Overfunctioning and underfunctioning:
“If I don’t take care of things, nothing will ever get done.”

"Crescendo" by Mimi Stuart ©

“Crescendo” by Mimi Stuart ©

Emotional system

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.

Polarization

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.”

Resentment

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.

Solution

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 overfunctioning 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 Dr. Alison Poulsen

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Feeling Shame:
“I’m not worthy to be loved.”

"Rocky Mountain Nobility" by Mimi Stuart ©

“Rocky Mountain Nobility” by Mimi Stuart ©

Deeply-held feelings of inadequacy can cause a person to live with a feeling of shame. Ideally in childhood, we have a parent who expresses both love and reasonable, constructive criticism. However, many people experience excessive neglect, contempt, or harsh criticism from their closest adult relation. The message they may take from such negativity is that they are deeply flawed and unworthy of love.

People who live with a feeling of shame experience great suffering and self-consciousness. They want nothing more than to excise the feeling of inadequacy from their psyche.

While it is important that they moderate their harsh self-criticism with objectivity so they can feel better about themselves, they should also appreciate a couple of skills they have acquired through their challenging upbringing. There are two diamonds in the rough underlying shame that they should hold on to, while eliminating self-condemnation: 1. their ability to self-assess, and 2. their desire to improve themselves.

1. The ability to self-assess

People can experience shame only if they are able to observe themselves and sense their impact on the world around them. They are generally excessively self-critical of themselves, because they have been made acutely aware of how they are viewed by others.

But imagine someone who lacks the ability to observe his or her own conduct and its effects on others. Such a person would be selfish, inconsiderate, and uncaring.

Thus, while excessive self-awareness hinders spontaneity and enjoyment, some conscious awareness of one’s impact on others is a good thing. Ideally, self-assessment can be moderated to become compassionate, helpful and constructive.

2. The desire to improve

The experience of shame implies an underlying desire to become better, more worthy, and deserving. People who experience shame have a strong sense of right and wrong, better and worse, skilled and unskilled. They want to be better than they believe they are.

While excessive shame can lead to depression and self-sabotaging behavior, the underlying desire to become better can act as a strong motivating force to improve oneself.

Solution:

1. Appreciate your ability to self-assess and your desire to be a better person—at work, as a parent, as a friend, etc.

2. Correct your internal thinking. When you hear yourself say something harsh to yourself, such as, “How stupid that was,” change it right away to something reasonable, kind, and objective, such as “Everyone makes mistakes. Next time I’ll try to remember to….”

3. Remember that life is fleeting. Enjoy and focus on what’s good about yourself, instead of focusing on your mistakes or how you compare to others.

4. Become less of a perfectionist. Appreciate small improvements. Learn to laugh at yourself!

Remember that your effectiveness at work and within your relationships improves as you replace shame with compassion, a sense of humor, constructive criticism, and acceptance of what is. Not only will you suffer less, people around you will enjoy you more.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

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“I am overwhelmed by worry.”

"Stars of Valor" by Mimi Stuart © after Thomas Franklin

“Stars of Valor”
by Mimi Stuart © after Thomas Franklin

Fear as a signal – it can be lifesaving

Fear is a healthy emotional response that alerts you to potential danger. But when you allow fear to turn into extreme anxiety or panic, you can no longer respond to danger in an effective way. When fear and anxiety take control of your life you can become debilitated.

Three negative consequences when fear turns to panic:

1. Excessive fear leaves you vulnerable and is ineffective

Extreme anxiety can lead to mental paralysis or physical illness. It also prevents you from being taken seriously by others. Imagine a doctor, lawyer, or military leader who expresses extreme anxiety in facing an emergency.

2. Anxiety can be contagious

Extreme anxiety is infectious, particularly among emotionally-fused people, often causing others to become more anxious. Emotional fusion is the dissolution of boundaries between people, which can cause anxiety to become extremely contagious. Emotional fusion occurs when people do not function with emotional independence. For example, one person’s anger or anxiety causes the other person to react with the same emotion or to polarize to a position of having no concern. This extreme reactivity takes away from productive problem-solving.

3. The anxious person become the problem

When you allow anxiety to overwhelm you, it may cause others to respond to you rather than focus on the problem at hand. In order to effectively handle difficult or emergency situations, you have to learn to keep things in perspective and control your emotions. Only with a calm and rational approach can constructive and deliberate action be taken.

Differentiation

To resolve the anguish caused by emotional fusion, individuals need to become more highly-differentiated, that is, emotionally separate, and therefore, less reactive.

