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Are You Overfunctioning?

self-care May 07, 2019

The first time I heard the word overfunctioning was at a networking event in Seattle, where I was chatting it up with a room full of other female solopreneurs.

Eventually, the topic of self-care came up and I shared with the group 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 asked if I'd ever heard the term overfunctioning.

At the time, I hadn't. But even though I didn't know exactly what the word meant, it resonated with me.


And I wasn't the only one, because everyone else nodded knowingly, too.

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 just about everything, believing that 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 "excessive" and functioning relates to how something "operates" or "behaves." 

One Forbes article describes it this way: "doing more than is necessary, more than is appropriate and more than is healthy."

Of course it's okay to occasionally go above and beyond, stretching yourself beyond your normal capacity. After all, that's how we grow. But it's when that's the norm, and there's a negative impact on our health that we need to pay closer attention.

Essentially, overfunctioning is when you're overscheduled, overwhelmed, and over it! It's when you can no longer ignore the fact that something's gotta give.

Here are some signs you may be an overfunctioner:

  1. 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 even when you do you're still working.
  2. You don't have time for self-care. When others talk about the things they do to care for themselves you often 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. Self-care is something you'll have time for...later.
  3. 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 about yours.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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 about what people will think -- or would happen -- if you did.

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:

High-Stress Professions

As you might imagine, overfunctioning is common in stressful professions that are heavily regulated and routinely have short deadlines. Teachers, lawyers, researchers, and medical professionals are notorious for working long hours and being available around the clock.

Students & Parents

Students are particularly vulnerable to overfunctioning, facing ever-increasing pressure to be high-achievers so they can get into college and nail a good paying job. The stress that comes with adjusting to life as a responsible young adult often 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 -- remember the news story of the 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, 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 to break the cycle.

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. 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 -- all despite the toll it takes on the long-term productivity and health 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, join us over in the Studio, where you'll find the tools you need to make some long overdue changes.

The lifestyle design process helps you creating new habits and build new skills that bring more balance and simplicity to your life.

Ready to redesign your life to create more ease and balance?

View LivingUpp's programs here.  

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