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

"Individuals" by Mimi Stuart
Live the Life you desire

Every family is an emotional system, where the functioning, behavior and beliefs of each person influence 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 these differences and try to “correct” the problem, the more polarized they tend to become. Examples of these polarities include “overadequate” and “inadequate,” “hard-working” and “lazy,” “decisive” and “indecisive,” “goal-oriented” and “drifting.”

The underfunctioning person feels resentful because he or she likes being taken care of but is also irritated by his or her dependence and helplessness. The care-taker feels stifled — “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.

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.

Gradual Change

Gradual change is often less shocking and deleterious than sudden change. If the overfunctioning partner has been in charge of all budgets, financial decisions, and bill paying, it’s wise to ease into sharing such duties.

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. 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.

Example: Teenager Laundary

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, though they resist doing “boring” chores that are at the core of being independent. So 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, for 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.

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

Read “Emotional Intimacy.”

Read “Childhood Impairment: The Family Projection Process.”

Recommended: Kerr, M. & Bowen, M. (1988). Family Evaluation: The role of the family as an emotional unit that governs individual behavior and development. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.: New York.

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

  1. Pingback: “I’m his biggest fan and he treats me like a slave.” | Healthy Relationships and Solutions to Happiness and Love © 2012

  2. Pingback: Dependent Young Adults: “We’ve given you every advantage! Don’t you want to do something with your life?” | Healthy Relationships and Solutions to Happiness and Love © 2012

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