eyes, if only this family member would shape up and think and behave the way that the rest of the family does, everything would be all right. Needless to say, this person carries the family shame and often grows up to feel ashamed of him or herself and defective in some way. The other rigid roles that are assigned in this type of family also cause the individual members to feel ashamed as well.
Enmeshment leads to shame and shame often leads to depression, anxiety, alcoholism, drug abuse, eating disorders, compulsive gambling, sexual addiction, and other addictive behaviors as well as family violence.
How to Overcome the Effects of Enmeshment as an Adult
Often, enmeshed families do not seek mental health treatment unless they're forced to do it after serious problems have developed.
So, for instance, if one of the children begins to have problems in school and the local Bureau of Child Welfare investigates and finds abuse or neglect, the family is often encouraged (and sometimes mandated) to attend family therapy.
However, many times the family problems are overlooked because no one outside the family knows what's going on. So, the individual children grow up with a strong sense of shame and problems in their own intimate relationships, assuming that they are able to have intimate relationships.
For adults who grew up in enmeshed families, the idea of getting help for themselves might feel like they're being "disloyal to the family." They've grown up with such a strong sense that they must go along with the family dynamic that it's hard for them to think for themselves--let alone think or do something different from the rest of the family. If they are able to begin individual psychotherapy, they often feel highly ambivalent about the treatment and often drop out before completing the work.
If you grew up in an enmeshed family, I recommend that you read John Bradshaw's books ( http://www.johnbradshaw.com) and find a psychotherapist who has worked with individuals who suffer with shame as a result of growing up in an enmeshed family. It might feel uncomfortable at first to seek help for yourself, but it can be enormously helpful to free you from the bonds of shame and allow you to flourish in your life.
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR therapist and coach.
I have helped many individuals to overcome shame to be able to go on to lead satisfying lives.
To find out more about me, visit my web site: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist
To set up a consultation, please feel free to call me at (212) 726-1006.
Also, see my article: Overcoming Shame: Disengaged Families
photo credit: tanya_little via photopin cc