Everyone needs closely knit relationships and emotional support systems in their lives. However, when families or relationships become too close to the point of blurred or nonexistent boundaries, they can become overly-engaged or involved.
Are you wondering if you are experiencing over-engagement with your family or a significant other? You’re not alone!
In this article we will discuss:
-Section 1: What is Over-Engagement
–Section 2: Why is Over-Engagement unhealthy
–Section 3: What causes Over-Engagement
-Section 4: 14 Signs of Over-Engagement
-Section 5: How to Overcome Over-Engagement
Let’s get right to it!
Section 1: What is Over-Engagement?
Over-Engagement is an unhealthy relationship pattern between two or more people where the members of the system are not able to distinguish themselves from others in the group.
Over-Engagement families and relationships are characterized by poor or nonexistent boundaries between individuals.
In an over-involved relationship or family, there are typically unwritten rules each person feels they must follow.
You may feel as though you must think, feel, believe and behave according to these unspoken rules.
In over-involved families, the roles between parents and children can become confused. Parents may be inappropriately dependent on the children. Children may not feel free to emotionally disengage from their parents as they mature.
Because of this, over-involved often has negative effects on your control over your own life, your independence and individuality.
Many people who are in over-involved relationships or families aren’t sure what they think or feel because their thoughts and feelings are disregarded in favor of the beliefs of the group.
This means over-engaged relationships and families are told not to trust their own thoughts, beliefs, feelings, etc.
This ultimately leads to a breakdown in personal identity which is why those in long term over-involved relationships can feel detached from themselves.
Section 2: Why is Over-Engagement Unhealthy?
Everyone has physical boundaries and borders that distinguish us from the people around us. Our skin is a natural physical boundary that tells you where you end and another person begins.
We are often able to distinguish when a physical boundary has been violated (someone steps into your personal bubble, pushes you, etc.) however, emotional boundary violations are sometimes harder to perceive.
Overly-Engaged individuals have a hard time recognizing what areas they have control over and what areas they do not. Healthy boundaries make this separation clear.
Emotional boundaries exist to keep you safe and protect your internal experience. In healthy relationships, both people have boundaries protecting their thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and beliefs and respect other people’s thoughts, feelings, and attitudes as theirs (and thus not in our locus of control).
Over-Engagement is essentially a lack of boundaries.
Let’s understand the role of boundaries a little better so we can understand why over-engagement is unhealthy.
Example: Imagine you own a house. In your house and your yard are all of the things you own. One day, your neighbor begins bringing his garbage over to your yard and leaving it there.
Obviously this is not okay so you ask your neighbor nicely to stop leaving his trash in your yard.
He agrees, but before you know it, more trash is showing up.
It’s clear that you are no longer able to trust that your neighbor will respect YOUR space.
It’s time to erect a boundary to clarify to your neighbor where his yard ends and yours begins. So you have a fence installed.
With many people, this would have solved the issue. But your neighbor is particularly unhealthy and begins tossing his trash to your side of the fence.
It’s time to create a bigger boundary to protect yourself and your property.
In this analogy, your property includes your:
In overly-engaged relationships, other people (usually unknowingly) wander into your yard, and start telling you what to do with your property.
This is toxic behavior because YOU are responsible for your property, and they are responsible for theirs.
In overly-engaged relationships, there are few or no boundaries keeping one person from having too much access to someone else’s inner world causing an array of consequences that can range from slight to extreme.
Below is a list of other negative effects that have been linked to over-engaged relationship systems:
- Mental health disorders
- Low Self-esteem
- Severe Lack of Boundaries
- Unstable relationships in adulthood
- Eating disorders
- Difficulty sleeping
- Chronic pain
- Fear of abandonment
While it’s not always the case, over-involvement can often be paired with various forms of abuse. If you are struggling to heal from emotional abuse, check out our blog HOW TO HEAL FROM EMOTIONAL ABUSE IN RELATIONSHIPS: THERAPIST APPROVED STRATEGIES 
Section 3: What Causes Over-Engagement?
Over-Engagement can begin as a real or irrational fear of abandonment.
When someone becomes afraid of losing someone they care about, they over-attach with them in a relationship with the hope that the other person will stay.
When someone over attaches in a relationship, they sacrifice the personal boundaries that maintain a healthy relationship in favor of feelings of security and control in the relationship.
Another reason people may develop over-engaged relational patterns is because their family of origin also had these patterns.
Children that grow up in over-involved family systems are not given the ability to develop healthy relationship skills. When the child moves on with their life and has a family of their own, they recreate the only type of family system they know.
If you were programmed to know an over-involved system, you have a high likelihood of repeating the pattern.
But don’t worry, anyone can make the choice to change!
