Most people are familiar with the term co-dependency as it relates to individuals impacted by another’s substance misuse. However, co-dependency can happen in other relationships too. In counselling psychology, it is referred to as enmeshment. Enmeshment is defined as losing one’s sense of individuality and merging emotionally with others, often at great cost to personal wellbeing. Enmeshment is tricky to identify because it can feel like love, connection, and empathy. For some people, it is the only way they know how to be with someone, or it is the way they were taught to demonstrate caring towards others. To not immerse oneself in a loved one’s pain can feel uncaring and create feelings of disconnection.
Have you ever been in a situation where you are feeling upbeat, but then you talk to a friend/loved one who is not doing well, and suddenly you feel conflicted? On one hand, you want to support the person you care about, but on the other hand, you do not want to be pulled into someone else’s negative feelings and give up your good mood. It can be common to think you only have two options in such a scenario: be pulled into your loved one’s funk, or turn away from them. Not great options, right? Luckily there is a third option in such a scenario:
Differentiation of Self.
Differentiation of Self involves maintaining individuality while remaining emotionally connected to significant relationships. We are differentiated when we can be with another person and compassionately listen to what that person is experiencing without being emotionally pulled in one direction or another. Rather than reject any emerging feelings of resentment, I believe that resentment can prove to be a powerful tool to pay attention to. When we feel resentment, it is a good indicator that something needs to change; something we almost always have the power to change such as our actions or reactivity (great news, right?)
What to do?
To separate yourself from another’s negative emotions, you need to focus on yourself (yep, it ain’t about changing others). The first step is acceptance of what is, without moving into feelings of guilt, resentment, or judgment. While no one enjoys seeing their loved ones in emotional pain, growth happens in the most challenging of times. Your loved one may be hurting now, but they also may derive wisdom and insight from their current struggles that can ultimately enhance their life long-term by creating resiliency and an ability to better navigate future struggles.
Accept that your loved one is simply not okay right now; you need not turn away, or become enmeshed with where they are at. Love and acceptance sounds so simple, but can be profoundly powerful, and ultimately healthier for the both of you moving forward.