When your partner takes too long to make dinner, do you step in to speed things up? When the team can’t make a decision at work, do you take the lead? When your friend complains about her job again, do you edit her resume and comb Linkedin to find her dream job? If this sounds like you, you might be overfunctioning.
Some folks might find these moves helpful, but if you’re constantly on the go trying to micromanage everyone and everything around you, you might be doing more harm than good for yourself and others. So what is overfunctioning, who does it and why, and what can we do to pull back and have more balance in our lives?
Overfunctioning is basically when we do too many things that aren't essential all the time (even if we see them as necessary). Overfunctioners take on the responsibilities, emotions, wellbeing, and needs of those around us whether others want us to or not, often as a way of managing our own anxiety or insecurities.
However, overfunctioners are typically responsible, reliable, competent, and care for those around them. They’re usually good leaders, problem-solvers, and high-achievers. Because it’s not all bad, when we take responsibility for others — especially when it helps us feel more in control or calm — overfunctioning can seem like a good thing. But as they say, you can have too much of a good thing. When I first saw the word overfunctioning and read the description, I identified with it, but I initially brushed it off: someone has to get things done around here!
But like dealing with high-functioning anxiety, people-pleasing, or perfectionism (three things overfunctioners might also identify with), overfunctioning is not sustainable — or fair to those around us, even though it might seem like it is to us.
And while “doing all the things” is often glorified in our modern society, we're beginning to understand the negative impacts: burnout, stress, anxiety, sleep problems, physical health issues, and more. When you overfunction, you’re doing more than is sustainable, healthy, and appropriate for you.
Overfunctioning doesn’t just have an impact on us, but on those around us as well. When we overfunction, we often attract or enable underfunctioners, leading to a loop of codependency in relationships.
This codependency is especially apparent in romantic relationships. For the overfunctioner, this can look like:
When one spouse or partner is an overfunctioner, the other one is inevitably underfunctioner, meaning they won’t take responsibility for their actions or emotions, won’t step up when things need to get done, and won’t be as independent and self-sufficient as they could be.
Overfunctioning can show up in other relationships such as parent-child relationships, sibling or friend relationships, or adult children can overfunction with their own parents. This can look like:
Again, this can happen with actual dependents who might not need the same level of attention as they age or with adult family members who overfunctioners consider to be dependents who need things done for them when they actually don’t (this doesn’t include caring for those who are actually in need, such as those with illnesses or disabilities).
Overfunctioning doesn’t just show up with family and friends — it can happen at work as well. This can look like:
Overfunctioning can be part of your normal day-to-day life, but it can also happen even more often and with greater intensity as a response to stress.
The downside of overfunctioning is that sometimes it feels good. When I'm stressed, taking control of a situation, making sure things get done, making decisions quickly, and all-around orchestrating everything that goes on around me gives me a sense of self, makes me weirdly calmer, and helps me feel in control when things are spiraling.
It might seem like doing all the things as a coping mechanism for stress and anxiety is beneficial; you're trying to deal with your stress and anxiety, after all! But overfunctioning is not sustainable.
At first, it might seem like overfunctioning isn’t that big of a deal, but over time, it can have a huge impact on not only ourselves, but our relationships with others and their own functioning.
When we overfunction, it means we’re constantly on edge in reactive mode as we try to manage those around us and orchestrate the details of not only our day-to-day, but the minutiae of everyone else’s day-to-day as well.
When you assume responsibility for "fixing" situations and rescuing other people, they don't have to do their part, which can be frustrating at best and damaging at worst. And as a result of their constant pace and self-sacrifice, overfunctioners tend to be prone to burnout.
At first glance, overfunctioning might not seem so bad, but rather than being selfless, creating this dynamic in relationships can be detrimental for everyone’s mental health. If you’re looking to take a step back and create more balance in your life and relationships, here are a few things to try:
What are you actually doing, thinking, and feeling when you overfunction? Does it increase or decrease your stress? Are the people around you resentful or reinforcing your behavior? Are there certain things or people that trigger your desire to engage in overfunctioning behaviors?
Are there also places or people who cause you to feel resentful? For example, when your partner doesn’t take your advice or when coworkers complain to your boss if you take control of a project when you were only trying to help? When those around you truly don’t want or appreciate your help, that can be a clear sign that you’re overfunctioning.
Would you rather clock out on time, let your partner handle the taxes, or let your teenager organize their own ride home from their soccer game on Saturday? What about these responsibilities calls to you to complete them?
If you’re finding it difficult to dig into your patterns and beliefs, working with a therapist can help you look at your past, your relationships, and your ideal future to see where there might be misalignment and how you might be able to reconfigure your beliefs to be more in line with how you would rather think, feel, and live instead.
It’s going to get uncomfortable when you try to disrupt the way you’ve acted and thought for so long. Sometimes we become overfunctioners because of the way our families operated or the way we were treated growing up, and that can be hard to change.
When you decide how you want to behave, reinforce these behaviors with congratulations or other small but meaningful tokens of your success.
It might get uncomfortable or inconvenient for others as well. You have most likely conditioned those around you to be used to you doing things for them and they might feel abandoned when you stop being overly-accommodating. If you’re comfortable and safe doing so, you can share that you’re trying some new things out and see if the other person is able to support you. If you don’t want to share, that’s fine too. Practice stepping back and see how they respond.
We’re often told to “give it your all,” but so many of us go above and beyond — even when it’s not necessary or not creating healthy relationships with sustainable boundaries.
When we’re functioning optimally, we’re able to manage homelife, worklife, and everything in between by doing our share, asking for support when we need it, giving support when it’s needed and sought out by others, and maintaining a sense of balance.
Of course things can go sideways in life, but if you find that you’re consistently overfunctioning in your life and relationships and it’s time to make a change, find the mental health support you need to strike the balance you want.
Caitlin is MyWellbeing's Content Lead, a writer, speaker, communication coach, and the founder of Commcoterie, a communication consultancy. She teaches teams how to use professional coaching communication techniques in their everyday conversations, helps leaders engage their teams with effective and inclusive communication, and partners with service providers to activate their programs and offerings with their own clients through inspiring communication strategies. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.
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