Thursday, January 31, 2013

Healing from Covert (Emotional) Incest and Enmeshment: A List of Resources

Often, I am asked about how people who identify with the concept of covert incest can best find help and how to get counseling, even if they are not necessarily involved in a religious group. Though I craft my message to meet the needs of the “Quivering Daughter,” I believe that all individuals who see themselves in the description of covert incest and enmeshment will be able to get a lot of value from these ideas about where to begin in their recovery. And likewise, I believe that the Quivering Daughter will also gain great benefit from the secular resources, too. The dynamics and effects of the process look the same in both secular and in religious families, and the same dysfunction follows adult children, affecting them both groups in the same ways.

The concept of covert incest was originally coined within the literature concerning the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction. Addiction becomes a disease of an entire family because those who live with the addict and their ineffective means of resolving their shame become ill-affected as they change to accommodate their loved one. Children who are parented within such a family develop covert incest (also called enmeshment) as parents siphon off love and support from their children (read a short synopsis of the process HERE). Just as an alcoholic drinks to numb their pain and escape into a fantasy as their ineffective means of coping with the despair of shame, those who suffer from covert incest use various behaviors as their coping strategy. They avoid, suppress, and unload unbearable emotions whilst trying to use other people for affirmation, borrowing from them an illusion of self worth through behaviors of control, helplessness, or care taking to fill the void that shame creates in their own hearts.

The following information gives those in recovery from enmeshment some good ideas about how to get started. It's all the information I wish had been available to me when I started my own journey of recovery. Though there are far more resources available on the topic now, there were a few good ones out there that I've found by virtue of looking long and hard, working on my own healing. No one actually sat down with me and talked to me about a game plan, and I wish they had. I hope that readers here find it helpful.

Counseling and Self-Help Groups

Private Counseling. This blog post at describes how to find a counselor that is right for you including what kind of counseling to pursue. The post about finding a counselor was part of a series that addresses the needs of survivors of abuse in religious homes for teens, and though most never endure the degree of abject abuse that they suffered, the after-effects can be very similar. There are also ideas about how to navigate through payment. Something that I didn't include in that post is the option of contacting Catholic Charities in your area for help finding a counselor. They do not try to recruit people into new religious experiences but are only interested in helping people in the community find helpful resources.

If the writings on this blog and on speak to you, when I called to find out about counselors and their availability, I would ask whether they accepted and worked within the model of enmeshment, covert incest, and codependency specifically. (I address the topic from that approach, consistent with the writings of Melody Beatty, Pia Mellody, John Bradshaw, Patrick Carnes, the Minrith Meier Christian self-help series, etc..) Most counselors will, but some don't particularly like the model. You will be better served with someone who shares this approach, and it can be worth asking about it before you invest time and money in the process.

I've talked with other survivors in the past who gained a great deal from group therapy which is usually cheaper than individual therapy. This is also something that you can inquire about when you call to find private counselors and their fee schedules. Therapists that offer this service may require an initial private visit with the counselor for an initial assessment before meeting collectively with a group of clients.

Self-help Meetings. I think that personal counseling is a preferable choice, but once you've made your way through the basics and understand the issues you face, self-help meetings can become an important part of the recovery process. I also caution people because many people can make the group their new religion and savior, just transferring their dependency on individuals over on to the group process. This doesn't always happen (and there are far worse things to which you could “transfer” your feelings and dysfunction), but it is a caution to consider.

I personally like Emotions Anonymous and Codependents Anonymous meetings as an adjunct to working with a counselor, and it can be an alternative if you cannot afford any other options. You are asked to throw a nominal donation into the fund at each meeting to help cover incidental expenses of the group. These groups, based on the AA model, work through the Twelve Steps, and you can usually find a personal sponsor if you feel that you need one. Well run groups can be fantastic, but be aware that they are not generally run by professionals but by volunteer laypersons. People who participate help to hold one another accountable and offer encouragement, much like a group therapy session, but without professional oversight. Find local meetings by using the online search engines for each organization noted above.

Self-help meetings can also be a way of maintaining a recovery mindset if you take a break from counseling or no longer feel like you need to see a private counselor. I've also known people who cannot afford weekly counseling, so they go less frequently, filling in with the gaps during their off weeks with self-help groups.

Online Support. You can also follow and participate in discussions at the secular forum at The Christian Recovery forums also offer a good place to discuss the core problems associated with enmeshment within a Christian context. Both of these forums have been around for quite a long time, discussing the challenges faced by those who are affected by enmeshment.

