What Is Emotional Enmeshment?
Emotional enmeshment is when there are unclear emotional boundaries between ourselves and other people. Those other people are normally those we’re in relationships with or groups we’re a part of, such as our family, our inner circle, a community, or a team of some kind.
Because we are a social species, we’re wired to emotionally affect and be emotionally affected by other people. When emotional boundaries are unclear, we pass on our emotions or we take on the emotions of other people. Emotional states become contagious and spread throughout the group.
From an evolutionary perspective, emotional enmeshment is an adaptive ability. Our early ancestors didn’t have complex verbal language skills, so they communicated their survival needs with each other through emotions. Infants and young children do the same today with their caregivers.
We needed to take on the emotions of others to know how to help each other survive, and that adaptation has helped us get this far in our evolutionary history.
Being emotionally enmeshed does not make us flawed, or broken, or wounded or traumatized. It simply makes us human. It’s a natural stage of our development. However, there are consequences to emotional enmeshment in modern life and especially in our adult lives.
Emotional enmeshment can trigger the spread of emotional reactivity and anxiety, as well as automatic and reflexive behaviors. This can all lead to mental health conditions, relationship struggles, and poor decision-making in groups.
Evolving Our Emotional Enmeshment
In our adult lives, our continued personal development requires evolving our emotional enmeshment by cultivating emotional maturity. There are two basic ways we can do so:
- Developing greater emotional awareness and taking responsibility for managing our own emotional processes. This way, we don’t dump our emotions onto others and make the whole group take on our emotional states.
- Developing healthy boundaries with others so that we don’t allow them to dump their emotions on us or take on their emotional states. This helps us remain emotionally stable and helps others learn to take responsibility for their own emotional processes.
The Benefits of Emotional Maturity
Over the long-term, evolving emotional enmeshment benefits us individually, and also benefits the groups that we’re a part of, whether that’s our family, our friends, our workplaces, or society at large.
This process helps us become more in charge of our own emotional experience instead of depending on others to take care of it for us. It also protects us from anxiety, overwhelm, fatigue, or burnout from taking on the emotional experience of others. This leads to greater levels of mental health and well-being in our individual lives over time.
This process also helps foster more emotional stability in our relationships and groups. When there’s less emotional enmeshment and healthier emotional boundaries, we’re less likely to spread emotional reactivity. This leads to more thoughtful decision-making for in the present and for the future.
A Final Note
Emotional enmeshment is a normal part of being human and being a social species. However, there are consequences when there’s too much of it for too long in our lives, so we must work on evolving it. We do this by improving our self-regulation skills and developing healthy boundaries with others. Doing this has positive effects at the individual, relational, and collective levels.
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