Can you be too close? – Enmeshment and automatic emotions transfer


Quick summary: When I say ‘too close’ I mean to say that there are some relational bonds which are so intertwined that the individuals in the relationship have a difficult time deciphering what is their ‘stuff’ and what is their partner’s or other person’s ‘stuff’. One of the most common aspects of an enmeshed (too close – completely intertwined – no significant boundary between the individuals) relationship is the inability to avoid mirroring or taking on the emotional disposition (mood) of the other person. In such a relationship the individual will empathically ‘feel’ the emotions of the other person and will automatically feel the same way or a set way (if one person gets embarrassed the other will feel embarrassed as well). When a relationship is enmeshed the individuals can also tend to have a limited ability to accept that the other person can hold a differing subjective perception or opinion than themselves (this will be covered in another blog – today’s topic is emotional transfer). Increasing self-awareness while creating an awareness of the existence of enmeshment in the relationship are the first steps towards reducing the phenomenon.

Do you have a person in your life (typically a partner) with whom you have a difficult time in not ‘over-reacting’ to their mood (or visa-versa)? If yes – you might have a bit of enmeshment in your relationship?

  • If this person were upset, confused, sad etc you would feel overwhelmed.
  • Perhaps you would feel the need to ‘fix’ that person’s emotions or mood. (as opposed to offering them space or comfort etc.)
  •  It feels like your emotions are completely dictated by the emotions of the other person.
    • “I can’t be happy until he wakes up and gets less grumpy.”
    • “Of course I’m upset my wife had a difficult day at work.”

Solutions –

Awareness of the existence of enmeshment – “the first step to solving a problem is recognizing that it exists.”

  • Couples counseling is a very good setting to be assisted in this area – the therapist will often use many experiential (in the session activities) to help you work though this.
    • Immediacy – this is a technique in which your therapist points out aspects of your non-verbal reactions in order to give you (the client) greater insight into your automatic responses.  

Self-awareness and body scans

  • How does you body react to specific occurrences?
    • by allowing yourself to observe without judgment the way that you physiologically respond to different stimuli you can learn to identify emotions and thoughts that you might be unaware of by ‘listening to your body’.
  • What is it about your life and your family of origin that greatly impacts who you are and how you react?
    • The more we understand our families and ourselves the better we are at understanding why we emote a certain way to certain occurrences.
      • Example – a person is more likely to have a stronger emotional reaction to people being late if their father forgot them at school numerous times when they were a child.
        • Your awareness of such will impact your ability to not project these feelings onto other people.

Anchoring – I use a mindfulness technique know as ‘anchoring’ which encourages myself to recover if I am experiencing automatic emotional responses in response to another person’s emotions.

  • Anchoring is technique in which you attach an ‘anchor’ or a ‘reminder’ to an event, feeling, stimuli etc that reminds you to stop acting automatically so that you can consciously react the way you choose.
    • I have many environmental stimuli and physiological occurrences which remind me to begin engaging in breathing exercises – this takes me out of my head and into the present moment.
      • Many political conversations can cause me to have an excessive emotional reaction and the tendency to ruminate – I have an anchor on all things political – my brain sends out an alert – and I then stop any interaction with the topic and start breathing exercises. (I had a therapist who really helped me with this).
    • If I notice that my physiological and emotional response is significant I have an anchor which reminds me to…
      • Slow down and ask myself – “is this my emotion or someone else’s emotion.”
      • “Is this emotion about right now or does this have something to do with my past?”
      • “Is this the most beneficial emotion for this interaction?”
      • “This is not my emotion to hold… it is an emotion that I will be compassionate towards.”

Individuation – create a balance of independence and dependence.

  • Enmeshment can be the result of being too dependent – there is no definition of self which is separate from the relevant person.
  • “I am I and I am we” – this is the balance.
  • Engage in activities which help you see yourself as separate from the other person.
    • “if you love someone set them free”
      • This does not need to be done literally- you simply need to love the person without needing them.
      • Free your self from over identification – you are your own separate person – free the loved one from being your identity.

Identify cognitive distortions (mistaken beliefs that you allow to govern your life).

  • Some relevant cognitive distortions –
    • “I can not be happy unless everyone around me is happy.”
    • “Love involves expressing the same emotions as my partner.”
    • “It is helpful for me to express the same way my partner is.”
    • “If I get mad too then I am showing an understanding or compassion.”

As with every psychotherapeutic theme that I will discuss – there is good reason for the existence of enmeshment, and it is something to work on in certain relationships.

The ability to be enmeshed comes from a very honorable place = one’s empathic ability (the ability to walk in another person’s shoes and to feel what they feel).

  • In an enmeshed relationship the person confuses their empathic feelings with their own feelings.
  • Feeling other people’s emotions is not the concern – this ability is a very helpful skill in maintaining a healthy relationship.
  • Learning to discern what emotions are your own and what emotions are from other people is a great skill.




William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

William Hambleton Bishop

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

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