I arrived at my son’s preschool mid-afternoon, a few hours before I would typically pick him up. The three-year-olds were having their post-nap snack, seated in tiny chairs around a table, and my son happened to be at the head of the table facing the door. When he saw me, he jumped up and said, “MOM! Let me introduce you to my friends!” He proceeded to tell me each friend’s name (as though I’d never seen them before!). His affection for them and his eagerness to share how important they were still warms my heart.
You have a group of friends in your inner family, a team of dedicated protectors with strategies to keep vulnerability at bay. Let me introduce you to one I’ve seen countless times: the overfunctioner.
What is “overfunctioning”?
After a few years of seeing clients, I decided if I conducted a research study, it would confirm what I was seeing: almost 100% of the women in my practice were overfunctioning. (Anyone can overfunction, but it’s very prevalent among women.) Overfunctioning is a clinical term for shouldering more than the appropriate share of the load in relationships, parenting, and work. Sometimes we even try to carry something that belongs to God.
If you have an overfunctioner on your team of protectors, when someone you love is struggling, this part of you feels it’s her job to fix the situation. If a child is distressed by school or friendships, or a spouse wants to make a career change but has no idea what else they would do, your overfunctioner jumps in to take charge. You’ll feel tension in your body and pressure to come up with a plan. You might be preoccupied with problem-solving or anxious about their mood. Whenever you’re concerned about the well-being of someone you love, your overfunctioner is likely to believe she is responsible for meeting the person’s need, whether the person asks for help or not. The overfunctioner does things for others that they can and should do for themselves.
Your overfunctioner thinks it’s all up to her.
She means well, but the overfunctioner takes charge so quickly there’s no space for curiosity about the other person’s dilemma and no conversation where they share their concerns and needs. Overfunctioners are action-oriented problem-solvers who take charge, inadvertently sending the message that the other person cannot find their solution. Are you getting the sense that our overfunctioners tend to violate boundaries?
As is true of all of your protectors, the overfunctioner has something important to contribute. She probably has ideas or experiences that will be useful. However, when she takes over your system and pushes you aside, she blocks vital resources like calm and patience. Your overfunctioner doesn’t like unresolved dilemmas, and she will rob others of the gift of working through their challenges. Overfunctioners take control, but that’s not what your loved ones need. They need your compassionate curiosity; they need an attentive listener who allows them the time and space to articulate their thoughts and feelings. This is true whether it’s a toddler who needs a steady presence when they’re having a meltdown or a spouse on the cusp of retirement who’s terrified by the loss of professional identity.
Befriending your overfunctioner restores calm and perspective.
The goal is not to shove your overfunctioner aside; the goal is to befriend her so she contributes her valuable qualities to your team. The pressure she feels to figure everything out will ease when she realizes she doesn’t have to carry the burden of another person’s problem alone. As you spend time getting to know her – why she’s doing this job, what she hopes will happen, and what she’s afraid of if she doesn’t take over – she will gain trust in your leadership. Together, you will be able to discern your appropriate role in supporting a loved one through their challenge. Your overfunctioner won’t rob them of their responsibility and the growth that comes from navigating it.
You have friends at your table.
Each time you develop a relationship with a member of your inner family, you are closer to the ideal: a table where you and your internal family members share a meal, laughter, and ideas. You sit at the head of the table, so enamored with your incredible friends you want to jump up and say, “Let me introduce you to my friends!”
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