These days it’s difficult to get through a day or week without experiencing one common and not-so-loved emotion – stress. With millennials being dubbed “the anxious generation,” it’s no surprise that it’s something we’re becoming accustomed to dealing with, but the question remains, how well are we coping with our stress?
Often when discussing our stress coping techniques the term “functioning” arises. Functioning refers to our ability to handle life in general, to make decisions and manage stress and to be responsible humans who are capable of GSD. Our overall ability to function in life refers to three important factors:
Our willingness and ability to take 100% responsibility for our own lives – fulfulling important roles both professionally and personally.
Our ability to fulfil our responsibilities and goals for ourselves within our job or our business.
Our ability to show up for our families, friends and loved ones.
It’s all about finding the right balance of taking on our share of responsibility, and more importantly, not taking on more or less than this.
In The Dance of Anger, Dr. Harriet Learner talks about the difference between how people process stressful times. Brene Brown also discusses this dynamic in her book The Power of Vulnerability. In times of stress people tend to unconsciously lean towards patterns of either over functioning or under functioning. This is especially evident in terms of roles within relationships and within family dynamics.
Understanding the interacting dynamics of over functioning and under functioning is imperative to understanding and resolving issues pertaining to self-care, relationship boundaries and burn out, and it can shed light on important relationships and family dynamics.
How to recognize patterns of over functioning
Overfunctioners can be great people to have around in times of crisis. They jump in, take action and control, and they are skilled at getting things done. They tend to be the person others rely on or call when faced with a difficult situation. In her research, Brene Brown found that over functioning tends to occur more in first born children and eldest girls in families.
Our culture and society tends to place more value on overfunctioners as they are viewed as more ‘productive’. But over functioning is not inherently ‘better’ than under functioning. In fact, over functioning comes with its own set of challenges and costs, both to the individual and to relationships.
The downside is that overfunctioners can take over, wanting things done their way (which they see as the only way). Those caught in this pattern can use the excessive busyness and to-do lists to avoid having to slow down enough to actually face and process their own feelings and emotions. Overfunctioners also often end up doing for others what others can (and probably should) be doing for themselves. This can lead to harm in relationships by being too controlling or uptight. The challenge for overfunctioners is to give up a false sense of control and to allow others to help and to also accept support.
Overfunctioners can begin to take on the life responsibilities of another person and can often neglect themselves and their own self-care in the process. The result is often enabling the under functioning behaviour of another (although the intent is actually the opposite). Ongoing patterns of over functioning can lead to feelings of anger and resentment, as their efforts seem to be unappreciated or the underfunctioner fails to follow through on the advice of the overfunctioner.
The cost to the individual is that they can end up burning themselves out by not allowing themselves to slow down enough to actually process their own emotions or receive support themselves. In relationships, overfunctioners can burn out with over giving or taking on more than their fair share of responsibility and tasks. In the longer term, this can lead to relationship break down as overfunctioners become burnt out and feel pushed to the point where they are ready to risk losing the relationship rather than to continue to take on more than their share of the responsibility.
How to recognize patterns of under functioning
On the other hand, underfunctioners tend to go into more of a freeze mode in times of difficulty or crisis. They may feel overwhelmed, stuck and unable to take action. They lean towards wanting someone else to take over and rescue them. They often feel helpless, powerless and can become frozen in victim mode.
Underfunctioners struggle with fulfilling the responsibility of important roles in their lives. They may be unemployed, they may rely on ‘zoning out’ and use avoidance strategies so they don't have to face problems or take immediate action to 'fix' situations, and they may directly or indirectly default to asking for help from others to manage their problems. In families and relationships, they are often seen as ‘the problem’ and often get a disproportionate amount of energy and resources directed their way. The challenge for underfunctioners is in taking small steps and actions to increase their sense of power and personal agency in the face of what they cannot control.
The longer term costs of patterns of underfunctioning can lead to feelings of failure and low self-esteem and self-worth, as the individual fails to live up to his or her potential. Academic and career underachievement or failure can be a consequence of longer term under functioning patterns. Relationships can also end up strained as support networks can begin to feel resentful or burned out with the role of ‘care taker’ for the individual who is struggling to take action and responsibility for his or her own life. Anxiety and depression can also be a concern for those stuck in patterns of underfunctioning. Avoidance and failure to face and overcome challenges actually often leads to increased anxiety and avoidance of facing similar situations over time.
How over functioning and under functioning reinforce one another (and how to break the cycle)
It is important to note that the differences between overfunctioners and underfunctioners is not just a description of style, but of a mutually reinforced interaction pattern/cycle. It is a way of managing anxiety by either going into action mode, or getting stuck in feelings and unable to take action. Someone who is underfunctioning is often paired with, or has more people who are overfunctioning contributing to the dynamic to ‘take care’ of them.
If you identify with either of the above patterns in your personal or family relationships, know that by increasing your awareness of your default patterns and taking conscious steps to come to a more balanced place of responsibility in your own life and the lives of others is possible.
The good news about relationship cycles and patterns is that any time we make changes on our own end, and in our own roles, the system itself changes in order to adapt. While this is not always an easy or comfortable process, it is often much more sustainable in the long run, allowing us to handle our stress like a boss.