So much of what we think we know about love and relationships is a blend of what we grew up seeing and hearing.
Whether we want a fairytale ending or something a little less orthodox, it’s what we’ve observed that informs our wants and needs. I grew up watching my parents love each other through acts of service and gift giving. Those were their love languages and they almost always made up for any lapse in judgement.
Now, this isn’t to say that things were always peachy keen; I have very vivid memories of their disagreements. There were times when I wondered if my parents would have even chosen to spend time together if they weren’t married. And the answer was yes – their relationship was strengthened by the time that they spent both together and apart. What stood out to me the most was how they maintained their independence.
Even in the heat of their disagreements, in the moments when their love filled every room in our home, their love never felt codependent. Yet, somehow I’d learned to feel filled by the validation of the people that I love.
I’d say my first experience with codependency was in high school.
Because my parents (my mom) were pretty strict, I hadn’t dated yet — much less kissed a boy — until I was a freshman. I’d of course had my fair share of crushes, but none of those ever went anywhere: my parents and family had successfully convinced me that if I spent any significant amount of time with a boy, I’d risk getting pregnant. Somehow though, that didn’t stop me from dating…we’ll call him Kyrie.
He was super eager about catching my eye and I had no idea how to handle that. I wasn’t exactly comfortable with attention, or the idea of having to hide something from my parents. But long story short: we dated on and off throughout high school, and our relationship was mostly tumultuous. Because of how much I enjoyed feeling wanted, he had me whenever and however he wanted me.
Back then, it felt like the worst experience of my life, but I look at it now as an extremely formative lesson.
I like to think that neither of us meant one another any harm – we barely knew how to take care of ourselves after all; we were just teenagers. It did, however, inform the next partner I’d have.
His coldness and “sometime-y” behavior drove me straight into the arms of a teddy bear who I dated all the way through college — and about seven more years after that. What we had felt like the real deal… and it was for the time that we were together.
However, we’d ended up becoming so codependent and enmeshed with one another because we’d never felt so safe or understood, that it’s ultimately what led to our demise as a couple.
According to Dr. LePera, in codependence, we start to believe that we are responsible for the emotions of others. We then lose our sense of authentic self and begin to define ourselves through the responses of other people. It’s a chronic feast of how people will respond that motivates this behavior and what LePera says is often labeled as “social anxiety disorder”.
Signs of codependency can range from low self worth and people pleasing, to struggling with setting boundaries and the inability to communicate one’s feelings. She goes a bit deeper into these signs while also assuring her followers that codependency “is nothing to be ashamed of”. “Most of us were raised in homes where family members focused on someone else (even if that person engaged in toxic behavior) in order to get their emotional needs met.” And this is where enmeshment comes into play.
- Not knowing which of your emotions actually belong to you
- Not knowing where you begin and another person ends
- Trying to manage another person’s feelings for them
Kassa shared that enmeshment differs greatly from being sensitive to someone else’s needs, boundaries, and requests. “For example, when I was in a relationship, if I had a need, I would spend a week and a half trying to work through the different scenarios of how my partner would react if I shared with them the detail of my need”, she said.
It wasn’t until she sought therapy, starting doing energy work and meditating that she was able to identify some of her own behaviors as habits of enmeshment. While she does not view enmeshment as good or bad, in that it’s how many of us learn to relate, it’s when enmeshment is your principal way of relating that it becomes detrimental.
“Enmeshment is often the result of a trigger. I try to sit with my trigger before figuring things out. Because, typically…when we’re triggered, we can’t think. Your nervous system takes over because it believes you’re in danger. So, I start to think about where the trigger is coming. Have I experienced this before? When was the first time that I felt shame around this particular experience?”
It’s in pinpointing the trigger that Kassa said she sends back the things that don’t belong to her. “I send that back with love and I call myself back with love.” She believes that we each have different pieces of ourselves that are enmeshed with someone or something and we need to call them back.
Setting boundaries can be difficult, especially when you’ve lived your whole life without them. However, spending time with yourself and figuring out what limitations make you feel safe and seen will impact the quality of relationships that you experience.
So many of us struggle with codependency and enmeshment and there are healthy ways for us to take a step back and see where these ways of relating are harmful and/or non-beneficial. Enmeshing is something I’ve done to make people feel seen and heard not knowing that I was often taking away from that person or unknowingly shrinking myself.
Healthy love looks like supporting someone else while loving yourself and standing in your truth. It might sound easier said than done, but some inner reflection, as Dr. LePera and Kassa suggest, could be the key to seeing ourselves and our connections for what they truly are.