Differentiation will —

1. permit you to get deeply involved with a problem or with another person without becoming overwhelmed by anxiety,

2. eliminate the need to withdraw from or control a situation to modulate your own emotional well-being, and

3. give a modicum of peace of mind in knowing that you best influence others through your presence of mind and composure rather than through fear or emotional coercion.

Even if only one person becomes less reactive, the ability to handle difficulties will improve. Ironically, if you really care, keeping a cool head is the best way to help others and yourself through difficult times.

How to handle fear

When you imagine a downward spiral of catastrophic consequences, you are likely to become overwhelmed, panic-stricken, despondent, and mentally paralyzed. If you become overwhelmed with worst-case expectations, the situation will likely spiral out of control and your worst-case prophecy is more likely to come true. Thus, it is important to redirect your focus as follows:

1. Engage the rational part of your mind to address the challenge as well as to alleviate the panic.

2. Figure out what you have control over and take appropriate action.

3. Imagine what the worst possible outcome could be. Then imagine the most constructive and self-possessed way to accept the worst consequences. Once you prepare for the worst, know that reality will probably not be as bad as you fear.

4. Continue to engage in other parts of your life — your work, family, friends and interests — in order to buoy your strength, be a good role model, and enjoy the blessings that you still possess.

While it is important to be prepared for potential dangers in the world, we should strive for a balance between fear and hope, viewing the world with an informed awareness and equanimity.

How do we handle difficult times?

Life will present us with challenges. The best way to handle difficulties is to face them head on, while maintaining our dignity and having faith in ourselves. Above all, we must remember that we do not have control over other people nor over all situations, but we do have control over our actions, words, demeanor, and perspective, and how we respond in a given situation.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

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Clutter in your surroundings causes clutter in the mind:
“I don’t have time to deal with this mess.”

“Clarity” by Mimi Stuart ©

Disarray clutters the mind

Clutter in your environment creates clutter in the mind and vice versa. Clutter in your home, office, and car tends to correspond to the clutter in your mind, in your relationships, and in your life.

Living in an environment where it is difficult to find things and difficult to think leads to chaos and indecision. In such an atmosphere, the anxiety of being overwhelmed by stuff stifles your focus and potential.

Accumulation of clutter has its basis in fear

Some people fear never having enough. People who have experienced deprivation during their lifetime, whether through war, poverty, or hard times, understandably find it difficult to throw things out, fearing they may need them in the future.

Others equate possession with security. Being surrounded by possessions gives them the feeling of having value or being loved. Acquiring and retaining things makes them feel more secure.

Many people simply dread the task of re-organizing and removing clothes, papers, and stuff. They dislike the emptiness they feel when doing something so tedious. Instead, they focus on more stimulating activities — like shopping for more stuff!

Clutter is oppressive

By avoiding the tedium of organizing and throwing out possessions, you basically become hostage to them. Your possessions ultimately possess you and create chaos in your life. Disorganized papers, for instance, can lead to unpaid bills, fights about money, wasted time, and family disorder. A cluttered, messy home is depressing and weighs a person down with the burden it creates.

Making room for possibility

A de-cluttered home provides an atmosphere of serenity and possibility. There’s no need to swing to the extreme of immaculate orderliness that may create a feeling of sanitary lifelessness. It’s a reasonably clutter-free environment that creates harmony around us, and makes room in our lives for a range of new possibilities.

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

Read “Order and Spontaneity.”

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“Is planning in advance an unreasonable expectation?”

"Tiffanys" by Mimi Stuart ©

“Tiffanys” by Mimi Stuart ©


“I never expected to come first even on a weekly basis, but it was tiring to NEVER be a priority in my boyfriend’s life. I was very understanding about the demands on his time, but I was getting frustrated that he refused to plan ahead. Apparently asking for that was too demanding and he ended our two year relationship over it. I know I was the pursuer and I did make myself too available to him.”

Is planning ahead unreasonable?

It is very reasonable to expect an intimate partner to plan ahead for you! But, he did not plan ahead because he did not have too. You were always available. You focused too much on accommodating him, and thereby narrowed your own life and became less desirable.

Avoid being a doormat

My advice to you is to start living your life fully. Rather than asking him to plan ahead, simply make your own plans. I would plan out each week a week in advance, and be busy with people or activities or just plan on staying home to chill and read or do something you enjoy doing alone. When you have other interests and a life beyond him, you will be more interesting and desirable. If he really wants to see you, he’ll have to make you a priority and plan ahead.

If he does call, you can be friendly. Let him know that you’re busy, because you will be busy. Do NOT drop everything to see him, even if you’re dying to see him. For instance, “I’d love to see you tomorrow, but I have plans with a friend,” or “Tonight I’m staying home and relaxing, but it sounds great for another night.” Only be available if he plans ahead of time.

