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.
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.
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 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.
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