Section 3: 14 Signs Of Over-Engagement
The first step to any meaningful change in overcoming over-engagement begins with self-awareness.
These 14 signs of over-engagement will help you recognize existing unhelpful relationships in your life and provide the awareness you need to begin the process of change.
#1 – Out Of Control Relationships
If you are in an overly-involved relationship you may feel your emotional attachments with your family or significant other feel out of control or overwhelming.
You may feel uncomfortable or unsafe with the level of closeness or expectations between you and the other person(s) but feel powerless to make any meaningful changes.
#2 – Emotional Fusion
You may find that you confuse your emotions with the emotions of someone else.
This happens when you stop identifying with your own thoughts and feelings.
People begin to lose touch with their own inner experience as a result of the breakdown of their identity with that of the other people involved.
Example: Let’s bring back our example from earlier where you own a piece of property. Imagine you allowed all your neighbors to whatever they wanted for so long that you actually believed it was their property.
When this happens, you (the property owner) would tolerate any source of breach of boundaries and just feel as though everything were out of control.
You may also have a very difficult time making decisions and seek the approval and permission from everyone around you to feel secure in your life choices.
Likewise, you may feel that you are unable to be happy when another person in the system is feeling negative emotions.
#3 – The Cost of Acting on Your Own Beliefs is High
In overly-involved relationships critical thinking and decision making is discouraged. The rules that govern those in the toxic relationship dictate what each person must think, feel and do in any given situation.
Therefore children in these toxic relationships often get no permission to think for themselves or practice making decisions.
This has HUGE negative consequences when children grow older and are expected to function in the world where they aren’t told what to do, feel, think, etc.
Extreme and negative consequences result if you express thoughts, feelings, attitudes or act on beliefs that are not accepted by those in the system.
People in over-engaged relationships don’t feel they can make their own choices.
#4 – Lack of Outside Relationships
Many people in over-engaged families feel as though they are not allowed or encouraged not to engage healthy friendships or romantic relationships outside of the family system.
In overly-involved romantic relationships, one or both partners may feel as though they are not allowed to have friends or other healthy peer groups.
Example: Suppose it’s a holiday and you want to spend it with your spouse’s family. You talk with your family and let them know you and your spouse will be joining them next year.
In response, your family blames you for not caring. They shame you for being a terrible person and abandoning the family during the most special time of year.
#5 – No Time Alone
You feel that you rarely or never get enough time alone. Many people in over-engaged relationships are expected to spend most or all of their attention, time, and energy on the other people in the relationship.
#6 – Lack of Autonomy
In healthy relationships, each member is allowed and encouraged to explore their own unique sense of self, develop personal boundaries and give other feedback about what they like, don’t like, feel, think, etc. Over-involved relationships discourage this type of healthy behavior and therefore can negatively impact their life.
You may feel your family/partner shames, blames or guilts you if you put your desires above what is expected of you.
You may not be allowed to express your true thoughts or feelings and feel as though you are not free to explore your own interests, hobbies, career, etc.
#7 – Lack Of Control
Members of over-involved relationships often use shame and guilt to punish members who try to think, feel, or act differently than what is expected. This often leads to the feeling of being controlled, anger or rebellion, intense anxiety, and the feeling of being trapped when one member wants to do something their own way.
If you are in an over-engaged relationship, you may feel as though you have no control over your own life. You may have specific desires, but at the end of the day, the decisions will be made for you.
Your partner/family may criticize you frequently because, since they have poor boundaries, they don’t realize they are trespassing on your property.
Since they believe they have ownership over your inner experience, they may criticise your thoughts, feelings, attitudes, beliefs to force you to comply with their way of seeing things through tactics such as blame, shame, and manipulation.
This is known as controlling behavior. When you fail to recognize that your inner experience is under your control and allow them to make choices for you, you may begin to feel as though your life is controlled by others.
For more resources on topics such as anxiety, shame, and acceptance check out our Book List Recommendations -> HERE
#9 – Avoiding Conflict
Those in over-engaged relationships may develop excessive shame and anxiety because they feel they are at fault when other people in the system experience negative emotions.
Those feeling negative emotions may even in turn shame, blame, or guilt the other person for causing their negative emotions and develop bitterness and victim stances.
Conflict in your family may involve extreme and unpleasant emotions. Because of this, you may try to avoid conflict at all costs.
This usually leads you to further conform with the unwritten rules you are expected to follow and internalized shame when these standards are not met.
For information on shame resilience, check out this video by Brene Brown, leading expert on shame and vulnerability -> HERE
#9 – Poor Sense of Identity
While you feel as though you don’t have enough space, you may also feel significant anxiety at the thought of creating more space in the relationship.
This can sometimes be due to a lack of personal identity.
If you were to leave the over-involved system which defines you, who would you be then?
