It’s not uncommon for children to grow up not knowing their own beautiful thoughts and feelings and their essential needs and wants. You might be asking “How can that be?” Well, it’s one of the ravages of families and the individuals inside them. They are at war with themselves with no one to mediate a peace treaty.
In some ways we have no choice in the matter when it comes to which family we arrive into as infants. I don’t know a single soul who asked to be born into violence, depression, poverty and sickness. But here we are, thousands of years of cultivating intelligence within societies and cultures and we still have children arriving in families that just don’t know any better than to fight, implode, lack and ache.
So, I’m going out on a limb here and assume that many who are reading this know what I’m talking about. All of us are refugees of families to one degree or another. All of us struggle with who we are as individuals in relation to the world around us. All of us are persons in exile, either from family and friends, and quite often from ourselves.
When, as children, it comes to surviving, the majority of us choose to choose survival and belonging rather than choosing to be a lone wolf. Somewhere, somehow our little choice-maker whispers in our ears “don’t think that; don’t feel that; we don’t need that; and soon, we forgot that we could want!
“Just tell me what I’m supposed to want.” My client Andrea shares. “I don’t know how to know what I want. I think I want a relationship but when I get close to someone I get scared and want out! I don’t know – I just don’t know what I want.”
Andrea is a successful Lawyer in New York City. She’s very competent in every aspect of her life, except when it comes to personal relationships. How can that be?
Growing up in a family that looks as normal as any family in her community, Andrea’s grandmother would shame her when she came home with A’s. “What are you, some kind of a smarty-pants?” When Andrea came home with B’s, her grandmother would say “What are you, some kind of an idiot?” Whatever Andrea did she was made to feel guilty or shame for doing what she did and being who she was. Neither her mom nor her dad sheltered her emotionally from the barrage of insults. They each contributed in their own ways to Andrea’s dilemma of not knowing her own thoughts and feelings, wants or needs.
Andrea, like so many of us, gave up her self-respect and dignity for the sake of shelter and food, knowing that someday there would be freedom from all of this.
Enmeshment is the word used in Marriage and Family Therapy for the process of losing one’s self in support of family culture and for survival. Though I believe that early on, we do know that this doesn’t feel good, after awhile we forget and try to find hope and peace amongst the fragments of life that we’ve come to consider “normal.”
Enmeshment occurs not only in families, but in religions, corporations, and our educational institutions – anywhere and everywhere we are not allowed to know what we want or need, or what we think or feel. It occurs anywhere and everywhere we have to choose to silence our own thinking, our creativity, our sense of integrity and personal accountability. How do we go about recreating these patterns everywhere we go?
This is really important, because it’s not like we can point our fingers at Daddy or Mommy or Grandma, for that matter. Each of us somehow plays a role in wanting people to want what we want, how we want it and when we want it. Any of us in a position of authority has the power to decide how we want others to respond to us. How we be with our authority and how we use our authority is the question at hand. None of us gets immunity for acts of unkindness that in the end burdens others with our unresolved anger, sorrow and fears.
In my studies, at first I was appalled with the concept of enmeshment. It meant that most families were just big balls of emotions, which no one could know about or talk about. But through my experience as a therapist it began to make perfect sense. Now as a transformational coach a great deal of my work is about empowering clients, like Andrea, to realize their own wants and desires and their own thoughts and feelings. What they are finding is that there is freedom that comes with making choices – choices that are in right-relationship with their own truths, not necessarily in alignment with the emotional needs of potential partners, co-workers, friends and most importantly those individuals who have authority over us. Like Andrea, they are learning to create boundaries based on what’s true for them. This can get really squirrelly for a lot of us who can see that maybe we want two opposing things at the same time. And, we want the sense of emotional clarity that comes when we’ve made the “right choice.” Looking to others to tell us if we’ve chosen correctly keeps up using childhood ways that really don’t work in a grown up world. Really – they don’t work!
For Andrea, she wants partnership, romance, security, connection and belonging. She also wants safety, freedom, independence and respect that who she is, is all she needs to be. At 49 years of age, she’s afraid she’ll never get it. My experience tells me that the more clear she becomes with who she is; the more clear she can speak up to those she’d made into authority figures (we do this a lot with our bosses, our partners, even with our children) the more freedom she will experience to create a relationship that includes all the good things that come from being able to speak her truth. We actually create better relationships with people when we can know our thoughts and feelings, know our needs and wants and speak authentically from this place of knowing. Isn’t this what we are all wanting?
It’s a fascinating juxtaposition that boundaries, made by free choice, create freedom. Who would have ever guessed?
Rosie Kuhn, Ph.D.
Author of Self-Empowerment 101