Episode 24: Family Enmeshment. Miriam is doing a Family Dynamics Series and the first episode is about Enmeshment. Enmeshed family bonds are those that lack boundaries between family members.
- Why is it important to talk about family emotional enmeshment
- Dynamics of an enmeshed family and how the child is viewed
- Blurred boundaries, parentification and reversal of roles
- How A child in an enmeshed family behaves
- The role of guilt in emotionally enmeshed families
- Not being assertive and avoiding conflict as adults
- Dynamics of a healthy family
- What you need to do now if you grew up like this or if you are a parent and this was your reality.
- And more…
ABOUT THE HOST
Miriam is a Certified Trauma Informed Coach, an African, a mom of three daughters, a blogger and writer. After graduating from the London School of Economics, she built her international career in the fields of banking and international development, working for organisations such as the World Economic Forum, Lombard Odier Private Bank, JP Morgan, the Mastercard Foundation and the United Nations. She now uses her passion for psychology and dedicates her time to coaching others to free themselves from the burden of childhood trauma. Her wish to help other women connect to their inner wisdom, love themselves and follow their passion. In her effort to destigmatize mental health and normalize mental health conversations in black communities, she wrote her memoir about surviving childhood and finding her worth.
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Hello, dear listeners, how are you doing? I hope you're doing well. I'm starting a new mini series of episodes in the podcast called family dynamics. And the first one today will be called a measurement. I think we need to know the dynamics in the family so that we can spot when it's not working. So especially as being an African, I think this first one, a measurement is very important because it plays out a lot in our families. And it can cause problems as we know, everybody, we can all agree that to have a family where there's love, unity and everything that's really good. When a bond is too strong. And there are no boundaries, we speak of an in meshed family, in the guise of love, loyalty, family unity, it's sometimes based on fear, you know, where people are not free to be themselves, they have to be what the family wants them to be, then in that case, there are no boundaries between family members, they are fused together by unhealthy emotions. And usually enmeshment is rooted in trauma or illness, where a parent has an addiction or a mental illness or even in poverty, right, a parent who has many kids that could create dynamics of enmeshment. These are behavior patterns that get passed down through generations, because usually, we don't become conscious of what's going on. It's unconsciously that these patterns get passed down that the parents themselves, they received them, and then they pass them on to the next generation. So when we are looking back back at these patterns, it's not to blame the parents, I like to say that because it's not to tell them that they didn't do well. It's for the people who have lived the life to hear and to understand what happened to them. Because when you live such a life, there are consequences. And if you want to live your present life better, you need to understand what happened. So there are some signs when you're in an Amish family, we know that having boundaries are important, because they create space for family members to become independent. And then without boundaries, rules and expectations are mixed up, parents become over reliant on their children and children are not allowed to separate from their parents and become their individual selves. This is something that is really very important. In the context, I grew up in Cameroon. And from speaking to coaching clients and friends, I hear that too, among other Africans in other African countries, where children come and they don't have a choice, they have to have the parents. Now, if you give a kid age appropriate us, it good for them, it boosts their self esteem, and they see that they can do it, it's really, really great. But where it becomes toxic is when the child has no choice. And then they, they get burden with us, they cannot even go play with their friends and everything in my culture in Cameroon, it's it's accept that, that kids have to have their parents but I don't think they tasks are of an age appropriate.
