The Consequences of Enmeshment

Narcissistic parents tend to adopt one of two styles of parenting: enmeshment or neglectful. Both styles are loaded with negative consequences for children of narcissists. This post explores the consequences of enmeshment for the child. In a future post we’ll explore the consequences of neglect.

What is Enmeshment?

Enmeshment is a dysfunctional state where a two or more people have porous and indistinguishable boundaries. Enmeshment can occur between a parent or child, whole families, or adult couples. This article will be talking about enmeshment between a narcissistic mother and her son. The narcissistic parent could become enmeshed with her daughter or all her offspring, though. The same goes for a narcissistic father.Narcissistic parents will often enmesh with one child and make them appear as they desire.

Since the boundaries between two enmeshed people are permeable, they tend to catch each others emotions. If the narcissistic parent becomes angry at a store clerk who slighted her by waiting on another customer first, her son will grow angry as well.

Emotions are a complicated thing for those in an enmeshed relationships. Unable to tell the difference between each others emotions, each member in the relationship will have times when they feel they need to be rescued from their emotions by the other person. Similarly, they’ll each have time when they feel they have to rescue the other person from their emotions.

Those in an enmeshed relationship come to depend the other enmeshed person for their identity. They become so lost that they lose, or fail to develop, their sense of self.

An enmeshed person depends on the person their enmeshed with for their self-worth. Since narcissists emotionally abuse their children, their enmeshed offspring often have low self-esteem.

What Enmeshed Parenting Looks Like

Enmeshment is all about boundaries between the narcissist and her child. Normal healthy parents raise their children to have a healthy set of boundaries. The child of healthy parents learn that they are separate from other individuals. They develop a strong sense of self.

This is not the case for the enmeshed child of a narcissist.

The narcissist views her child to be part of herself. She is unable to see the child as separate from her. As the development of personal boundaries begins in infanthood, the narcissist’s campaign of damaging her child begins before he can walk. She seeks to establish the child as a reflection of her.

The parent’s efforts to make the child part of her has consequences. As the child gets older, his sense of boundaries with the narcissistic parent are blurry at best, non-existent at worst. The child lacks individual autonomy. His ability to act in ways that will obtain for him what he wants become impaired.

The parent who becomes enmeshed with her child seeks to control everything the child does. Her justification for this control can be boiled down to “It’s my child. I can do what I please with him.”

What does the life of an enmeshed child look like?

The Life of an Enmeshed Child

When a narcissist and their child become enmeshed, the roles of parent and child become reversed. A narcissist with an enmeshed child—or children—expects her child to continually anticipate and meet her needs. In this role reversal the child finds himself catering to his parent’s physical and emotional needs. Meanwhile his needs go unmet.

Narcissistic adults do not provide their children with any guidance. The child is left to fumble his way through the grade school years, preteen years, and adolescence. Likewise, the parent does not protect the child against any threats. No affirmations of his worth as a separate person are given. And the child will lack nurturance as well as appropriate affection.

As time goes on, the narcissistic parent and child become almost fused. Enmeshed adult children do not know where in their childhood their parent ended and they began. This lack of boundary definition follows them into adulthood and with other people—particularly romantic partners.

Children with healthy parents learn to make their own decisions and assert their independence by making decisions that their parents don’t approve of. Not so with the enmeshed child. The corrosive bond he shares with his mother means he seeks to make decisions that please her. For she makes clear that there is to be no displeasure from her child. However, it is simply impossible for any child to avoid displeasing his parents, especially if one of them is a narcissist.

When displeased, the narcissist may react with rage and punish her child for even minor infractions. Or, the narcissist may use the one tactic that all narcissists have a black belt in—guilt.

A narcissist is willing to use guilt against anyone. It is one of her main weapons to control others. She will not only use guilt to remedy her displeasure, she will also make her child feel guiltily responsible for whatever is wrong in her life. A narcissistic parent will even make the child feel guilty for the “needed” forms of abuse the child “forced” the parent to inflict on him.

“Damn it Billy,” says the narcissistic parent. “There you go ruining my only chance to unwind by making me shout at you. How am I supposed to relax? I work hard all day and make sacrifice after sacrifice to feed and clothe you. Get out of here before I get really mad and crack your head!”

Because of her displeasure, the narcissist feels justified in using guilt as an emotional weapon against her child. She views herself as superior to her child and her child has failed to live up to her standards. Therefore, guilt and other forms of abuse are acceptable forms of manipulation to use against her child.

