Enmeshment refers to a dysfunctional state where two of more people suffer from an extreme lack of critical personal boundaries. In most cases, enmeshment will occur between a parent and a child, though it can occur between adult couples or entire families.
A narcissistic parent can be defined as a parent who is possessive of, lives through, or consistently engages in marginalizing competition with his or her offspring. Narcissistic parents are typically abnormally and exclusively close to their children, and they may feel exceedingly threatened by and envious of a child’s increasing autonomy and independence.
Enmeshment and Emotional Health
In this article, we will be focusing on an enmeshed relationship between a narcissistic mother and her son. Because the boundaries between two enmeshed individuals are permeable and unclear, it is not uncommon for them to begin adopting each others emotions. For example – if the narcissistic mother becomes frustrated with a waitress for tending to other guests before refilling her water glass, the son may become angry as well. If the son becomes sad after losing an important football game to his rival team, the mother will also become somber and defeated.
Emotions are a difficult thing for those in enmeshed relationships; each member of the relationship will, at times, feel as if they need to be rescued from their feelings by the other person, and will feel at times as if they need to play the role of the rescuer. This back-and-forth pattern of distress and saving will lead to further interdependence, as well as an even more intense loss of personal identity. The mother will lose her sense of self, while the son will also lose (or fail to develop) his. Those in such relationships will not only depend on one another for a sense of identity, but also for a sense of self-worth. Seeing as narcissistic parents often emotionally abuse their children, their children will frequently be plagued with low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness.
Enmeshed Parenting and The Narcissist
The narcissistic mother views her son as a part of herself, and is unable to see her child as a separate and unique entity. The development of personal boundaries begins during infancy. Healthy parents will raise their children with a healthy set of boundaries; the child of the healthy parents will learn that he or she is an individual, and will develop a strong sense of self and a solid personal identity. The narcissistic parent, on the other hand, will begin permeating and blurring boundaries before her child can even walk. As the child grows and develops, he will lack self-sufficiency – his ability to set and achieve personal goals will become harshly impaired. He will begin living to please his mother, striving to fill the role she has created for him. She will simultaneously continue to seek control over everything her child does. She may justify her actions, believing that because he is her child, she can do as she pleases with him.
The Role of an Enmeshed Child
When a narcissistic parent and his or her child become enmeshed, their roles become reversed. The child is expected to meet the emotional (and sometimes physical) needs of the parent, and meanwhile, his needs go unmet. As time goes on, the lack of personal boundaries will transfer over into other relationships the adult child of the narcissist forms. He will have difficulty maintaining autonomy with romantic partners, and will often be attracted to partners with the same traits his mother possessed. He will be so accustomed to living with numerous methods of emotional manipulation that he will feel lost if he is not being shamed, punished, or made to feel guilty. Guilt plays an important role in the life of an enmeshed child. More often than not, his mother will utilize guilt as a weapon of manipulation. As greater and greater quantities of unresolved guilt are heaped upon the child, he will begin to resort to self-shaming whenever he feels is unable to meet the needs of another.
Unfortunately, even if the enmeshed child begins to rebel away from the relationship in his teenage years, he will be unequipped to deal with life, potentially falling back into unhealthy relational patterns and opening himself up to victimization (seeing as he lacks the ability to set and maintain strong personal boundaries). The enmeshed child will almost always enter into adulthood without having developed a strong sense of self. Without a strong sense of self, an individual will look to outside sources for comfort during times of emotional turmoil. This may lead to more enmeshed relationships, or substance abuse disorders such as alcoholism or drug addiction.
Healing from Enmeshment
We at Next Chapter focus largely on healing men who have grown up in enmeshed households, and who have suffered the consequences of being raised by a narcissistic parent. While degrees of enmeshment vary, and some are more affected than others in the long-term, overcoming childhood trauma of any kind is imperative to leading a life of fulfilled recovery. It is never too late to break the vicious cycle of emotional manipulation and detrimental relational patterns that go hand-in-hand with early enmeshment. For more information on our male-exclusive program of trauma and addiction recovery, please contact us today.