***TRIGGER WARNING: This article discusses abuse. ***
What is Enmeshment?
Enmeshment describes a relationship pattern between two people or a group of people in which personal boundaries are unclear. It is a hallmark of dysfunctional families and affects relationships inside and outside the family. Inside the family, personhood is not encouraged nor respected. Outside the family, people-pleasing compulsions can be crippling. Survivors of enmeshed systems struggle with a sense of self and may find it difficult to assert themselves. The boundary crossing is done in secret and can be emotional as well as physical.
How does enmeshment happen?
Enmeshment behaviors are learned patterns of relating and are passed down from one generation to another. Grooming for enmeshment begins in early childhood. One by one, perpetrators cross natural boundaries, and when the victim protests, they are punished. Adult perpetrators do not see the child as an individual but as an extension of themselves to do with as they please.
As a four-year-old, I remember how enraged my mentally ill mother became whenever I sucked my thumb. She was like a strangling vine that could sense whenever you were near. Her need for control and lack of ability to bond made her especially hard to cope with.
At four years old, I once hid behind the couch in order to escape her all-seeing eye. Sticking my thumb into my mouth, I was at the very edge of slumber when her scream startled me awake.
My mother’s voice was always a mixture of panic combined with rage pitched high enough to cause terror. Her claw-like hand reached behind the couch and grabbed my thin arm, hitting my head against the wall as she yanked.
“I TOLD YOU TO STOP SUCKING THAT THUMB!” She gave me a hard shake. I froze. Dragging me to the kitchen, she screamed. “YOU STAND RIGHT THERE.” Rummaging through the cabinet, she knocked a bottle of cooking oil to the floor. She glared at me. “I’VE TOLD YOU AND TOLD YOU TO STOP SUCKING THAT THUMB!” Her attention turned to her search. “WHERE IS THAT PEPPER OIL?” She finally pulled out a little bottle with a red eye-dropper on the top. “Here it is. Stick out your hands.”
Unscrewing it, she covered my small thumbs with the noxious oil. For several days whenever my thumb touched my mouth, my lips and tongue felt like they were on fire. As a child, it was so hard for me to understand why my thumb-sucking bothered her so much. She used terror, cruelty, and shame in order to control. I was not allowed to have a thought, or an opinion, or even to exist as a separate person.
On another occasion, a group of ladies from our church were visiting for an AVON party. I joined the circle in an attempt to fit in. They were so beautiful dressed in their fancy hats and high-heeled shoes. My mother sensed my pleasure and proceeded to shame me in front of the group.
“You won’t believe what Rebekah keeps doing,” she snickered. “It’s the cutest thing.” I stared at the floor. “Rebekah keeps taking her clothes off.” The other ladies tittered. My mother continued. “I don’t know why that child keeps doing that. She’s so hard-headed. She takes them off and runs around outside for everyone to see.” Encouraged by the nervous giggles, my mother held up a photo album. “Look, I took pictures.”
The album was passed from person to person. A few ladies tried to smile, but as the album made the rounds, things became more and more awkward. I interpreted the glances coming my way as accusations. I realize now, it was probably pity.
The album came to me. There I was, in picture after picture completely naked, standing in my front yard with my ugly shaved head holding my clothes as far away from my body as I could get them. The image of my face is burned into my memory. It was the very picture of devastation and shame.
I had begun to take my clothes off shortly after being molested by alcoholic neighbors across the street. My mother also committed sexual abuse against me. In distress, I had begun to pull out my hair. My mother shaved my head in response. I had no say over my body or what was done to me. I was a non-person.
The naked pictures were brought out again and again over the next several months. Everyone who visited our house got to see them. Finally pushed over the edge one Saturday morning, I waited for my mother to be busy outside. Sneaking down the stairs, I quietly took the scissors, got the photo album, and hid in my bedroom closet. Pulling out every single naked picture, I cut them into shreds.
Just as I finished the last one, my mother jerked the closet door open. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” Though my heart jumped, in this one instance, her anger was not enough to stop me. I did not care if she beat me. I did not care if she killed me. It was worth it. No one would ever see those pictures again.
My mother’s reaction was strange. Instead of rage, an odd look of sadness crossed her face. She reached down and picked up the album. “I really liked those pictures,” she said. And you know what? In her twisted mind, I think she really did.
She turned to leave. “Clean that mess up and throw it in the trash.”
The boundary crossing grew worse as I became an adolescent. When I needed to buy my first bra, I had to take all my clothes off in the changing room while my mother watched. Memories of her sexual abuse of me in early childhood came racing back. It was horrible. So much shame. But I was helpless to do anything about it.
My mother was so uncomfortable with sex and sexuality, she tried to keep me neutered for as long as possible, insisting I wear dresses that made my twelve-year-old body look like a five-year-old. Until I was eighteen, she picked out everything I wore down to my underwear. It made my skin crawl.
When I started my period, my mother gleefully announced it to any and all who would listen. Cupping her hand to her mouth she pretended to whisper the news, making sure I overheard every single word. I could go on and on and on about her strange boundary-crossing behavior.
The point is that enmeshment is forced upon a victim in the same way a person is brainwashed in a prison camp. There is no one to help. There is no way to get away. And it is the only thing you know. You are reduced to Stockholm syndrome—you actually have feelings of trust and affection the same way a victim of kidnapping or hostage-taking feels towards a captor in order to survive. And notice the way my mother’s reactions are unpredictable.
Sometimes she beats me in a rage, other times there’s no reaction at all. You might be punished for doing nothing or not punished for disobeying. This is also part of the brain-washing technique and instills a deep fear in the victim keeping them off-balance at all times.
Even as an adult, my abusive parents did not allow boundaries. They no longer had access to my body, but they manipulated my emotions just the same because the groundwork had been laid. I spent most of my life trying to figure out a way to please them, until exhausted, I began to pull away.
Abusers will not give you permission to have boundaries. you have to take them, and it’s going to be hard.
The beginning of a sense of self starts when you say NO not only with words but more importantly, with actions. In my case, my own inner voice had been so abused, I could not speak up to my parents even after I was grown. It wasn’t so much that I was weak, but that their brainwashing still had too much power. So I deferred to the most powerful option there is. No contact. To their dying breath, my parents never came to an understanding of the truth. They had no self-awareness and there was no capitulation on any front.
Defy trauma by setting up a boundary. Embrace joy by having a sense of self in the world. If I can do it, so can you. You are worth saving.
Rebekah Brown, a native of the south, now resides in the Great American West. Surviving a complicated and abusive family system makes her unique writing style insightful as well as uplifting. Rebekah is the proud mother of two and grandmother of four.
Oh my, this is a really emotional article to read. It brought back some things for me… I am so sorry you had to go through what you did. I understand exactly how you felt as I had a similar childhood. Mother was always cold to me and worshipped “Him”. She let him use me as a sex toy and all his dirty friends – anything to please “him”. There were no boundaries – ever. I also hid to get a safe respite to suck my thumb in peace but I always curled into a ball under my bed in the far corner. Anything to get away.