The consequences of this tactic on the child of the narcissistic parent? As more and more guilt is heaped upon the child as he grows older, he begins to feel guilty unless he is meeting the needs of his narcissistic parent. He will find himself feeling guilty any time he doesn’t meet other people’s needs. Guilt will become a central emotion in his life.

When an enmeshed child reaches his teenage years, he will generally choose one of two courses. In the first, rather than develop the autonomy he needs to grow into a healthy adult, he will become developmentally stunted. The child who goes this route will remain dependent upon his narcissistic parents. His mother will get to keep her “little me” and the adult child will continue to meet her needs.

The second route is the opposite of the first. Here the teen is repulsed by the enmeshment and runs away from it straight into independence. This can be dangerous as the teen will not have the support of his family unless he relents and become enmeshed once again.

Out in the world without strong boundaries and a strong sense of self, the teen opens himself up to victimization and unhealthy relationships. The odds are good that he will make poor choices and suffer the consequences.

The Enmeshed Child as an Adult

A sad consequence of being enmeshed with a narcissistic parent is that the child enters adulthood without having a strong sense of self. Enmeshed children do not get to pass through the normal stages of development. They do not form a healthy identity because they are forced to take on their parent’s identity.

A strong sense of self allows a person to soothe themselves. Without a strong sense of self, during times of emotional turmoil, a person will look to people outside himself to soothe him.

Having a strong sense of self means you make your own decisions. You don’t constantly run the details of every choice you have to make past everyone you know, asking what they thing you should do.

And having a strong sense of self means you can set strong boundaries. This means having the ability to say no when others put demands on your time and energy.

But all these aspects of having a strong sense of self evade the enmeshed adult children of a narcissistic parent. Let’s see how satisfactory his adult life will be without having a strong sense of self.

As an adult, he will feel guilty if he does not answer his parent every beck and call. He’ll do things for his parent and other people that he doesn’t want to do because he feels too guilty to say no. He, not his parents, will be the one that makes sacrifice after sacrifice because he doesn’t feel entitled to meet his needs and pursue his dreams.

But that’s not where the agony inflicted on his psyche ends. He learns from his parent that love is conditional. All children need unconditional love to grow into healthy adults.

Without this love the child of a narcissist will not know how to enter healthy relationships. They will turn their backs on their own needs so as to meet the needs of their partners. And they—especially daughters of a narcissistic parent—may find themselves in an abusive relationship, or relationships with a narcissist.

Enmeshment leaves the adult child of a narcissist full of fear. One fear is the fear of experimentation. For instance, the adult child may be afraid of experimenting with careers and find himself trapped in a job he hates. He may fear dating several individuals to see who suits them best and land in a relationship with a narcissist. Or he may fear experimenting with his identity to see who he is most comfortable being.

The adult child will also have a fear of failure. This fear can hurt his quality of life in many ways. He may fear failing out of college and never apply, locking him in a job he hates. He may fear failing on a date and never ask out someone he likes. He may have the desire to start his own business but never take the step for fear of failure.

Ironically, while afraid of failure, the adult child is often afraid of success. He may never apply for that job for fear of getting it. He may never submit that short story to publication for fear of it getting accepted. The fear of success is linked to low self-esteem and the fear of succeeding and being found out to be a phony.

By never allowing the child to develop his own autonomy, the narcissist creates fear of the world in her child. Often the narcissist will lead her child to believe that the world is a dangerous place. So dangerous that her child has no chance of surviving without her. And her child will fear that this is so.

I remember this fear as a child. I was led to believe that murderous Mafioso, KKK who sought to kill northerners, and other murderers were stalking our small western Pennsylvanian town. At the same time, my mother would leave me alone in the car in dark parking lots far from the store lights while she shopped. I would crouch down and peer fearfully into the gloom, praying that my mother would return before I was killed.

The purpose of filling me with fear then leaving me in the dark was twofold. First, she used the fear to control me. Second, she left me in the car to harvest narcissistic supply from me. I would be so glad to see her that I nearly explode with happiness. Meanwhile she guzzled up my happiness to see her in a banquet of self-glorification.

This is how a narcissist treats her children.

Healing from Enmeshment

If you grew up enmeshed to a narcissistic parent, you may still be enmeshed with that parent or be the teen who fled from his family and are now all grown up. Either way, you are carrying a lot of emotional baggage around.

