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.
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