What is it and how to break free

Being close to your family is usually a good thing, but it is possible to be too close.

Entanglement describes family relationships that lack boundaries such as roles and expectations are confused, parents overly and inappropriately depend on their children for support, and children are not allowed to become emotionally independent or separated from each other. their parents. Family members are emotionally fused in unhealthy ways.

If you grew up in a tangled family, these common signs of entanglement will be familiar to you.

  • There is a lack of emotional and physical boundaries.
  • You don’t think about what’s best for you or what you want; it’s always about pleasing or caring for others.
  • You feel responsible for the happiness and well-being of others.
  • You are guilty or ashamed if you want less contact (don’t talk to your mom every week or want a vacation without your parents) or if you make a choice that’s right for you (like moving across the country to a great job opportunity).
  • Your parents’ self-esteem seems to depend on your success or accomplishments.
  • Your parents want to know everything about your life.
  • Your parents live around yours.
  • Your parents don’t encourage you to follow your dreams and may impose their ideas on what you should do.
  • Family members share too many personal experiences and feelings in a way that creates unrealistic expectations, unhealthy addiction, and confusing roles. Often, entangled parents treat their children like friends, rely on them for emotional support, and share inappropriate personal information.
  • You feel like you have to live up to your parents’ expectations, perhaps giving up on your own goals because they don’t approve of them.
  • You try to avoid conflict and don’t know how to say no.
  • You don’t have a strong sense of who you are.
  • You absorb other people’s feelings and feel like you have to solve other people’s problems.

Entanglement is a dysfunctional family dynamic that is passed down from generation to generation. We tend to recreate the family dynamics we grew up with because they are familiar to us. The entanglement usually stems from some sort of trauma or illness (addiction, mental illness, a critically ill child who is overprotected). However, since this is usually a generational model, you may not be able to identify the origins of entanglement in your family. It is more important to identify the ways in which the entanglement is causing you difficulty and to work to change that dynamic in your relationships.

Boundaries establish the appropriate roles of who is responsible for what in a family. And the boundaries create a physical and emotional space between family members. Boundaries create security in families. They reflect respect for everyone’s needs and feelings, they communicate clear expectations, and they establish what is okay to do and what is not.

As the child grows, the boundaries should gradually change to allow more autonomy, more privacy, develop their own beliefs and values, etc. In healthy families, children are encouraged to become emotionally independent in order to separate, pursue their goals and become themselves so as not to become extensions of their parents (share their feelings, beliefs, values) or to take care of themselves. their parents.

In entangled families, these kinds of healthy boundaries do not exist. Parents share too much personal information. They don’t respect privacy. They rely on their child for emotional support or friendship. They do not allow children to make their own decisions and mistakes. Children are not encouraged to explore their own identity, to become emotionally mature and separate from their parents.

This loads the kids with:

  • the responsibility of caring for their parents (often when they are not emotionally mature enough to do so)
  • role confusion (children are expected to take care of their parents and / or are treated as friends or confidants)
  • prioritize their parents’ needs over their own
  • a lack of respect for their feelings, needs and individuality

In order to become a mature and emotionally healthy adult, you must individualize yourself and become independent from your parents. Individuation is the process of separation both physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and so on. Individuation is the process of becoming an individual, not just an extension of your parents.

The process of normal individuation is evident in adolescents. This is the time when we usually start spending more time with friends. We experiment with our own style and appearance. We recognize that we don’t have to believe the same things our parents believe. We clarify our values, beliefs and interests and are able to express and act on them. We make more decisions for ourselves. In other words, we begin to discover who we are as unique individuals and look to the outside world for greater opportunities.

In entangled families individuation is limited. You are likely to get stuck in a state of emotional addiction, similar to that of a child. It creates a strange juxtaposition of being undifferentiated and emotionally immature but also parentified (treated as a friend or surrogate spouse).

Entanglement can be mistaken for healthy closeness, especially if that’s all you know. Entanglement creates emotional bond, addiction and intimate bond between family members. But it’s not an addiction or a healthy connection. Its based on using people to meet your emotional needs and not allow them to become fully themselves. Adults should not use their children (or others) to feel valued and safe.