You can start the healing process right this second by telling yourself—and believing—that “I have the right to my own thoughts, feelings, and life.”

It’s important that you believe this statement at the outset because you have quite the journey ahead of you. At the end of this role you will become a healthy and whole person, with strong impermeable boundaries, rock solid self-esteem and the ability to express your needs and act to get what you want. You will accept only healthy people as friends and romantic partners. And you will have the self-confidence, persistence, and willingness to achieve your dreams.

There’s more. But if this isn’t enough, you prefer being enmeshed. That’s OK. We all change when we’re ready. Not a second before. We still love you and are here for you.

For those ready to change, your transformation begins with that single statement: “I have the right to my own thoughts, feelings, and life.”

If you don’t believe this statement, you’re going to have a hard time healing. Your goal is to become an autonomous person with a strong sense of self. If you think you have no right to your thoughts, feeling, and life, you will be unable to develop a strong sense of self.

My recommendation is to enter therapy with someone who has experience treating adult children of parents with narcissistic personality disorder. Ask your therapist to help you discover why you don’t believe you have trouble believing you have a right to you own thought, feelings, and life.

For those of you who already believe this statement, you need to find a therapist as well. Building a sense of self and learning to form impermeable boundaries is critical ongoing work.

Shop carefully for a therapist. There are those who will tell you they have experience treating victims of NPD who don’t. Interview them on the phone. If any become irritated by your questions or try to end the call before you’re finished or say you have to come in for a session to get your answers, hang up. Don’t even say good-bye. Cross them off your list. You deserve compassionate care from the best therapist you can find.

Questions you might want to ask include:

  • What’s your experience treating adults whose parent has narcissistic personality disorder?
  • What condition do you see most frequently in adults with a narcissistic parent?
  • What are you treatment goals with someone who is trying to recover from a childhood where they had a narcissistic parent?
  • How much contact do you advise your clients to have with their narcissistic parent? (Listen for the sense of importance they place on establishing boundaries.)
  • What are your concerns about the sense of self of someone who grew up with a narcissistic parent? (That it’s weak or nonexistent and open to abuse.)
  • Can you tell me the two forms of narcissistic parenting? (enmeshed and neglectful)
  • Adult children of narcissistic parent have a lot of issues, which ones do you usually address first? (See if they can identify an issue besides low self-esteem.)

Beware the therapist who tries to make you feel stupid by using a lot of jargon and $2 words. He’s trying to hide that he doesn’t know. Politely hang-up and pursue someone else.

A final word of warning. The field of psychotherapy attracts a certain number of damaged individuals to its ranks. Be careful of this. You probably won’t know a psychotherapist is wounded until you start treatment with him.

One way you can tell he’s damaged is he continually interrupts you to talk about his hurtful past. Get away from this sort of therapist as fast as you can. He will only add to the damage your parents did. You need not remain under the care of anyone who you don’t like or makes you uncomfortable.

That being said, there are lots of good therapists out there. I’m crossing my fingers that you discover the one who is perfect for you.

It’s time now to leave that hell that life with your parents was and is. Another thing you can do before starting therapy is erect firm boundaries between you and your parents. See here for info on boundaries.

I wish a life of happiness for you from this point on. May you become you own strong person and treasure your thoughts and feelings. I wish gentleness in all your dealings and a healthy relationship with the romantic partner of your dreams. Peace till we meet again.

What was you enmeshed like? Tell us in the comments below.

13 thoughts on “The Consequences of Enmeshment

  1. This i a very helpful article, and I´m surprised there are no other comments here! It´s very frightening to come to the realization that one (or both) of your parents´ is a narcissist or displays a startling number of narcissistic characteristics.

    I do not know if my mother can be classified as full-blown or not, but it´s taken me a year to begin to admit to myself that my suspicions are valid. Of course, this is classic for kids of parents with this condition – as you mention, it´s very hard for us to recognize we have a right to our own thoughts, feels, needs, etc. We become so numbed out as a protective measure (and a very useful one in childhood) we can´t tell what is ours and what is the disturbed parents.

    In my case, my mother is a leader in the community who is very charming, but behind closed doors quite abusive. She swings between overt emotional abuse and consistent boundary crossing behavior to excessive flattery. She also paints herself as a victim as an excuse to abuse their “perpetrator,” i.e., my father, the actual victim. As a child, my father was the abuser, so I have seen it inflicted by both of them.

