NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Learning to Develop Healthy Boundaries Within an Enmeshed Family

As an adult, learning to develop healthy boundaries with your family of origin can be difficult, especially if you come from an enmeshed family (see my article:  Overcoming Shame: Enmeshed Families).

Learning to Develop Healthy Boundaries Within an Enmeshed Family

Learning to Develop Healthy Boundaries Within an Enmeshed Family: Adolescence Through 20s, 30s and Beyond
Learning to separate emotionally in a healthy way from your family of origin is something that everyone goes through in your adolescence, 20s, 30s and beyond.

During adolescence, teens usually begin to identify more with their peers and less so with their parents and siblings.  This is part of normal development.  This is usually the beginning of having some autonomy that is age appropriate.

In healthy families, parents usually understand that this is part of normal adolescent emotional development and make allowances for some of the turbulent changes that take place during this period.

But in enmeshed families, one or both parents often take offense to an adolescent who is going through these changes.  They don't recognize this as part of normal development and often see it as a form of betrayal.  This creates even more tension in what can be a very confusing time for a teen.

Most teens will rebel against parents who try to keep them enmeshed in the family system.  This, in turn, often leads to a clash of wills as these parents try to force their teens to bend to their will and the teens are just as adamant that they're not going to knuckle under.

Learning to Develop Healthy Boundaries in an Enmeshed Family: Teenage Rebellion

Other teens succumb to the parents' guilt-inducing tactics and fall in line completely with their parents' wishes to remain part of an enmeshed family system.  These teens and their parents don't realize that this will have repercussions for the teens later on in adulthood because they haven't learned to develop healthy emotional boundaries in an age appropriate way.  They are much more likely to choose romantic partners who are codependent and who also want an enmeshed romantic relationship.

Other teens struggle somewhere in between on an continuum, asserting themselves in certain situations and not in others, making adolescence a very difficult period in their lives.

I've seen many parents make matters worse by continually trying to up the ante, to no avail.  They don't realize that they're actually doing more damage to their relationships with their children than if they had more patience and understanding.

As teens develop into young adults in their 20s and 30s, the period of healthy emotional separation and individuation continues.  Once young adults in their 20s and 30s can move out of the family household, this helps, but it's not the complete answer for many adults who continue to struggle their whole lives to have a healthy emotional life rather than continuing to feel trapped in an enmeshed family.

Developing Healthy Boundaries Within an Enmeshed Family: An Inner Conflict Between What You Think and What You Feel
As I mentioned in my prior blog post about enmeshed families, shame and guilt are the two emotions that are prevalent for teens and adults who grew up in enmeshed families.

Even people who manage to set healthy boundaries with their families often continue to struggle with  shame and guilt, as if they're doing something wrong or against their families.

This can be difficult to overcome on your own.  You might know on an intellectual level that what they're doing for themselves is right, but it continues to feel wrong.  This inner conflict between thinking and feeling can be exhausting.

Overcoming Guilt and Shame With Mind-Body Psychotherapy
In my experience, the most effective type of therapy to overcome the guilt and shame involved in this type of situation is mind-body psychotherapy which helps to integrate the various aspects of yourself that are in conflict.

The following vignette, which is a composite of many cases with all identifying information changed, illustrates how mind-body psychotherapy can help someone who is struggling with this issue:

Sonia was born on an island in the Caribbean, and she came to the US with her parents and maternal grandparents when she was a year old.

By the time she was a teenager, Sonia, like many teens, wanted to spend more time with friends her age.  But her parents insisted that she spend most of her free time with the family.

Sonia loved her family, but she longed to be with her friends.  She pleaded with her parents to let her go out to visit friends, but her parents didn't want her visiting her friends' homes, nor did they want Sonia's friends coming over.

Both of Sonia's parents grew up in households where they had many siblings, so they didn't feel the need to make friends outside the family.  They didn't understand that Sonia, who was an only child, was lonely and needed to develop close friendships of her own.

Whenever Sonia would try to explain to her parents that she just wanted to see her friends, her parents couldn't understand why she would want to see her friends at their homes since she had just seen them at school.

When Sonia turned 16, she began sneaking out of the house at night.  Her parents thought she was in her room doing her homework, but she climbed out the fire escape in her room to go see her friends.

This went on for a while--until one evening when Sonia's mother went to her room and discovered that Sonia wasn't home.

When Sonia came back up the fire escape, she was shocked to find her mother sitting in her room.  From then on, Sonia and her parents had a lot of conflict until Sonia was old enough to go away to college.  After she left, she never moved back in.  After graduation, she shared an apartment with friends she met at college and only saw her parents occasionally.

Even though Sonia took steps to set healthy boundaries with her family so she could have a life of her own, she still felt very guilt and ashamed, as if she had let her family down.

Her parents remained rigid in their expectations and this made the occasional family visits very tense.

By the time Sonia was in her mid-20s, she was feeling increasingly guilty and ashamed, caught between doing what she knew was right for herself, but feeling like she wasn't "a good daughter." So, she came to see me in my psychotherapy private practice in NYC to try to work out this issue.

Using a combination of Somatic Experiencing and clinical hypnosis, I helped Sonia to feel entitled to having a life of her own.  We worked to integrate the different aspects of herself which were in conflict with each other.

Sonia learned that she couldn't change her parents, but she could change herself.  Over time, as she became more comfortable with the decisions she made for herself as an adult, she also learned to have more compassion for her parents who grew up in a different time and culture.

At that point, she was better able to be compassionate because she felt comfortable with herself.

Getting Help in Therapy
Whether it's clinical hypnosisSomatic Experiencing or EMDR, when practiced by a licensed psychotherapist, these mind-body treatment modalities can help access the unconscious mind to heal the internal conflict so you can, not only think, but also feel that you deserve a life of your own.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.