#11 – Boundaries Aren’t Allowed
When people in an over-involved relationship/family begin to set healthy boundaries, they experience strong backlash from those they are setting boundaries with.
When you set boundaries, you take back healthy control of your inner experience. Naturally then, those who are over-involved with you begin to feel that they cannot control you and begin to feel panic and other anxious emotions.
To regain their feelings of safety and control, they will often increase their blame, criticism, shame, and guilt tactics to bring you back into the role they have made for you in the relationship.
As you begin to set healthy boundaries in your relationships, be aware that you will most likely face opposition from your partner/ family.
It is important to keep in mind that their feelings are not in your area of control and while you can empathize with their emotions, you are not responsible for them.
#12 – Living Vicariously
Living vicariously through another person happens when someone doesn’t experience life for themself.
Instead, they experience life through the thoughts, attitudes, emotions, and behaviors of someone else.
If someone is living vicariously through you, then they are dependent on you to have meaning, fulfilment, happiness, joy, etc.
This expectation is unrealistic because each person is responsible for their own meaning, fulfilment, happiness, etc.
Someone may be living vicariously through you if you feel that you are the center of your family or partner’s life.
You doubt that your family/partner in the over-involved relationship would ever be okay if something happened to you.
It seems as though your family/ partner doesn’t have a life of their own. Rather, you are their life.
#13 – Pressure to NEVER leave
Many times, the over-involved parents will expect their children to remain in the toxic relationship even after they have moved out on their own.
If you are in an over-engaged relationship you may feel as though you are forced to stay close to the family instead of moving further away for work or school.
If your family is dependent on you to fulfill your role for them to be happy, fulfilled, etc, then you can’t be allowed to leave or make your own decisions.
#14 – Lack of Consequences
Because over-involved parents often share the pain of their children, many over-involved parents will overprotect their children.
They attempt to keep their children from experiencing some or all of the difficulties they would otherwise face in daily life.
Over-engaged parents may also try to protect children from the natural consequences of their actions.
All of these behaviors inhibit children from developing healthy coping skills to deal with life.
Section 4: How To Overcome Over-Engagement
So how do you overcome over-involvement and begin engaging in healthy relationship and lifestyle habits?
In essence, it all comes down to reconnecting with yourself and establishing control over your inner experience.
Here are some practical strategies to help you in your process.
- Practice Identifying Your Feelings
Many people who have been in long term over-engaged relationships have developed the belief that “it’s not okay to feel my feelings”.
In your over-involved relationships you may feel punished for feeling differently from what is considered acceptable. For this reason you may have learned to detach yourself from your emotions.
To reconnect with your emotions, make a game of trying to identify every emotion you feel. This may be difficult at first but with time you will be back in touch with how you feel.
Many people only understand the emotions of being mad, sad, and glad. It may also be useful to look up a list of feeling words. You can find one -> HERE
Expanding your vocabulary of feelings words will help you understand yourself and those around you better.
- Practice Mindfulness
In the same way that people in over-involved relationships intentionally suppress their emotions, they also suppress their own thoughts and critical thinking abilities.
Mindfulness exercises can help you to identify recurring thoughts and emotions.
Mindfulness gives you a time and place to pay attention to the thoughts that pop into your head.
You can then practice accepting, rejecting, or taking control over those thoughts. If you need help knowing where to begin, check out our mindfulness exercises -> HERE
- Set Healthy Boundaries
Personal boundaries are a critical component to maintaining a healthy relationship.
Boundaries help to keep a healthy distance between you and other people.
Inside your boundaries are your thoughts, feelings, emotions, attitudes and beliefs. These are the things you are in control of in your own life.
In short, a boundary is just like the fence around your yard. If you live in a safe neighborhood, you may only need a fence.
But if you live in a dangerous area, you may need the 8 foot privacy fence with barbed wire.
For more information on setting healthy boundaries, check out this video by the author of New York Best Selling book Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud -> HERE
- Do Things You Love
To get more in touch with yourself, get back in touch with the things you used to do for fun or try out new hobbies.
- Expand Your Circle Of Friends
Open yourself up to experiences with new friend groups who can support you.
This doesn’t mean you need to share what you are going through with them if you don’t feel comfortable.
Just having people who don’t have any expectations of who you should or shouldn’t be can help you feel more free as you get back in touch with yourself.
- Know When to Seek Help
It may be time to seek professional help if these two things are true for you
(1) You’re finding it very difficult to distinguish other people’s thought, feelings, and beliefs from your own
(2) When implementing new boundaries, you are experiencing more pressure/pushback from your partner/family than you feel you can handle.
Counselors are well equipped to provide you with helpful tools and support you will need in your process towards individuality, autonomy, and personal growth.
That brings us to the end of this article.