    My mother also kept me in an emotionally abusive situation in and out of the home for the majority of my childhood. I´ve had many suspicions about this as I´ve matured, and reading what you said about the car gave me chills. I recognized my own childhood.

    I want to say to any readers that healing is possible and the comments you make about finding the right therapist are very very sound. It took me a long time to find the right one, but with a good one, at the right time and your own gumption, healing is possible. There are far too few posts about healing from these situations, but don´t ever believe you can´t get out. If I can, so can you. You can learn to love yourself, listen to yourself, grow up, be your own best friend, learn healthy behaviors, and it is okay to need help. One important lesson: stop seeking approval from your narcy parent! It will never come or only temporarily! Don´t let this person have power over you. Loving relationships are not about power, regardless of the nonsense you´ve been taught. Stop falling for flattery – it´s a trap.

    Love and hope to all of you. You can recover.

  2. Ol dad certainly got me with the fear of both failure & success/inability to finish projects. So this is where it’s from. A creepy thing like this…

    It’s like I’m afraid that he’s gonna claim or devour me or my sucess if I produce some. Or something like that. I’m afraid of being arrogant. Because he is arrogant, and calls me arrogant, he’s always there calling me arrogant evn when he’s not in the room and that’s so weak and silly… I thought I was strong, that I was defying him, but now it turns out I’m really that fearful wreck.
    He wants me to be sucessful, he wants me to be intelligent. I think, now that I think about it, I have this fear that I cannot stay separate from him if I do anything he likes…but on the other hand, my relative intelligence & interest in science & art is a huge part of me, it’s not his, it’s mine, it’s from my childhood experiences….

    Fuck. I suppose now I have something interesting to tell the councellor lady.

    • Kendrix,

      You are right, your dad will try to devour your success–but he cannot. Sure he can try to take credit and look good, but in the end, it’s still your success. And it always will be. He can’t take it away.

      Yes, he wants you to be successful, but not for your own good. For his good. Because he will use every one of your successes to polish his image as he takes credit for it to maintain the false image he presents to the world.

      He calls you arrogant because you are successful. Narcissists hate it when others are successful even as they delight in using that success for themselves. My narcissistic mother used to preach to me about not bragging about my accomplishments. That’s so ingrained in me that I can’t identify my accomplishments in job interviews. I doubt you are arrogant.

      You can stay separate if you hold the same likes. Your feeling that you can’t comes from your father treating you like you’re an extension of himself all of your life. You have to shake the feeling that you’re molded together. You’re not! You are separate.

      I’m glad you’re getting therapy.

      You’re a brave woman Kendrix. Keep fighting and update us on how you’re doing.

      May you have the courage to heal.

  3. This post was super helpful to me. I’m actually bookmarking it to discuss several points you’ve made with my therapist. Thank you!

  4. I was stunned by how much this article resonated with me. My Mother only ever used the guilt part of it all but her disappointment in my not being her mini-me crushed me more than any blow could I suspect. Her control was a cold, sad one.

    • Hi Sarah

      I’m sorry about what the guilt did to you as a child. Be careful now about how you respond to anyone, narcissist or not, who is trying to make you feel guilty.

      Us children of narcissists are particularly susceptible to being manipulated by guilt. We were conditioned to do whatever our parent wanted when they made us feel guilty. Now we easily dance to someone pulling the guilt strings.

      But you need not respond. You only have to walk away.

      May you heal and never feel guilty again.

