I’m OK, You’re Not OK … and That’s Perfectly OK

Two girls talking Have you ever been in a situation where you’re in a good mood, but then you talk to a friend who’s not doing so well and suddenly you feel conflicted? You want to support your friend, but you feel like you’re being pulled into the friend’s negative emotions, and you don’t want to give up your good mood. It seems like your only choice is to be pulled into the bad feelings or run away. Neither choice feels right.

This is one of the challenges that we navigate in order to have healthy relationships. But while it may seem like your only choice is between being pulled in or running away, there is a third choice: differentiation.

The psychological term for being “pulled in” is enmeshment. Enmeshment means losing our individuality and merging emotionally with others. We’re born enmeshed. As infants, we have no sense of where we end and others begin. When the brain is finally able to comprehend that we are separate beings, separation anxiety sets in, triggering existential isolation and creating a longing to merge with another.

Enmeshment can feel like love, connection, or empathy. It could be the only way you know how to be with someone else or the way you were taught you were supposed to feel. If a loved one has a feeling, you have a feeling, too. Feeling neutral can feel lonely, uncaring, or just plain wrong.

The fact is, though, enmeshment doesn’t really help either person in the relationship. If your partner is distressed and you join them in distress, then you’re both distressed! It’s much more helpful if one of you remains calm and supportive. When your child is anxious, being anxious yourself only increases the child’s anxiety and may even send a message that the child can’t handle their feelings alone. It’s unhealthy for your own mental well-being to be so affected by the moods of others. You have enough of your own feelings without also taking on everyone else’s. Enmeshment can stop both of you from reaching your full potential as individuals.

The psychological term for “running away” is emotional cutoff. Emotional cutoff occurs when enmeshment has gone too far, becoming emotionally dangerous for you, engulfing you in painful feelings. In order to protect yourself, you react by cutting yourself off emotionally from the other person. A woman notices her husband’s sadness, feelings of helplessness or fear flare up in her, and so she cuts off these feelings by ignoring and avoiding him. As a result, her husband is left alone with his feelings, he doesn’t receive love and support when he needs it, and a chasm grows between them.

In extreme cases, a person will permanently sever the relationship. It’s not always possible or even healthy to maintain toxic relationships, but in other cases, becoming differentiated can help you achieve a healthy relationship.

Differentiation is a person’s ability to maintain individuality while remaining emotionally connected to significant relationships. Differentiation is an innate part of human development, but the conflicting demands or desires for enmeshment can thwart its development. When you are differentiated, you can be with another person and listen to what that person is feeling without being emotionally pulled in one direction or another.

As with any problematic behavior, the first step in effecting change is to become aware that there is a problem. If this article rings true for you in any way, start by paying more attention to how you’re reacting in your relationships when you are confronted by someone else’s negative emotions. Do you remember the old suggestion, “Take a deep breath and count to 10?” Try it. It works!

The goal is to create a little window of opportunity to slow down your emotional reaction to the other person so that you can become aware of it, think about it, and hopefully choose to handle it differently. Ask yourself some questions: Are you becoming emotionally activated easily? Are you distancing yourself from the person? What is the person really trying to tell you? Does he or she want you to help, or just listen?

In order to separate your reactions from the other person’s emotions, you have to focus on yourself. This might require a heavy dose of acceptance: accepting your own thoughts and feelings, accepting the loneliness of individuality, and accepting the necessity of allowing other people to work through their feelings on their own.

If you ask yourself, “I’m OK, they’re not … is that OK?” The answer is yes.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Rena Pollak, LMFT, CGP, therapist in Encino, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Kat

    Kat

    October 17th, 2014 at 9:20 AM

    I needed this today, because my adult son is having financial problems and I cannot do anything to help and it makes me physically sick.

  • adrienne

    adrienne

    October 18th, 2014 at 1:45 PM

    I have a couple of friends like this, and even though I can sympathize with them about the things that they are going through in life, that does not mean that I have to let what they are experiencing bring me down with them.

    There are times when I think that they get mad because I won’t join the pity party but my thoughts are what good will it do if none of us are clear headed enough to think some of this through?

  • Amber

    Amber

    July 17th, 2016 at 2:22 AM

    They don’t want you to join their ‘pity party’, they just want you to empathise with them.

  • dave l.

    dave l.

    October 19th, 2014 at 1:00 AM

    I think that the book of Job goes a long way to relating to this issue. When Job initially sits with his friends/comforters, their natural reaction is to find reasons for his suffering, none of which are right and none of which help him in his suffering. It is when they come to the end of their words and are just sat with him, being present but not offering platitudes that Job is able to begin his journey of redemption. The story suggests that God meets with Job when all other words have exhausted themselves, and his friends have stopped trying to advise and just comfort by being there, which leaves room for God to address Job and for him to respond. Whether you believe in God or not, there are some important lessons in the story about comforting the distressed, how to express compassion, and what friendship means.

  • Scot

    Scot

    October 20th, 2014 at 11:21 AM

    You can’t always be guaranteed that everything will be hunky dory you know? There are always going to be the good times interspersed with the bad, you simply have to be willing to stick with them all.
    The bad times are gonna be hard, no one says that they aren’t but that’s what life is all about, living, learning and loving and then growing and changing together.

  • Vladimir

    Vladimir

    May 26th, 2015 at 8:19 AM

    Very good article, thanks Rena. For me, the phenomenon of enmeshment is also known as “confluence” (gestalt therapy deals with it a lot, especially in couples setting).

  • Jackie J.

    Jackie J.

    July 31st, 2015 at 1:47 PM

    This was an excellent post to put on my facebook page so that the people that I love may read and understand. About emessment and how it can destroy a relationship or cause folks to not be able to fight for the relationship.
    I love the term of “existential isolation”, it clearly describes what happens with people who attempt to take on their significant others feeling or moods!
    Again thank you for sharing this post with me and my family and friends.

  • Sara

    Sara

    October 16th, 2015 at 4:36 PM

    Very good article! This will help me with people who, in my opinion, can only listen to topics of a “downer” nature only very seldom, but otherwise seem like considerate people. This has always disappointed and puzzled me, and now this article provides a way to think about it that seems true and helpful to both people.

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