Overfunctioning can be simpler to understand than to spot in our lives because people who overfunction tend to be seen as very responsible, reliable, helpful, competent and caring. They do all the things for all the people. Society celebrates people who are constantly doing and achieving things and women are told they can do it all, so overfunctioning looks very positive at a glance.
However, overfunctioning goes beyond what is needed, appropriate or healthy. It involves taking on others’ responsibilities, needs, feelings or wellbeing, even if they don’t want or need us to. It can involve rescuing or fixing situations constantly.
To the overfunctioner, it’s often a way of coping with anxiety, fear, discomfort or stress. It can bring a sense of calm and being in control because it is often the quickest way to take charge of a potentially challenging situation and fix it.
People who are sensitive to others’ anxiety or pain may find themselves jumping in to sort things out before they feel worse. Or they may intervene to avoid those feelings altogether. In this way, overfunctioning is often associated with people pleasing.
Overfunctioning may be a response to the fear that something terrible will happen if they don’t intervene, that something will be done incorrectly, or that it will reflect negatively on them. (Can you see the links to perfectionism here?)
Overfunctioning can be soothing and feel good in the moment. It might be difficult to hold back to let others learn and deal with their own responsibilities and issues, but getting involved provides validation and increases the sense of safety, usefulness and being needed.
Examples of overfunctioning
Here are some examples of overfunctioning that you may be able to spot in your life. You may be overfunctioning if you are consistently:
- Doing things for people that they can do themselves.
- Taking charge in group situations (other people don’t get a chance).
- Having goals for others that they don’t have for themselves.
- Making decisions for others that they could/should be making for themselves.
- Telling people what they should think.
- Creating a backup plan for when people mess up.
- Taking on the emotions of others.
- Resolving conflicts between others.
- Reminding people to do things (this goes beyond the usual reminders that children need).
- Speaking for people.
- Worrying about other people’s responsibilities.
- Steering people away from possible failure.
- Warning people about another person’s mood.
- Giving advice to people who haven’t asked for it.
- Checking in on work constantly while you’re on holiday when someone else can be taking care of it.
Overfunctioning can apply to any of the relationships in our lives – children, spouse/partner, family, friends, and colleagues.
I recently realised that I have been overfunctioning by intervening in difficult moments between my son and my husband. As in all relationships, they sometimes experience tension and conflict, and because I feel so uncomfortable with the conflict and I worry that someone will end up feeling rejected, unworthy or unloved, I have been stepping and trying to resolve it.
I thought I was helping, but I realise now that I have been taking away their opportunity to learn how to work through these challenging moments themselves. It’s humbling to notice that while my involvement might avoid the outcomes I fear (which may have not happened anyway), it also creates more stress for me and tension between my husband and I, because he wants to handle it himself. And of course, because the situation isn’t resolved between the two of them, it’s bound to pop up again so it doesn’t necessarily go away in the longer term. After doing this for quite some time, I finally see my overfunctioning clearly.
The downsides of overfunctioning
The downside to overfunctioning is that we can experience more stress and anxiety because we are on alert all the time, looking for where we need to step in. We become responsible for more and more and because we are responsible and overfunctioning, others can underfunction. They know you will handle things, so they take a step back.
You may find begin to feel resentful towards the people who are underfunctioning because you are carrying the load which really should be theirs. It’s hard to ask for help because you don’t trust that they can handle it the way you prefer. So you get trapped in a cycle with overfunctioning and underfunctioning reinforcing and perpetuating each other.
Overfunctioning is not sustainable. It doesn’t make us happy or allow us to dedicate our energy and time to the things that are most important to us. Overfunctioning distracts us with other people’s priorities, goals, needs and emotions beyond the point that is really needed.
How to stop overfunctioning
I know it can feel like there is no other way, but I invite you to try these steps to help you stop overfunctioning.
You can’t change what you aren’t aware of, so ask yourself “where in my life am I overfunctioning?” and “which area do I want to stop overfunctioning in first?”.
Start with ONE change. Get clear on what you aren’t going to do. What is it about these things that draw you to do them? What is the fear or anxiety, or belief underneath?
Lastly, why do you want to stop overfunctioning in this area? Are you sold on the reason?
This sounds easy but can be tricky. We need to accept a few things to stop overfunctioning:
- Things don’t need to be perfect to be good enough.
- We don’t need to do everything for everyone or rescue others from their own experiences and challenges.
- Challenges are part of learning and growth, and are part of a full and meaningful human life.
- The people in our lives can learn to be responsible for themselves (as is appropriate – obviously young children will need more support from you)
- Things don’t always have to be done your way. There may be other just as good approaches.
A little preparation is key here. Consider these questions:
- What are you going to do instead of stepping in next time the chosen situation arises? (e.g. stop, slow down, get curious and ask questions rather than assume, let go of control, wait to see what happens)
- How do you want to show up in that relationship?
- What is going to help the other person be responsible?
In each situation, focus on what you ARE responsible for. This may be managing your own triggers or there may be other parts of the situation you can focus on.
It might be very uncomfortable for you to sit back and watch others figure things out for themselves in a different way. Remind yourself that you can tolerate the discomfort. It’s a feeling that will pass and will ease as you practice not stepping in.
Also, be aware that the person who is underfunctioing may be reluctant to change because they are benefitting from the existing dynamic. They may also feel like you’re being unhelpful or unreliable (you are not), or feel abandoned because they are used to you doing things for them. It may help to have a conversation with them ahead of time or in the moment to let them know that you are working on redefining what you are responsible for and ask for their support. Stay strong and maintain your boundary.
Giving people their responsibility back is incredibly beneficial for them, even if they don’t like it at first. My son and I were recently discussing a difficult situation he was facing and I said to him “I wish I could take away all the difficult stuff for you, but I can’t” (my genuine desire to see him not hurt as he was) and he wisely said, “It’s ok mum, I have to learn to cope with this myself because one day when I’m bigger you might not be right there with me”. He didn’t mean he had to do it all alone. He knew we would support him through it but he could see that learning how to manage the situation was important. When we step back a little, we will see other people step up and grow.
Sometimes you may find yourself accidentally in fixer mode because it is such a practiced, automatic reaction. As soon as you recognise it, change your approach. Hand over control and responsibility to the appropriate person.
It is possible to stop overfunctioning and learn to trust and allow people to succeed or work things out through trial and error. You can still be there to support them where needed. But by not taking on responsibility for other people or situations beyond what is needed, healthy or appropriate you can reduce your stress and anxiety, and open up the possibilities for other people to grow and see what they are truly capable of.