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See the 5 Strategies to Stop Overfunctioning

Say your kid comes home complaining of a bully on the bus. You don’t want them to suffer, so you start driving them to and from school — even though it requires you to arrive late to your office, leave early, and work into the evening at home.

Or perhaps you take over for your partner who’s in the middle of cooking dinner. Even though it’s their turn, it will simply be easier if you do it.

These examples illustrate a behavioral pattern known as overfunctioning, in which someone takes on the responsibilities of those around them to manage their anxiety within that relationship. Those who overfunction often minimize their own needs to attend to someone else’s problems. And though the overfunctioner probably means well, they ultimately keep those around them from becoming stronger and more capable.

Difficult Dynamics

In the mid-1960s, psychiatrist ­Murray Bowen, MD, employed the term “overfunctioning” to describe family dyna­mics. Today, Bowen family systems theory is applied in various therapy settings with the central concept of differentiation: the degree to which a person is able to maintain their own independent thoughts and feelings.

People with lower levels of differentiation can be prone to overfunctioning for others, explains Randall Frost, MDiv, director of the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family in Washington, D.C.

Psychologist Harriet Lerner, PhD, brought the concept from clinical circles into popular culture with a series of best-selling books, including The Dance of Anger and The Dance of Intimacy. In the latter, Lerner says that those who overfunction tend to believe they know what’s best, and they have difficulty allowing friends and family to work through their own problems. By focusing on those around them, these people avoid worrying about their own troubles and goals.

This might sound similar to a type A personality or perfectionist, but those concepts are more descriptive of how a person operates as an individual, explains marriage and family therapist Jane McCampbell Stuart, MA, LMFT, CPCC, RMFT. Overfunctioning, on the other hand, is about “how someone is interacting within a relationship.”

It’s also subtly different from codependence. “Both describe an individual overoccupied with someone else at the expense of their self,” ­McCampbell says, but the stance is different. “A person who is codependent makes themself small and allows the other person to take up more space. The dynamic is maintained by fear of harm or abandonment, and the energy feels desperate and powerless.” (Learn more at “No Boundaries: Overcoming Codependence.”)

The inverse is true in overfunctioning, she explains. “The overfunctioner is taking up more space than is theirs, and the dynamic is maintained by a belief that the other person is incapable of stepping up. The energy is fueled by anxiety and a need to control and can sometimes feel martyrish or secretly contemptuous.”

It’s also a relationship dynamic, not a diagnosis or a personality trait. If you overfunction in one relationship, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you behave that way with everyone.

People who overfunction are great at helping others, Lerner explains, but they’re not adept at sharing vulnerability or accepting help for themselves — which can lead to exhaustion and burnout. “When overfunctioners do collapse under the strain of rescuing and fixing others, they can do so in a big way.”

How to Stop Overfunctioning

Start with awareness. Those who are overfunctioning may struggle to see their part of the reciprocal pattern, especially when it’s driven by anxiety. They may wonder, If I don’t do it, who will? It can help to ask instead, When do I do too much for others and too little for myself?

Notice, too, if your body is showing signs of stress, which is what happened to functional-medicine practi­tioner Sara Gottfried, MD. “My overfunctioning led to eating to change my emotional state, high cortisol, high insulin, high glucose, and low libido,” Gottfried explains.

And what she saw in herself became something she recognized in her patients, who often presented with autoimmune conditions, prediabetes, or leaky gut. “The effect of all that stress from overfunctioning is measurable.”

1) Recognize the roots.
Lerner notes that a dynamic of overfunctioning/underfunctioning can have roots in previous generations and is often modeled to us as children. McCampbell adds that culture and gender norms can contribute to the “stuckness” of such patterns.

For instance, one partner might overfunction with money, which alleviates their anxiety but shuts their partner out of important decisions. The other partner may overfunction as the caregiver, shutting their partner out of important relationships, she notes. “We feel an obligation to do what society expects of us.”

2) Modify behavior. 
Once Gottfried noticed how she was overfunctioning in her relationships, she practiced showing up differently. “Let go of the need to be right,” she suggests. “Determine how you’d like to behave. What is your ideal for functional behavior?”

“Rushing in to offer advice — like rushing in to cheer someone up — may reflect our own inability to remain emotionally present in the face of another person’s problems and pain,” Lerner explains. “Advice-giving is also of dubious value to people who say they want your advice but consistently fail to heed it. If you feel angry when the other person doesn’t follow your advice, it’s a good indication that you shouldn’t be giving it.”

3) Expect resistance. 
“People are used to you stepping in and doing what you’ve always done,” says Frost. “If this is a long-standing pattern, the change won’t be quick or easy, but eventually the underfunctioner will start to pull up.”

He advises that you try not to be reactive, get mad, or distance yourself. Rather, stay present with yourself and with the other person, and know that this change will ultimately serve you both.

Gottfried adds that it can be difficult to allow others to be responsible for themselves. “It may feel like you’re sitting on the razor’s edge,” she says. “Yes, it’s easier to do it all yourself, but that’s what got us into this mess. Look for opportunities in your most important relationships to enter into this discomfort.”

4) Maintain boundaries.
Someone who overfunctions allows their identity to be so wrapped up in others that they minimize their own desires and needs. They operate with an inflated sense of control and diffuse boundaries. This also harms the other person, who is cast as less capable.

People may still come to you with problems, especially if they’re accustomed to relying on your advice. To practice staying out of fix-it mode, try asking questions like “Can you tell me more about that?” or “What is that like for you?”

Over time, maintaining these boundaries will be healthier for you and your relationships. “As we become less of an expert on the other, we become more of an expert on the self,” Lerner writes. “As we work toward greater self-focus, we become better able to give feedback, to share our perspective, to state clearly our values and beliefs and then stand firmly behind them.”

5) Empower yourself and others. 
Getting clear about your own needs will help you find better ways to manage your anxiety and leave those you love to manage theirs.

“If we move in too quickly with solutions, we unwittingly rob those we love of the opportunity to struggle with their own problems and find their own solutions. Being a good listener and creative questioner goes a long way to put people in touch with their own competence and inner resources,” Lerner says.

Shifting the dynamic may feel challenging at first, but know that it’s ultimately the best choice for you and your loved ones, Gottfried adds. “I’ve learned that one of the best gifts you can give the people you love is to take a step back and let them function for themselves.”

 Balance

Explore more empowering strategies to support your efforts to live in (closer) alignment with your values at our Balance department.

This article originally appeared as “Overwhelmed by Overfunctioning” in the July/August 2024 issue of Experience Life.

Kara
Kara Douglass Thom

Kara Douglass Thom is a triathlete, freelance writer and mother of four. She and Laurie Kocanda are the co-authors of Hot (Sweaty) Mamas: Five Secrets to Life as a Fit Mom.

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