If the parent in the image family expects their child to follow the beliefs and values of the family, they will discourage their child from following their dreams or you're not good at this or singing that's not for you, the individual self of the child is not recognized. It's the chart is kind of is like a token for the parents to do whatever they need to do yourself what depends on your child's achievement as a parent. So that's the thing, the child becomes a token, a tool that has to come and feed your own emotional void. Your life centers around the life of your child. So you don't have your individual self anymore. Everything is around a child and they have to fulfill your needs. You believe that you can give your child all the support they need and it and that they shouldn't reach out to those outside the family. This is a big problem where children are instructed that everything about the family has to stay in the family. And when there is no abuse. It's okay. But in cases when when there's abuse where maybe you can speak to an auntie or someone out of the family and ask for help. Well, you're not allowed to and then this kind of parent thinks that they need to know everything about their child's life. No because your child is an individual person. And they need space and respect. And then they feel that their child is their friend. And they can expect them to support the parent emotionally, this is very, very detrimental because the child, a child is a child and a child is not your friend, you need to find adult friends to confide your big adult emotional or financial relationship problems to not confide that in the child. This is very, very important. When I hear sentences like my child is my best friend, I just cringe
Oh my god, no, no, your child is not your best friend, your child is your child, your best friend is your best friend, we really need to make that distinct distinction, I will talk about it later when we talk about parent ification. Yeah, you share personal information that should remain private with your child. That's the thing, the child doesn't have the emotional ability to process such information. So actually, you're not helping your child, it's very destructive for the child when they grow up to deny themselves to be the emotional caretaker of the parent. So there's, that's a management role reverse as we don't know who is the parent who is the child because now the child becomes the parent and the parent goes to the child to vent. So we have to be mindful of that I would say the child is rewarded when they behave in ways that please the parent and and strengthen this embarrassment bond. I mean, they try to feel loved unconditionally, and not feel like they have to serve a purpose. If not, they might be cut out. And it happens a lot, though. So how does a child in an image family behaves? We might wonder, they don't have a strong sense of who they are. Because the boundaries are blurred. They don't know where their own self stops and the other person's starts and vice versa. They are not encouraged. There's the setting is set up in a way that it's not meant for them to become individuals like whole beings, they have to be an extension of their parents. And it's not good when you become an adult we talk about that the child doesn't think about their needs, because they are focusing on the needs of the parents of the siblings. They are trained to take care of other people's needs, they can grow to think that their needs are shameful. It's It's shameful to have needs. I was for the longest time that person hiding my needs hiding how I felt because I was ashamed. So that child would think that, yeah, it's not okay to have needs, but they are hyper attuned to the needs of the parents of the siblings, taking care of everybody except themselves. They make sure that their goals are in line with what their parents want from them. Because there's this threat, even sometimes, if it's not set, like this lawyer it that you you want to make your parents proud, you want to please your parents, and also sometimes you don't want to be cut out of the family unit. And this bring about very conflicting feelings. Because the child will feel guilty about the when they need space, right? They just need space to be themselves to go visit friends to go to the mall, but they feel guilty because not only they don't just create the guilt, most of the times their parents guilt trip them, you know, tell them that they are ungrateful. They are not thankful enough, they should have left them in the village. You know, now, I don't know abroad. So it's it's very bad because this guilt often accompanies these children when they become adults right into their adulthood. And these children avoid conflict. And they don't know how to say no, they are not trained to say no, they say yes all the time, because that's what their parent wants to hear. And then when they are not in that setting anymore, they don't know how to say no in relationships. In friendships, they don't know how to say no. And they would rather go climb that Kilimanjaro den to have conflict with other people. Conflict avoidant, they think that having a conflict we kill them, it's that bad or saying no. means death. It's really really bad. It's so so uncomfortable. You can have conflict, and then resolve the conflict and then move on with your life. That's something that we need to learn. So the consequences that can happen to someone who grows up like this, I talked about parent ification it's also a blog post on my website, Miriam njoku.com. The blog post is called parent ification. Growing up too soon.
So that's one of the consequences of living in an A meshed family right, is being parents defied. That is the rules are inverse and Then the child becomes the parent. And there are two types of parent ification instrument identification where the child just takes over running the house takes care of the siblings, pay pays bills does the dishes cooks for all the siblings, and everything. This this, this is a big, big problem in African families where the eldest child is given this role of this Cinderella role of taking care of the of the younger siblings, what I've noticed, I've heard many stories about this, sometimes there's a gap between the eldest child and, and the younger children, or the mom was young when she had the eldest child. But anyways, in my case, yes, my mom was young, but there's only two years of difference with my sister. But I was a caregiver for a long time. So in in African families, they add their stride is often given this role of the parent ified child, where they take care of everything takes care of their siblings and everything, but no one takes care of them. That's the thing. I think the consequences, the dynamic between the siblings, today's resentment, already, there could be also the