Are you an overfunctioner?

Recently I've noticed many of my clients are feeling tired. Call it 'pandemic fatigue' or 'change fatigue', but whatever it is many people feel exhausted, myself included! Yet often we don't give ourselves permission to slow down or stop.

Instead, we beat ourselves up for our less than optimum energy and performance and keep pushing harder and harder telling ourselves we'll stop when we reach whatever milestone feels socially acceptable.

Particularly those of us who have a tendency to people-please and over give. We are often the go-to person for any problems or issues people have and we don't feel like we can (or even want to) say no or let them down. In truth we secretly love to be needed and helping others gives us the validation we crave.

We can't bear to see people struggling so we jump in to offer advice and try and rescue them from whatever mess they are in. Whether we choose to admit it to ourselves, we feel responsible for other peoples happiness and wellbeing and this sense of responsibility causes us to suppress our own feelings and needs in order to over-function in our relationships with others. 

So in this article, I want to raise awareness of over-functioning behaviour because we may not even realise we are doing it until we reach a point of exhaustion, burn out and collapse under the strain.


Understanding overfunctioning

When we over-function we take responsibility for situations and problems that aren't ours. It can feel like it's coming from a place of protecting and helping others but in reality, it's just as much about managing our own anxieties.

We find it difficult to sit with uncomfortable emotions and watch others strive and struggle, so over-functioning is our way of trying to control (the uncontrollable) and tidy up the mess so that we can feel ok again. 

And it makes total sense in the moment. However, long-term, if we always jump in to fix things it can enable others to under-function, create dependency and lead us to buckle under the overwhelming weight of responsibility for everyone and everything. This pattern of behaviour becomes ingrained into our way of being and is an instinctive response that plays out without us even realising it.

According to author Harriet Learner in her book The Dance of Intimacy, over-functioning often starts in childhood if a caregiver was physically or emotionally unable to show up as a parent, leading to the child taking on the role of fixer, mediator etc. It is also quite common in firstborn or only children.

Maybe as a child, your home was chaotic or your caregivers were stressed or struggled to get stuff done, and you stepped in or became the ‘perfect’ child to please, avoid being criticized or singled out? Ultimately the reason you over-function will be unique to you; however, the behaviours we learned in order to feel ok will probably be similar.

Traits of overfunctioners include:

  • Being the knower - having to be right and always knowing what is best for others.
  • Jumping into other peoples problems with advice, solutions, offers to help or take over and fix the problem for them.
  • Finding it hard to witness and allow others to struggle with their own problems.
  • Overly focusing on others to avoid addressing our own issues.
  • Struggling to show vulnerability, ask for help and share our own problems, especially with others we perceive as struggling.
  • Others may see us as the strong ones that always knows what to do and can cope with everything life throws at them, yet secretly we feel like we are paddling like mad just to stay afloat!
  • Feeling like we have the weight of the world on our shoulders and like we're the only person that can get things done.
  • Feeling exhausted and overwhelmed from trying to juggle everything.
  • Feeling underappreciated, taken for granted and resentful towards those around us.

Why change?

All of us over-function at times and this isn't necessarily problematic; however, the key is to recognise when we are getting too embroiled in other peoples stuff and make the shift so that we don't get stuck and become overly focused on them and their issues.

Often over-functioning has made us adept at appearing ok, and this can result in our needs and problems being overlooked by others and even by ourselves. Remember people aren't mind readers, they won't just know! 

When our identity is linked to being the strong one who always knows what to do and gets the job done, we often struggle to be vulnerable and have a tendency to stuff down and dissociate with our own needs and feelings to protect this identity.

Unfortunately, it's often not until we reach a breaking point that we will slow down and force attention back to our own needs. Being generous and helpful is lovely; however if you are doing it at the expense of your own physical, mental and emotional wellbeing, you will end up feeling resentment for the people you are 'helping'. 

Resentment is toxic for relationships and it happens when we repeatedly put others wants, needs and feelings over our own. So it's our responsibility to learn how to lean back, set healthy boundaries and stay on our own page, not just for our own wellbeing, but for our relationships and the people we love too.


The impact of overfunctioning: A personal story

The big black wave engulfs my whole body. It contracts, bracing itself for the whispers of judgement and looks of pity. I want to run and hide but the heaviness drags me down. 

My cheeks are hot, my shoulders rounded, my head hung, a tear slips slowly down my cheek to my mouth, the salty wetness settling on my lips.  It feels all-encompassing. So many thoughts dancing around my mind, I’m not sure what to say or do next.

What will people think? What will my husband say? He doesn’t need a broken wife on top of everything else we have going on. What about my team? I’m letting down all of the people who rely on me. 

The silence seems to go on forever. I can hear the clock loudly tick, tock, tick, tocking away. My mouth is dry. I just want the ground to open up and swallow me so I don’t have to deal with what comes next.

The crisp fresh air hits the dampness of tears involuntarily leaking from my eyes. In the safety of my car, I finally let my emotions wash over me like a torrential downpour of rain from the sky.

“The HR lady from work has told me I have to come and see you,” I say to my Doctor like a petulant teenager. She is so warm and nurturing, sensing the reinforced wall I have built around myself as protection. 

Slowly she teases out the details of the myriad of ‘things that have led me to be sitting here. “You’re burnt out,” she says, “and I’m not surprised given everything you’ve got going on.”

My mask slips from my hands and shatters like a mirror all over the floor. I have no idea how I’m going to unpick this mess but one thing is for sure, I can’t continue like this...

I wrote this for a creative writing class I did last year. The facilitator asked me what one thing I would love others to learn from my experience, and I said: "The importance of becoming responsibly selfish so they don't have to learn the hard way as I did".

And this is why I do this work. This is the reason I show up to share with you what I have learned on my own journey of becoming responsibly selfish. If this article resonates with you I'd love to hear from you - feel free to message me

Life Coach Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Braintree, Essex, CM7 9DB

Written by Amy Metson

Braintree, Essex, CM7 9DB

Amy works with people who have a big heart & care deeply about others, often to their own detriment. She helps them to embrace becoming 'responsibly selfish' by understanding where they end & others begin, building inner & outer confidence, the courage to be true to themselves & strike a balance between caring for others & honouring their needs too

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