For decades, John couldn’t see how out of touch he was with his own desires, his own individuality — so preoccupied with rescuing and trying to make wife #1, then wife #2, happy with him. Of course, the fixer, people-pleasing behavior backfired with both (now ex-wives). Without learning how to live “true to himself,” without developing sturdy personal boundaries, John fell into the trap of enmeshment, confusing love with need.
What Is Enmeshment?
I see lots of nurturing relationships and lots of enmeshed ones. What’s tricky is that on the surface, they often look alike. The key is that a nurturing relationship empowers each person to have a strong sense of self, a strong outward mission. In an enmeshed relationship, a person feels drawn into the center of the connection, at the cost of their personal truth and larger purpose. It’s all too easy to lose touch with where we end and another begins, allowing our individuality to become overshadowed by how others view or treat us.
The Great Relationship Paradox
As much as we yearn for the security of absolutes — a reality of black or white, good or bad — true freedom comes when we can embrace the universal truth that, with just about everything and everyone, there are always two sides. When it comes to balancing the closeness and separateness with important people in our lives, once again, it’s not an all or nothing enterprise — rather a paradox.
We are people who need people. We simply cannot reach our true potential without being loved. The paradox is that to attract the right kind of person into our lives, one with whom our love can grow and grow, we must first have a strong connection with our self and the light we possess inside. Only when we are emotionally independent, when we let go of the desperation and intense “need” for someone else to validate or want us, to praise or make us a priority, do we build the proper platform on which to actually draw the love we so desire.
Becoming True to Yourself is a Healing Process
As adults, especially when our growing up environment offered limited opportunity to bond safely and consistently, we carry dark holes. Furthermore, I have come to believe each soul has a journey and comes into this world with certain gaps to heal and correct. However we come by our dark holes, to fill the emptiness, we tend to unconsciously look outside ourselves. This instinctive and reactive seeking puts us in a needy state of consciousness and in great danger of fusing emotionally with another person. The truth is that no person can heal you and make your life make sense to you. We each can and must do that for our selves. The healing process of becoming true to ourself tends to be a lifelong journey, and a beautiful one.
How to build sturdy boundaries and become true to yourself:
The first step: Awareness.
Take the time to learn what an enmeshed relationship looks, and how it might be showing up in your life. Because the human ego is well trained in keeping us in the dark, you may have no idea that you in fact lack boundaries and are emotionally over-involved — whether that be with your mother or lover, child or friend. Just as important, learn where you want to go, that is, discover what empowering and nurturing relationships look like.
Some Signs of enmeshed relationship: If you …
- have an intense fear of conflict in the relationship or of upsetting them.
- a preoccupation with receiving their approval or attention
- find it hard to be happy or at peace when the other person is unhappy.
- feel guilty or scared doing something important for yourself when it might not meet the others’ needs.
Some signs of nurturing/empowering relationship:
- self-respect is a good sign. That is, if you find yourself not over giving in the hope that someone will like or approve of you. When you are listening and following your own truth and supporting the same in the other.
- life balance is another good sign. That is, if you feel free and encouraged to nourish all the areas of your life, such as your career, your friendships and family, your spiritual life and your passions/hobbies. The relationship itself is a priority but not all consuming. The relationship serves as a catalyst for you to become more of who you want to become. Not less.
The second step: Make your inner friendship a top priority.
Build your inner strength. Take the time to listen in the quiet to your inner truth and decide who you want to become, what you value, and where you choose to invest your time. When we become a stranger to our own desires, our confidence suffers. When we know who we are and what we desire, we build the muscle of our own soul.
Reach out for help. Whether that be from a mentor or counselor, spiritual teacher or coach, I am a firm believer in seeking help. To heal and build your personal boundaries, I recommend finding support and guidance from someone you respect who has overcome and reached levels where you yourself would like to climb. We need a network of support, and role models to inspire, to give us the strength to overcome the addictions we have to external, temporary fulfillment.
Learn the art of self-acceptance. Even more than self-esteem, research is now showing that self-acceptance makes the difference in healthy relationships, not to mention peace of mind and the reaching of our dreams and goals. When we are self-accepting, we view ourself as an organically good person worthy of love. Imagine living freely without needing to prove yourself or outshine others? Accepting ourselves and being kind to ourselves relieves us from excessive reassurance seeking and enmeshing tendencies.
Nurture your higher power within. Most find that some type of spiritual study and practice, which can mean different things to many people, provides the ultimate freedom and emotional self-reliance. Seeking external sources of power can be likened to idol worshipping, leaving us perpetually empty and in a vicious cycle of yet another fix. Connecting to our source gives us access to an endless wellspring of inspiration and strength, wisdom and peace.