Overfunctioning and underfunctioning: “If I don’t take care of things, nothing will ever get done.”
Every family is an emotional system, where the functioning, behavior and beliefs of each person influence those of the others. Overfunctioning is different from simply doing kind things for another person or having distinct but equal roles and duties. It is an ongoing pattern of feeling responsible for the emotional well-being of another and working to compensate for the perceived or real deficits in that person.
Overfunctioning leads to the underfunctioning person feeling dependent and entrusting responsibility for decisions and effort on those willing to do the work. As a result, the underfunctioning person becomes “less capable” — a self-fulfilling prophecy.
As family members anxiously focus on compensating for the underfunctioner and trying to “correct” the problem, the family members become more polarized. Examples of these polarities include “overadequate” and “inadequate,” “hard-working” and “lazy,” “decisive” and “indecisive,” “goal-oriented” and “procrastinator.”
The underfunctioning person gets comfortable being taken care of, and thus continues to allow others to overfunction. Yet the underfunctioner’s increased dependence and helplessness cause feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing. Meanwhile, the overfunctioning care-taker feels overwhelmed — “I have to take care of everything, or things will go wrong.” Resentment on both sides builds.
The way out of such polarities is to work on oneself, rather than to attempt to change others. A positive change in one person will have a positive impact on all others, though there may be a bit of resistance at first.
1. Do Less
Those who overfunction need to do less. When mistakes are made, the overly helpful family member must resist jumping in to take charge, fix things, and make motivational speeches. He or she must be able to handle the frustration of seeing others fumble around and do things far from perfectly.
2. Gradual Change
Gradual change is often less shocking and deleterious than sudden change. If, for instance, the overfunctioning person has been in charge of all budgets, financial decisions, and bill paying, it’s wise to ease into sharing such duties.
3. Explaining Change
Overfunctioners can explain to the underfunctioning family member(s) that they realize that their own well-intentioned overfunctioning has contributed to the current unsatisfactory situation and that they intend to ease off such doing so much. Then they must stand back a bit and allow others to become more autonomous, make mistakes, suffer consequences, develop resilience, and determine their own individual paths.
It helps to focus on one’s own interests and new activities rather than always focusing on other family members’ behavior.
Example: Teenager Laundry
For instance, if the overfunctioning parent has been doing all cleaning and laundry for the teenagers in the house, it’s helpful to explain how and why you’d like them to start doing their own. Teenagers like the idea of independence, although they resist doing “boring” chores that are at the core of being independent.
Explain that such changes are intended to help them become more capable and independent as they will be moving out in a few years and need to develop the habit of taking care of themselves. “Embrace chores, as they are at the core of becoming independent!”
Then you can either let their dirty laundry pile up in their closets, or tell them you won’t drive them anywhere until they’ve done their laundry. In either case, the consequences of not doing their own laundry will eventually provide its own motivation.
Balance and Harmony
After initial resistance, those who underfunction will gain more autonomy, especially if those who overfunction allow them to suffer the natural consequences of their inaction. Although it’s hard work to break patterns, eventually, with more emotional separation and autonomy, a better balance of capabilities and contributions in the household will bring much needed harmony to the family.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD