Dear Patti,

I’m 15, my sister Emma is 18, and we don’t get along. There are multiple reasons, but as I see it the main reason is because Emma is always acting out and causing our parents grief and I don’t. For most of my life I’ve been watching Emma fight with my mom and dad or get into trouble at school or with her friends. My parents said she could continue to live at home, even though she is of age, if she goes to therapy. She’s been going for a few months and also intermittently attends sessions with my parents.

The other night my parents and Emma came home from counseling saying that the therapist thinks I’m too enmeshed with them and that Emma is suffering from negative enmeshment. I understand what the term “enmeshment” means, but I’m not exactly clear about the term “negative enmeshment.” Would you mind explaining what both terms mean? Yes, I do want to get along with my parents and not always fight and fuss with them, but I also want to live my own life and be true to myself.       

  — Alexa

Dear Alexa,

Enmeshment is an emotional bond with another person that is so enveloping it causes someone to lose their sense of self and become more like the other person.

Let’s imagine your parents wanted you to marry an attorney, have two children and live in a little house with a picket fence. If you created that life to please your parents when you really wanted to stay single and become an artist, this would be an example of enmeshment.

Negative enmeshment is when someone loses their sense of self by becoming exactly what the other person doesn’t like. In the example above, negative enmeshment would be if Emma ran away and joined a cult, partly because of how much your parents would disapprove, and never became an artist.

In order to avoid losing a sense of self in either direction, it’s important to explore various aspects of what you want — not what others want for you. To commence this personal discovery, it might be a good idea for both you and your sister to buy yourselves a diary or journal, go someplace where you won’t be interrupted, and write down your thoughts about the following questions.

WORK: What would be a meaningful career for you? What are you passionate about? If money were no object, what kind of work interests you so much you’d do it for free? What kind of careers or life’s work do your parents have? Are they satisfied? What kind of work are they hoping you will pursue? How are your goals similar and dissimilar to what your parents want for you?

RELATIONSHIPS: How did your parents interact with each other when you were growing up (e.g., affectionate, respectful, competitive)? How about now? Is theirs a relationship you want to recreate for yourself? Why or why not? What do you most value in a life partner? What kind of friends do you want to have? If you had only one day left on earth, who would you spend it with?

YOU: What’s your true nature? What are your passions? Your talents? What do you value most? What’s fun for you and how do you like to play? Who are you now? Who do you want to become? What kind of life do you want to live?

Close your eyes and visualize your future self. Imagine that you’re in your 90s and looking back at your life. What kind of life do you need to create so you feel fulfilled and complete and don’t end up full of regrets? Make a list of 50 to 100 things you’d love to accomplish and feel passionate about. Get out pictures of yourself as a child and look at them. What do you see in this child that you like and want to nourish and protect? What are the longings of this child? If you took a long walk with this child at ages 5, 10 and 15, what would she want to communicate to you?

A healthy emotional bond with your parents is one that doesn’t lead to either you or your sister losing your own identities, dreams or goals but, instead, reinforces them. Be open to guidance and inspiration, but don’t let engulfment (enmeshment) or defiance (negative enmeshment) lead to losing your unique and valuable selves. n

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has an office in Pasadena. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her website, patticarmalt-vener.com.