Empathy or Enmeshment?

empathy enmeshmentA friend of mine who is the mother of six-year-old twins shared a lovely story about one of her daughters. Her daughter’s first-grade class had a lesson about pollution, and her daughter wrote a few sentences about how she felt so sorry that fish have to swim in dirty water. Her daughter’s teacher told my friend that she has never encountered such an empathic response from such a young child.

Having been raised in such close proximity—emotionally and physically—to their same-age sibling, many twins have this enormous capacity for empathy. However, this very enviable skill can become an emotional hindrance and complication when twins are grappling with separation issues. Since they are so in sync with their twin’s feelings and expectations, it can be doubly difficult to figure out one’s own needs and then have the strength and capacity to branch out and work on fulfilling them.

Sometimes this dilemma explodes unexpectedly when one twin decides to get married or move to another area when a job opportunity arises. These external circumstances incite a whole host of emotions that have not been articulated before.

While these external events represent rational and logical choices, the internal turmoil is wholly emotional, igniting such feelings as, how can you leave me? You know I can’t make it alone. You know how much I rely on you. Why are you not putting me before these other choices? Haven’t I always been the most important person in your life? How can you be so selfish and inconsiderate? Who gives you permission to put your needs before mine? That is not the pact we made and lived by all these years. You are abandoning me, and I can never forgive you for treating me like this.

While these reactions and sentiments may seem extreme and pathological, they are not irrational if twins have not have had opportunities to be away from one another. Why would they magically be able to feel strong and confident on their own when they have relied on their other half to provide what they have needed?

So you can be best friends forever and deny these feelings, or you can have a rift and never speak to your twin again because you feel abandoned. Or, most likely, the healthiest strategy is to navigate the large gray areas between these extremes to find a comfortable and mutual balance between two individuals with a shared as well as an independent identity.


The image in this post is in the public domain courtesy of Ben Scherjon.

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