The first time I heard the word overfunctioning I was at a networking event chatting it up with a room full of other female solopreneurs. Eventually, the topic of self-care came up, and I shared that almost all of my clients were busy. They were juggling multiple roles and commitments at work, at home, and in their communities. And they were tired. Really, really tired.
That’s when someone in the group asked if I’d ever heard the term overfunctioning. At the time, I hadn’t. But even though I didn’t exactly know what the word meant, it resonated with me. Deeply. And I wasn’t the only one, because everyone else in the group nodded knowingly in recognition.
When I worked in the corporate wellness space, my calendar was frequently double-booked with meetings. At the time, I wasn’t skilled at setting healthy boundaries, and I said ‘yes’ to everything thinking I didn’t have a choice. Plus, I was a people-pleaser who hated the idea of letting anyone down. On several occasions, I found myself dialed into two conference calls at the same time–my company phone on one ear and my personal phone on the other–listening anxiously in case my name was mentioned and I needed to answer a question. It was a completely unsustainable existence.
So, how do you know if you’re an overfunctioner?
What Does Overfunctioning Look Like?
Well, the word kind of speaks for itself: Over means “excess” and functioning relates to how something “operates” or “behaves.”
One Forbes article describes it as “doing more than is necessary, more than is appropriate and more than is healthy.” No one is saying it isn’t nice to occasionally go over and above, but it’s when there’s a negative impact on our health that we need to pay closer attention. Will Meek, PhD gives a nice description as well: “people who ‘have it together’, are detail oriented, organized, and reliable, and are typically viewed as being reliable workers, partners, and parents.”
Essentially, overfunctioning is when you’re overscheduled, overwhelmed, and over it! And you can no longer ignore the fact that something’s gotta give.Overfunctioning = overscheduled, overwhelmed, and over it! Click To Tweet
Here are some signs you may be an overfunctioner:
- You spend all your waking hours DOING. In fact, you feel uncomfortable when you have downtime–so uncomfortable that you immediately find a way to fill the void. You rarely take vacations, and when you do you’re still working.
- You don’t have time for self-care. When others talk about things they’re doing to care for themselves you say, “I don’t have that luxury.” But the truth is, you tell yourself you don’t have the time, money, or energy so you don’t have to change your familiar routines. Besides, you secretly like feeling busy because it makes you feel valuable and needed.
- You can’t remember what you really want to do, have, be, and feel. You’ve been so focused on everyone else’s needs, problems, and happiness that you’ve forgotten yours exist.
- You don’t have a community. You don’t have a trusted support circle, and instead have just one or two people you can count on. At least one of them is probably a family member, and the other is likely someone you’ve known since you were young. And you don’t believe you need a community because you rarely need (i.e. ask for) help anyway.
- You’re sad or angry a lot. While you like feeling needed, you also feel taken advantage of. You often feel resentful and bitter that no one is helping you. In fact, when you look closely, you realize you’re surrounded by underfunctioners.
- You help when no help is needed. You do things for others that they could easily do themselves because that’s just what you do. Instead of allowing them to fail (which is often part of the process of learning how to solve problems) you jump into fixing and saving mode.
- You can’t say NO. You wish saying NO was easier, and that you could let go of some of your roles and commitments, but you worry what people will think–or would happen if you did let go.
Who’s at Risk for Overfunctioning?
Overfunctioning doesn’t discriminate. It isn’t relegated to a select few professions or personality types. It affects romantic relationships, friendships, and it can even disrupt teams in the workplace. Here are a few common examples:
As you might imagine, overfunctioning is common in stressful professions. Teachers, lawyers, researchers, and medical professionals are notorious for working grueling hours, and it’s probably because they manage unforgiving deadlines and face high-pressure situations daily–some life-or-death.
Students & Parents
Students are particularly vulnerable, with increased pressure to be high-achievers so they can get into college and nail a well-paying job. And the stress that comes with adjusting to life as a responsible young adult creates anxiety and perfectionistic tendencies. Similarly, parents can assume overfunctioning roles when they over-manage their childrens’ lives, whether it be to avoid judgement about their parenting styles or simply wanting to help them get ahead–the most recent example being wealthy families paying millions to get their kids into elite colleges instead of allowing them to get there on their own.
Couples can also fall into over/underfunctioning roles. Generally, one person in the relationship assumes the overfunctioning role while the other accepts their fate as an underfunctioner. In my first marriage, I was without a doubt the overfunctioner. I insisted on being in control of the finances, planning vacations, and managing home improvement projects. In part, it’s because I experienced anxiety if I had to wait for others to follow through with tasks, especially if they weren’t completed on my timeline. Ironically, that often left me feeling frustrated and angry because I felt like I was doing everything. And that’s because I was. It wasn’t until recently that I understood my overfunctioning was the reason for my suffering, not the people around me. In my second marriage, at least toward the end, I was the underfunctioner. After a series of extremely painful marital challenges, I completely shut down. I didn’t have the emotional strength or energy to do any more than I did. And I was so withdrawn that I didn’t care. Now, having been on both sides, I have a deeper understanding of how we end up there and how we break free.
Overfunctioning: The New Normal?
One of the biggest challenges today is that we glorify overfunctioning.
The hustle. The grind. The GSD!
The expectation is that work comes first, at least if you want that promotion or pay raise or fancy title. And there’s little sympathy for the inevitable repercussions–family strain, physical and mental illness, and burnout. Because it’s just a matter of time before those realities begin to surface.
Many companies create competitive cultures to drive higher performance. And because that kind of behavior is highly rewarded, it’s not uncommon to find employees working without breaks, eating lunch at their desk (or skipping it altogether), sacrificing sleep to crank out a few more hours of work, working while on vacation–despite the toll it takes on the long-term productivity of teams.
And we wonder why healthcare costs keep rising.
Put simply, overfunctioning is doing too much. It’s stretching yourself beyond your capacity to the point that your well-being is negatively affected.
What to do if You’re an Overfunctioner
If you’ve self-identified as an overfunctioner, then it’s probably time to take a closer look at your habits and patterns, especially if there’s been a noticeable decline in your health. If you’re ready to address the elephant in the room and create a new way of being that doesn’t involve burning yourself out, start here.
Lifestyle design is about creating new habits and building new skills that bring balance and simplicity to your life.
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