  5. Hi Chase and others,
    very helpful post !
    I have dealt with several years with my “life that somehow started to fall apart” (attracting other narcissist, they misusing me). I had been in some therapy, but until I had the courage to leave and stay alone in it and did not start to make my own search on the internet, I did not move forward. I did not know about the cycle of rage/neglect/enmeshment I went through since my birth. It feels very empowering to nail the problem (which is not me, but the abuse my family deliberately put on me).
    I had been neglected, abandonned for sure since my birth. I only know that my mother let me crying, being in the same room, throwing her hateful regards towards me (especially when things did not go well with the father -who left her, and me). I felt as a baby fear of death (I call it this way), and she left me there, probably in a feeling of revange (this is what I start to feel in my body that this must have been the emotions I received from the mother). At the age of 5 year, I remember to live in fear of her, I was scared when weekends came (the probability she will put her rage/silent treatment on me was very high). I tried to hide, to get out of her eyes.
    At the age of 7, I remember the words she told me: rage out of the blue (guilt, I did something wrong, made some strenge face or probably did not do or was not as she wanted: my guess), she told me: I am done with you. I end with you. You have done that terrible thing, you have no more support of mine. Then, she stopped talking with me for 3days.
    I don´t know what I felt, but I guess that I was scared of what will I eat, where I will live.
    3 days later, she came to me, calling me for “meal” (an order). Acting as if nothing had happened. I had experienced these cycles as well as 32-yeared old.
    I am not much aware of the enmeshment of her, but it must have been there also all my life.
    I remember the feeling of not wanting to be with her, in her presense. She took me to her holidays (as she has nobody to go with her), she used me to tell me about her daily rutine, experiences (since I was 11 years old), every day almost 1-2 hours. She entered my room whenever she wanted, she also liked to enter the bathroom when I was bathing (I started to knock myself down when I was 9). I solved the enmeshment (about which I was not conscious and I believed that it was “love, care”) that I withdrew from her -in my room (I was a home based kid, lock with books in my room), at school, later at college. I felt guilty for not giving myself to her, my presence, my emotions, my time, my acknowledgement, my questions (my life e.g.).
    Past years, in the family of very strange, no loving people, most of the people died (parents of my mother..). With the last death, my mother started to enmesh me in an extensive way. I often feel the rage/erotic feelings coming from her towards me. In fact, she hates (she knows I am not her mother, not her lover…), but she makes me to this. When I don´t want to give her what she wants, she will neglect, abandon/abuse. Since I start to assert my boundaries better, she does not allow herself to get me her silent treatment or words of abuse like, but she enmeshmes more and more.
    She covers her abuse in the intrusion. I feel I have no calm from her. Unfortunately, she made me sick (physically) when I got it, found a job and wanted to move forever far away (I did not tell her, but she must have felt it. She fell sick with a very infectious, serious disease and managed to infect me: by not telling me she was sick, any single world when I came to prepare myself for my journey). I never recovered from this sickness and had to quit any job, financial opportunities, thus I am dependent on her now (as I never was, since I was an adolescent). She is very happy, I guess.
    She can enmesh.
    I want to observe how she does it, I am still not conscious about it. I told it to the psychologist I was going that time. She told me: get over it, it is not this way.

    • Dear Kristina,
      I am sorry for the life you have had to lead up till now. But I am doubly sorry for the psychologist who brushed off your story. Please seek out another mental health provider. Interview the ones you are thinking about seeing,d and ask them if they have experience treating adult children of narcissists. If they say yes, ask them what boundaries they feel should be set between the child and the parent. Ask them how they council enmeshed children.

      Basically, ask them anything that you can think of that shows 1) they have actually provided treatment to adult children of narcissists; and 2) shows you their treatment philosophy. I want to make sure what happened with your psychologist doesn’t happen again.

      I know it’s hard but try to get another job so you can break free from your mother. You deserve better than that.

      I wish you good fortune and healing. Write anytime.

      • Hi Chase,

        thank you very much for your compassion and your advice.
        It is very helpful to know how to find a therapist in a better way !
        I will take my time to search and make it ok when having no therapy help right now.
        I will rather wait until I find a good therapist. I used to have lots of fears since I left abusive therapist. I was afraid that I cannot make it without a therapy ( I need urgently help) x Also I fear (still) that I might be limited in my options to find a therapist and thus the emotional abuse and control in therapy might repeat because I will not be able to choose well (I will only be abused or not helped, thus better to protect myself and not asking for help). This fear started to trigger my PTDS fear of helplessness (some situations from childhood).
        I know it from studying my dreams (a kind of first help I found for myself)…my compensation mechanism of focusing on my mind in order to avoid feeling so helpless and guilty, might have triggered in the therapist the feeling “I am superior, I am telling him what to do, I am too powerful”…and that led to the abuse, my active mind is a way how to pull me down.
        If I asked the therapist the questions you advice in the article, I am sure he´d not want to answer or he´d lead the talk somewhere else. Once I tried to ask something similar, he said ” I will tell it next time”. He did not tell anything next time (I was afraid to raise the question for not provoking his rage again)…
        I know I don´t want this anymore. I must pay attention in the therapy in ahead and be very selective.
        Great tips for how to interview the potential therapist. It gives hope.

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