Note that in a mutual, reciprocal relationship, it’s fine to drop everything to see the other person sometimes.

Is being unavailable a game?

Haivng a busier life and being unavailable is not game-playing. It only feels like a game because you don’t feel like behaving this way. You need to use your reason and avoid acting only according to your feelings. Your desire to be with him was so strong that your other interests were pushed aside, which caused you to put too much emphasis on him and the relationship. The result was self-sabotaging.

You will be honoring yourself by requiring some notice. You will be doing him a favor as well. He will appreciate you more and have the opportunity to look forward to being with you, as there will be time for him to anticipate seeing you. Right now, you are the only one doing the anticipating, waiting, and yearning.

How to change your behavior

We learn to behave differently by playing a new part, whether we want to become more responsible, more fun, or more desirable. Through practice — by copying people we find particularly good at those behaviors — the new behavior will become more natural.

In part, desire is generated by anticipation, which requires distance and separation. Pursuing your own interests, other activities, and friendships will distract you, bring you joy, and will make you more desirable. And if your life is more full and well-rounded, all the better!

by Dr. Alison Poulsen


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Guest Author Dr. Jennifer Freed
Giving Up Parental Narcissism for Parental Maturity

"Lungta Windhorse" by Mimi Stuart ©

“Lungta Windhorse” by Mimi Stuart ©

Guest Author Dr. Jennifer Freed writes:

Parents often seek their validation from the wrong source — their children. The pure unconditional love of an infant is so intoxicating that many parents want to experience that transcendental glow for as long as possible. Who wouldn’t want to be adored without any discernment or judgement? The tricky part is that in order to be a truly loving and effective parent one needs to learn to give up the idealization from their child in favor of setting boundaries, expectations, and healthy limits.

The love that can develop when a parent does not try to be mirrored by their child or best friend to their child, but instead be the parent the child needs, is a love that is built on respect, consistency, and inner wholeness.

All of us need to constantly work on this maturity because inside each of us is a child that just wants that unconditional love we may have once experienced in our parent’s eyes and did feel from the purity of our newborn’s love.

A child has a million chances to make friends but it is exceptional to have a sturdy, loving, and reliable parent.

What does it take to give up parental narcissism for parental maturity?

It requires us to recognize first and foremost that our child is not the right place to look for our adult emotional needs to be met. If we have a partner we need to work diligently on that relationship so that it is a source of meaningful connection and legitimate feedback. If we do not have a partner we need to invest in a robust network of friends.

Adults need to be the people we turn to help us get through the ups and downs of life. Adults are the people we need to rely on to give us accurate appraisals of our appeal and competence.

Children need us to be clear and not back down when we have set standards. We need to be the solid posts they can lean on or push against to know their own capacities and inner strengths. When children know where the limits are and can depend on them then they feel more relaxed and trusting. When we feel confident that we can adhere to our values and withstand the inevitable protestations of our children then we can be calm and secure in our parenting and our mature love of our children.

If this all sounds a little too dry or somber let me reassure you that children who are parented by mature adults are raised in some of the most raucous and happy households I have ever seen. Once the proper walls and foundations have been set and reinforced patiently and consistently — both parents and children find an incredible freedom and joy within those healthy boundaries. Genuine playfulness and affection are often an outgrowth of mutual respect and emotional solidity.

After all it is much harder to dance on a buckling and splintery floor. It is never too late for a parent to grow up and become the mature beacon your child needs and deserves.

Take the below quiz and see how you are doing in cultivating mature parenting (for parents of 8 year olds and up)

Score 1 – 5 (1 – Never, 2 – Rarely, 3 – Sometimes, 4 – Often, 5 – Always)

1- I give into my child’s demands to stay up later than they should

2- I let my child watch too much TV

3- I can’t stand it when my child is crying so I do everything I can to make it better

4- I allow my child to use bad language

5- I tell my child to be “good”

6- I allow my child to interrupt me and other adults

7- I am too tired to follow through on consequences I set for my child’s misbehaving

8- I would rather get along with my child than press an issue

9- I make all the meals for my child and clean up after them

10- I let my child monopolize the conversation and not really know anything about me

11- I let my child indulge in unhealthy comfort foods or substances to soothe their unhappiness

Scores of 30 and above indicate you have some work to do to become a mature parent instead of a popular one.

by Guest Author Dr. Jennifer Freed, PhD, child behavioral expert, co-founder of AHA! (Attitude.Harmony.Achievement.) http://ahasb.org

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