5 signs you grew up in an enmeshed family, one without set boundaries or individual identities

  • Enmeshment is a term used to describe when people have nonexistent boundaries and no sense of self.

  • A psychologist explained that this can happen when parents don't raise kids to be individuals.

  • Children from enmeshed families often struggle to navigate the world on their own terms.

While tight-knit families can be a great source of happiness and stability, the opposite can be true when family units get too close.

On the surface, enmeshed families might just look very connected, but the reality is that boundaries between parents and kids don't really exist in their relationships. A recent example was the relationship described in Jennette McCurdy's memoir "I'm Glad My Mom Died." In it, McCurdy detailed abuse such as her mother bathing with her and encouraging her to develop the same eating disorder she had.

Dr. Lindsay C. Gibson, a clinical psychologist, said that enmeshment happens when emotionally immature parents are unable to see their children as separate entities.

"The parent is not able to perceive the inner world or the psychological reality of that kid as an individual person," she told Insider. "Instead, they look at themselves and their children as units." It's common for these parents refer to their kids as members of the family rather than independent people.

Enmeshment in families can be tough to spot because it can mirror closeness. But the danger is that children grow up not knowing how to handle their own problems and make their own choices, which extends to relationships outside their family.

If you suspect that you grew up in a less-than-functional home, Gibson shared five ways to tell if you're in an enmeshed family — and what to do if you are.

Your parents projected their insecurities onto you

Gibson said that when parents see their child as an extension of themselves, the relationship can manifest in different ways.

In one form, the parent idealizes their child and "vicariously indulges themselves through indulging that child," she said, often referring to them as the "favorite" kid or pumping them up as special and perfect.

While this behavior can seem loving on the surface, Gibson said the dynamic can be harmful to the child because the parent is "rewarding the child for not developing their own individuality." This can be especially problematic if the child ever acts in a way the parent doesn't approve of, causing the overall dynamic to shift.

Once the kid deviates in any way, or doesn't live up to their parent's high expectations, Gibson said they can become the black sheep of the family, often criticized for doing everything wrong — a huge and jarring shift from being worshipped as a flawless child.

You're overwhelmed when you have to make decisions on your own

Because children raised in enmeshed families are discouraged from making independent decisions, they often don't know how to navigate the world when their parents aren't around.

"They have this underlying insecurity because they haven't developed enough of their own sense of self to feel like they can go out in the world as a true adult," Gibson said.

Whether making choices around your career or relationships, you might feel confused about what you really want or what would make you happy, because you're just not used to asking yourself those questions.

Maintaining close friends or romantic relationships is hard

Healthy intimate relationships rely on a lot of back-and-forth communication and sharing opposing ideas — things that can be hard to know how to do if you grew up enmeshed, Gibson said.

In enmeshed families, "People don't ask each other about their opinions or what's going on inside," she said. There's no room for conflicting opinions or compromise, and if you show disappointment or anger, it can cause blow-ups or emotional reactivity from your family.

Gibson said that sometimes, it isn't until adult children from enmeshed families start dating someone that they realize how unproductive their communication style really is.

You feel stuck and angry

When faced with the challenges of adulthood, children who grew up in enmeshed families might feel like they can't do anything on their own. Struggles in career, education, or relationships often make them want to withdraw.

Children of enmeshed families "often feel kind of sucked back into the family — that's the only place that they really feel that they belong or that they really feel successful in their role," Gibson said.

As a result, it's normal to feel resentful of your family, even as you remain dependent on them. You feel robbed of the opportunity to grow on your own and make mistakes, because you were taught that doing that would harm the family.

Your parents grew up without boundaries, too

Gibson said that enmeshment can be part of a cycle. If your parents grew up with trauma or their own overbearing parents that kept them from forming a secure sense of self, they won't be able to understand the importance of you having that individuality, either.

While you can't magically change your parents, Gibson said there are ways to stop people-pleasing and start setting boundaries. Pausing before you react, calmly restating your needs, and learning that deviating from your family isn't harming your parents are all things that can help you slowly break the enmeshment cycle.

Read the original article on Insider