eldest child with regards to the to the parents, there could be really lots of resentment of being treated in a different way compared to the younger siblings. And in some extreme cases, maybe the younger siblings don't gain the routines to take care of themselves, because they no one taught them to take care, the bigger one had all the routines and, and was set up to take care of the household. And then the younger ones, they don't know how to take care of themselves. What should have been done was the parents teaching the all the kids to take care of themselves so that we time they become more and more independent. Because the eldest child why doing that doesn't develop emotionally, because they are so busy, cleaning, cooking, and doing all the chores that they don't have any time for themselves to reflect, to be bored to watch movies, go talk on the phone with their friends and things like that. So this is something we have to be mindful of. And then emotional parent ification, that's really the very bad one, as I was saying before, it's about
when the child becomes the emotional caretaker of the, of the parent, the parent goes to their child to tell their stories, how I don't have money to pay rent, the new boyfriend at the end of the day, and now the new boyfriend is a jerk, and then asking the child what they should do, you know, relying emotionally on the child. So that it again brings the child to in that position where they have to put their own needs their own emotions in the in the back end, and take care of the parent. And that cannot be healthy. In the long run. It's not healthy, it doesn't turn out well. And it's really bad. I don't want to go too deep into this. But the consequences for the emotional development of the child is really, it's very detrimental, where the low self esteem, they don't know who they are. And, and many, many things. Speaking of not knowing who they are, one of the consequences of embarrassment is they call it individualization. You don't become your own person, you don't have a sense of identity, because we never had the chance to explore, to discover who you are, what your values are. And so your identity is a bit blurred. You don't have that boundary between yourself and others. You don't know what your role is there, you don't know how to manage your emotions, because you never had time to let your emotions come up to the surface bubble. And then these children they my bottle up their emotions, and they when it's too much they will lash out and things like that, because they didn't, no one had them there was that space was not created for them to to even welcome or even discover their emotions for our I didn't even know what I felt for the I mean, I'm 30 how many years old now? 30 years old. And I don't know for more than 30 years, I did not even know how I felt If you ask me, What are you filling out? I was not able to say because I didn't know. So this comes from being so busy. A cleaning, cooking selling in a bar and being like working like a slave. Then even taking one minute to to to ask myself who is Miriam. So that's what he does to people who go through this. A child from an image family can also have like a fear of abandonment, which can lead them to into codependent relationships. When you think of it codependent relationship is what is the kind of relationship dynamics in, in Animesh family where you know, there's no separation between the other person and you, you don't know where your personal space as if the, if the dad comes home, he's in a bad mood, everybody's in a bad mood, you feel as if you have to be taking care of everybody's feelings, how everybody is doing being there for everyone. And then you even feel resentful, because one, you don't know how to ask for help for other people to be there for you. And two, they are not there for you. Because what you give you give too much you give too much, you don't give something that leaves a bit of space for you for yourself as a person that you become resentful that people don't take care of your needs. But number one, you don't know how to express your needs, or you don't feel comfortable expressing them. And number two, what you give because you give too much people can never give back as much to you. So there is some resentment there that you take care of others, and they don't take care of you where it comes from childhood dynamics already, you might want that. So what's the difference between a close knit family and an Animesh family because most of the time, people will mistake an image family from a close family. And there are so many people who put lots of money energy, to foster a feeling of togetherness and of love in their family. So I don't want everyone to go to feel as if their family is immersed, or something. But there are three things that distinguishes a close family for money mesh family. And the first one is that the emotional bond among the family members create safety for everybody to feel themselves. So the love and bond that the family members share is safe enough for everybody to feel their individual service accepted. You know, we don't have to be like a clone of our parents or
be exactly what they want us to be to be accepted. So what we are the people we are the core, accept that in the family unit. So that's one difference. And also the next one is that the family members don't use each other for their emotional needs. For example, mommy doesn't come home from work with all her stress and starts creeping on everyone. And then everybody's working walking on eggshells that he doesn't wake up in, in a bad mood. And then everybody has to whisper and try to hide because you know, there are consequences studies in a bad mood. So there will be kind of a separation between It doesn't mean that daddy cannot be in a bad mood. But it's safe enough for daddy, for example, to take himself to another room or to mom for mommy to take herself into another room and then not permeate everybody with their mood disorder is kind of the boundary among the family members, right? Children are encouraged to contribute to the successful running of their home by it's not parent ification it means they can be like a chore list, where children they will take turns bringing out the garbage loading the dishwasher, picking up their toys, or I don't know what but it's something where that empowers them, and boosts their self esteem and, you know, give them a sense of satisfaction because they take something and they accomplish a task. So that's a good way, you know, to make kids contribute without overloading them. How do we get help for enmeshment? For example, if we become adults, and then we went through this, I think I want to tell you how a child who grew up in an image family and becomes an adult how they might react in adulthood, they might like to feel in control. They