Other forums with which I am less familiar but offer the same kinds of alternatives include:

Working on Your Own Recovery

Though showing up at a counselor's office or attending a group once a week can be a very helpful part of recovery from these types of abusive relationships, the real healing comes from the work that you commit to your own healing. There are a great many things that you can do yourself to help you gain insight and to heal.

Journaling. Most good counselors will encourage you to write your feelings out in a journal. Writing out your problems seems to help take the sting of obsession and compulsion that accompanies relationships of covert incest and the habits learned while in these relationships. This post talks about how healing the process of journaling can be for you in recovery and about the research that supports it, as well as offering strategies that will help a person get started.

Personally, I like to combine journaling with Daniel Amen, Archibald Hart, and Earl Henslin call “killing the ANTs,” a process which allows you to challenge “Automatic Negative Thoughts.” This is essentially the same process that Chris Thurman describes in his book entitled, The Lies We Believe. You can use the accompanying workbook as a journaling guide as well. From the secular perspective, I like Breaking Free, a codependency workbook by Pia Mellody.

So Much to Read...

Essential blog posts. While you wait for snail mail to deliver books if you don't download them to read on Nook or Kindle, I think that a few of the following blog posts can give you an idea of what benefits you will gain by working on recovery and how enmeshment happens in the first place. This is a shorter blog post about how we end up living lives of drama, and this is a series of posts that talks more specifically how we end up the way we are (which is much longer).  The series essentially gives an overview of the areas of life wherein we learn how to be “messed up,” based on Pia Melody's model.  We end up not only becoming the receptacles for our primary parent's shame where they unload their distress, but we also become sources of love and worth that they use for their own gratification.

You can also explore the tag list here at Overcoming Botkin Syndrome, as it touches on many of the basic challenges faced by adult children who grew up enmeshed with the adults on whom they depended for survival. Make sure to read the tabbed items explaining how the process begins here, one of the tabbed items listed at the top of the blog.  This post also discusses physical health and other practical ways that a person can find healing.

Covert Incest. Kenneth Adams just revised his book about covert incest, Silently Seduced, and Patrick Carnes participated as a contributor along with Adams in this edition. Carnes' work is essential reading (see below), so I am thrilled to see him contribute to Adams' essential writing in this area. Patricia Love's book, The Emotional Incest Syndrome, is also essential reading and contains more personal accounts of survivors than does the original edition of Adams' book. Adams also wrote a related book that explores the problematic relationships of enmeshment shared by controlling mothers and their sons, When He's Married to Mom.  Check the tag list under "book authors" to read selections from many of these helpful books.

Getting started in recovery. When first beginning the process of healing, most people face functional or pragmatic challenges in their relationships. I love Patrick Carnes' book, The Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships for several reasons. (I recently wrote a blog post about it HERE, if you're curious, a specific type of enmeshment that occurs between adults.) In addition to the other benefits of the book, it offers checklists that help you narrow down areas of weakness in your life which can help you focus your recovery process. Take note that the area that Carnes ended up focusing on in the clinical area was the field of sexual addiction, so he often refers to research findings drawn from this area of study and treatment in the book. I've been somewhat reluctant to recommend his book for this reason, as a Christian audience might find this to be difficult, depending on their background.

I also like Harriet Braiker's book, Who's Pulling Your Strings: How to Break the Cycle of Manipulation and Regain Control of Your Life because it also offers an assessment test to help the reader identify weak areas in their life which predispose them to relationship problems. I've stated before that it almost offers the benefits of multiple self-help books by cutting through the non-essentials. Enmeshment involves tremendous manipulation, so the book also helps the reader learn how to respond to manipulation and control, but it is also good reading for anyone who encounters manipulators – and that's everyone on the planet.

Both of these books can also be used as a jumping of point to help guide journaling.

Essential reading about enmeshment. This post, the Journey out of Shame, lists many resources that will be helpful for those who are healing from enmeshment, including both Christian and secular material. They discuss different aspects of the genesis of covert incest and codependency, along with strategies for healing. Toxic, unmerited shame forms the core of the problem of covert incest, and there's now a great selection of books on the topic of shame and recovery from it.

Not (yet) included in this list is a secular book on boundaries, another essential topic that must be tackled in recovery from enmeshment. Read more about the book, Better Boundaries: Owning and Treasuring Your Life in a blog post HERE. Another post explaining the topic can be read HERE, featuring info from the Christian authors who are well known for their writings about the topic.

Using these resources,
you can create your own game plan
to help you recover and heal from covert incest
and the types of problems that the process creates.