When Healthy Attachment Becomes Enmeshment

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Reader’s Question

I’m having a problem, and I’m really suffering from it. I have this idea all the time that I’m going to lose my mom any minute. She isn’t sick, so I don’t know why I’m feeling like that.

I know very well that if she passed away I wouldn’t survive this disaster.

I love her so much! There are no words to describe it; and knowing that she is not happy in her life makes me feel so much worse. All the hard work that I’m doing is for her, not for me. I want to make her happy. I want to stop everything that has made and is making her sad.

Please tell me how to get rid of the idea or the feeling that my mom is going to die soon. I can’t sleep at night.

Psychologist’s Reply

While I am delighted to hear that you are bonded with your mother, it sounds like your attachment to her is overly strong, to the point that it is literally making you sick. A solid tie to another person is healthy, but if the relationship is too powerful, then it becomes unhealthy. In the counseling world, we call this enmeshment.

Enmeshment is when two or more people (often whole families) are overly involved and intertwined with one another. When one person is upset, everyone is upset. What one person wants, everyone wants. Individual needs and emotions get lost. That is why people who are enmeshed find it difficult to say no or consider their own desires.

It is good to incorporate the wants and needs of others into your life but the price of this cannot be the loss of your own. We both come into and leave the world alone, so the only person who is there for your entire life is you. As such, we all need to make sure that we take care of ourselves along the way. Unfortunately, it sounds like you are farming out what should be yours — your hard work, your happiness — to your mother, and your body may be trying to tell you that it’s too much.

None of us can know when our parents will die, but we can guarantee that they will eventually die. If nature goes according to plan, our parents will die before we do, but it shouldn’t be a “disaster.” It is the natural order of things, and if parents have done their jobs, their children can go on without them.

One of the jobs we have as parents is to prepare our children for the world and then let them go. I don’t know if your mom has tried to do this but, if she has not, you may need to do it yourself. While she can be of support to you, she cannot be your world. Thus, developing some boundaries between your mother and yourself can be helpful.

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Personal boundaries are the decisions we make about where we stop and other people start. The only thing any of us can control is our own behavior, so boundaries are how we respond to others. For example, in enmeshed relationships, people often expect others to feel what it is that they are feeling. They do not take sole ownership of their own emotions, but expect others to handle them instead. One such boundary is that you manage your emotions, while expecting others to manage theirs. In other words, you are in charge of your own happiness, just like your mother is in control of her own.

Books on boundaries are a great place for you to start. There are even workbooks that will give you behavioral exercises to try. If the books are not enough, you may want to consider seeking professional help. Family therapists in particular are well-versed in boundary violations and can be of great assistance in boundary repair work. Once you can separate yourself from your mother in a healthy way, the prospect of her death (while still sad) will not devastate you.

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