feel very responsible for things outside of their control because they need to feel in control. So they feel overly responsible for the well being of their friends, family. Lover colleagues, they Yeah, they overextend themselves. They tend to be the caregiver for their friends and other relationships. They struggle at the same time to trust others. Trust is a big problem. They are very safely and Reliant. So they tend to offer help run rush to help everybody but when it comes to themselves, they don't ask for help or they don't even know how to receive help. So they rely on themselves but it's kind of a lonely place because they need that care and to be taken care of, but they don't know how to go get it or accept it. They sacrifice their needs for the needs of others and then sometimes it might make them resentful. They feed on appreciate Yet, because they give so much and as I said before, they give too much. So other people cannot match what they give. And in any case, they don't say what they want, they can't they don't say I need this from you, I need you to have me struggling, I need a friend to confide in, they will not say it. They want other people to guess because they think saying it having needs. It's shameful. They also struggle to play or let loose. So they don't they have a hard time relaxing, and you know, not doing anything, because they're so busy and taking care of the needs of others. But I think in order to heal from this, the first thing is to accept that it's okay to make choices that your family doesn't agree with. And to accept that your feelings are your own,
your parents feelings are their own, and your siblings feelings are also their own. And if you're an adult that your partner's feeling is their own. So it means that you're responsible for your own feelings. You're responsible for your own happiness, and your parents, they're responsible for their happiness and your siblings, they're responsible for their so it's just to set that boundary of not overextending ourselves and taking care of everything, the feelings of everyone they need, it's just too much and too enmeshed. So it's to stop the embarrassment and starting to, you know, take what belongs to us is to stop carrying on all the burden in the family, in relationships, in friendships, even at work, and only carry what belongs to us already there. I know it's hard when you've worked function like that for too long. And there's a lot of guilt, but it's really getting used to. And that's where coaching with me of therapy could be helpful in learning to do that. And know that you can survive the discomfort of setting a boundary because telling somebody no or setting a boundary of when I don't know you want to communicate with your parents, or you want people to treat you and actually saying it, it feels so uncomfortable. Sometimes it's like, you're going to die because you set a boundary, but nothing is going to happen. I mean, good things can happen naturally, because people know what you stand for. And I mean, it can help. I think in general, we need to go inwards. Because all that development that hasn't happened yet that emotional lag that we carry inside, we have to go inside and get to know ourselves, you know, develop ourselves, well, what do we stand for? What do we like? What are interests? What are hobbies, so you go inside yourself, and they you try to see how you feel, you know, try to identify your emotions, try to identify your hobbies, what you like, what you don't like, in what settings, are you comfortable, are you not comfortable, and you set boundaries. I know it's hard, but you have to set boundaries. And also you have to create space for yourself. And for others. If you're in a relationship, you have to let your partner have half space. And also create space for yourself. You know, you can go out with other people for a drink or by yourself, you will walk in the forest, or in a different room, if you're upset, you know, you conscious they stop creating that dynamic. But I think also if you build that self esteem inside, it might help with not being in a codependent relationship if you're an adult. And if you're a parent, it's happening your child giving your child that space to build their sense of self signaling that who they are is okay. They don't have to be a copy of you or what you think they should be. And, of course not confide in your kids, things that are too big for them. And things that should be confided to an adult, make it clear and model to your child that it's okay to have relationships outside of the family, to have a mentor to have friends, to speak to other people to you know, create that dynamic that they are not against the family if they like our tiny family, everybody's a doctor. And also as a parent, I think it's important to develop your sense of self. When you're living through your kids and then your kids or your everything that's not okay. Because you are the coach of your kids, you're there to help them reach their potential and be the best version of themselves, not of yourself themselves.
And for that to happen. You have to find some peace within yourself. So it's important if you're a parent, or you recognize yourself in this dynamic to just start building a sense of self as I said, asking yourself what you like, what are your hobbies, maybe you should start going to zoom bar class. Now I'm just talking about myself. But, you know, like, you have to have a life outside of your kids, you know, you have to have your own life, what for fears you have to find your own fulfillment, so that you don't project what you didn't have what you want for your life or onto them. And they you overshadow the pert the people that they are, you know, we learn everyday, it's not to lay blame. I know that it's a heavy topic. But really, it's not to lay blame. It's to it's to learn as much as possible and create that space for dialogue. And for people to become individuals, so that kids don't grow up, staying away from their parents, because their parents don't understand them or, you know, being so resentful of their parents because of how they grew up and just being so broken and so empty inside and just looking like an adult. And having the emotional development of a seven year old. We are many people out there like that. We have big degrees, we have fancy jobs, we look all put together and then inside there is nothing because nothing was given and nothing was poured into us. So it's in the goal of making things better and for us, and for the people we are going to enter into relationships with Be it friendships, intimate relationships work, our kids. So yeah, if we know better, there's a chance we might do better. Thank you for listening, and until next time for this hot series on family dynamics. Bye bye
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