Have you ever wished to be more deeply connected with a family member? We can often regard very close family relationships as desirable, even idyllic, however, to what extent is excessive closeness in close relationships healthy? Notwithstanding the importance of emotional attunement in our younger years for the development of a healthy attachment style for future close relationships, when we consider that autonomy is also universal emotional need, a clearer picture emerges.
Sometimes relationships evolve in a way that stymies a young person's development, leading to an underdeveloped sense of identity. When a parent for example is unable to attune to the need for autonomy on account of being controlling or narcissistic (and possibly unaware of their own psychopathology), then a young person, rather than being encouraged to individuate from their parent toward a stable sense of self, may instead 'fuse' with the identity of the parent. Without important opportunities to express ideas, perspectives and preferences, the young person may experience a sense of emptiness, unless aligned and 'enmeshed' with the identity of their parent. Or, they may become overwhelmed by their lack of freedom and respond with anger or impulsivity in an attempt to reconcile the imbalance.
While pathways to enmeshment vary widely, parents who are domineering risk creating this dynamic (such as with expectations of achievement or health, for example) or parents who are narcissistic (who may garner a young people's identity to improve public perceptions of themselves). More broadly, when young people who face challenges (such as mental health or neurodevelopmental) and are in greater need of parental support than a typically developing young person, enmeshment may develop when there is no clear plan for differentiation to take place. This combination is a particular 'chemistry' that can entrench a symbiotic dynamic where the need to be needed feeds a need to be needy. This pattern can underpin a range of clinical and personality conditions, such as anxiety, depression and borderline personality traits. It is also frequently associated with a strong sense of personal incompetence.
If you have concerns that you may be struggling with an underdeveloped sense of self or consider yourself to be very needy in your close relationships, here are some immediate ways to change things up :
Begin to express your own ideas and preferences
Set boundaries in your close relationships
Use psychological strategies to reduce your preoccupation with your too-close family member (Eg turning worry down with Cognitive Defusion, or amping up your focus on activities that are important to you)
Leaning into a therapeutic relationship as the setting for change, strategies might focus on:
Considering the cost of being preoccupied with your family member; such as the burden that has been carried and the emotions that surface (for example, anger or grief)
Increasing opportunities to make choices for oneself
Exploring how one is similar or different to a family member
Engaging in activities that that allow you to explore your passions
Encouragement to allow oneself to find a personal voice
Going back in time in your memory to your younger self and give them permission to express themselves at times where they were denied autonomy
“The experience of speaking from the heart and being taken seriously builds the psychic architecture that supports the capacity to bear life.” Nancy McWilliams