In addition to the issues mentioned above, entanglement can cause a variety of other issues such as these.

  • Seeking approval and low self-esteem
  • Fear of abandonment
  • Anxiety
  • Do not develop a strong sense of self; not being in touch with your feelings, interests, beliefs, etc.
  • Not pursuing your goals
  • Grappling with inappropriate guilt and responsibility
  • Having trouble expressing yourself
  • Codependent relationships
  • Do not learn to calm down, sit with difficult emotions and calm down when you are upset
  • Feeling responsible for people who have mistreated you or who refuse to take care of themselves

If you grew up in a tangled family, you’ve likely reproduced the entanglement and codependency in your other relationships. However, that doesn’t mean you’re doomed to dysfunctional relationships forever. Below are four things you can do to reverse the tangle and become a healthier, more authentic YOU.

1. Set limits.

Learning to set boundaries is imperative if you want to change tangled relationships. Boundaries create a healthy separation between you and others. We need physical boundaries (such as personal space, privacy, and the right to refuse a hug or other physical contact) and emotional boundaries (such as the right to have our own feelings, to say no, to being treated with respect, or not responding to a call from a toxic person).

To get started, you will need to identify the specific limits you need. Notice when you feel guilty, resentful, unappreciated, or angry. Explore what lies beneath these feelings, there is a good chance that there has been a boundary violation. To learn the basics of setting limits, check out my 10 steps to setting limits and my article on set limits with toxic people.

2. Find out who you are.

Entanglement prevents us from developing a strong sense of self. As a result, you may not have a clear idea of ​​who you are, what matters to you, what you want to do, etc. You may feel pressured to do what pleases others and stifle your interests, goals, and dreams because others wouldn’t approve or understand.

An important part of breaking up a tangled relationship is finding out who you really are. What are your interests, values, goals? What are your strong points? What are you passionate about? Where do you like to go on vacation? What are your religious or spiritual beliefs? If you weren’t encouraged to cultivate your own interests and beliefs, it can be an uncomfortable process. This can spark feelings of guilt or betrayal. But despite what others have told you, it’s not selfish to put yourself first. It’s okay to have your own opinions and preferences and act on them.

To get started, you can answer these 26 questions to get to know yourself better, explore what is fun for you, and find new hobbies.

3. Stop feeling guilty.

Guilt can be a huge barrier to setting boundaries, asserting yourself, developing a sense of separate self and what’s good for you and not others. Guilt is often used as a manipulative tactic in entangled families. We are told it was wrong, selfish or indifferent if we went against the grain. Over time, most of us internalize this guilt and come to believe that setting limits or having our own opinions is wrong. This kind of thinking smelly is often so ingrained that it is the most difficult aspect to overcome.

The first step to changing it is to recognize that guilt and self-criticism are not useful or precise reflections of reality. Notice how often you feel guilty and how often guilt dictates your behavior. Then try to challenge distorted thoughts that perpetuate feelings of guilt. Changing the way you think can be a difficult process, but you can gradually reduce your inappropriate guilt.

4. Get help.

Breaking free from the entanglement is difficult as it is likely a relationship pattern you have known from birth and those who benefit from your entanglement will certainly try to stop you from changing. Get help from a professional therapist or support group (such as Anonymous co-dependents) is invaluable in learning new skills and reducing guilt and shame.

Changing tangled family dynamics can be overwhelming. However, entanglement exists on a continuum, and so does healing. You don’t have to change everything all at once. Just pick one change to focus on and work on constantly improving yourself in that area. It’s easier !

To read more of my articles and tips for emotionally healthy relationships, please subscribe to my weekly emails.

2019 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. photo byAnnie spratttoUnsplash

Psych Central does not review content that appears on our blogging network (blogs.psychcentral.com) prior to publication. All opinions expressed here are solely those of the author alone and do not reflect the views of the editorial team or management of Psych Central. Posted on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.


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