Pensive executive lady using earphones for work while sitting near city road

Are you an overfunctioner? It’s not a feeling, it’s not a way of being, it’s a way of doing (constantly). And this behavior can lead to loneliness and threaten others’ sense of belonging. 

Overfunctioning refers to taking on excessive responsibilities beyond what’s necessary or healthy, potentially harming one’s well-being and others’ independence. As Dr. Kathleen Smith shares in Psychology Today, overfunctioners often solve problems for others and struggle with delegation, leading to stress and strained relationships.

Signs of Overfunctioning 

  • Excessive Task Taking: Routinely adding more to your plate, even when overwhelmed, driven by a belief that only you can complete tasks correctly.
  • Control-Related Stress: Experiencing anxiety when not in control, often leading to a neglect of personal needs in favor of solving others’ problems.
  • Difficulty Setting Boundaries: Struggling to say no to requests for help and hesitating to seek assistance, even when needed, due to perfectionist tendencies and a sense of responsibility for others’ happiness.
  • Neglecting Self-Care and Personal Health: Allowing guilt over personal relaxation and a neglect of basic wellness routines to compromise your well-being for the sake of others.

Overfunctioning and Learned Helplessness

Dr. Martin Seligman’s concept of learned helplessness sheds light on the side effects of overfunctioning. When we do too much, solving problems and making decisions for others, we might unintentionally lead them to feel powerless, as if their actions don’t matter. This not only puts a strain on our relationships but also reinforces our need to overfunction—it’s a cycle where everyone feels stuck. Recognizing this pattern is key; it’s not just about managing our stress but understanding how our actions affect those around us and breaking the cycle for healthier dynamics.

Triggered by Uncertainty 

My own overfunctioning was activated on a day many of us remember vividly, March 13, 2020. Even before the COVID-19 shutdown, I was no stranger to shifting into overdrive during challenging times, but this is when it reached a whole new level and looking back, I can see that I was craving a sense of control. The world was unrecognizable and it felt like I was suffocating in uncertainty. Desperation had me creating intense daily schedules for my kids, taking on additional projects, and working late into the night, all while neglecting my own well-being. 

The constant hum of stress became a familiar background noise in my life, negatively impacting my sleep and creating a never-ending sense of inadequacy, regardless of how much I achieved. This was my sign that my coping mechanisms might be doing more harm than good.

In a hustle culture that glorifies busyness, you might be wondering why I’m writing about overfunctioning… well, slightly modifying a quote from Toni Morrison, we write the articles we need to read. I’ve known about my challenges with overfunctioning for a while and three years later I still need reminders to slow down, be present, and live consciously. Plus, sharing my struggles publicly serves as a commitment device so I don’t slip into bad habits.

Strategies to Overcome Overfunctioning

Understanding the need to move from constant doing to conscious being, here are some practical strategies I’ve embraced to tame the overfunctioner in me.

Invoke The “Minimum Effective Dose” (MED) Principle: Tim Ferriss defines the MED as “the smallest dose that will produce a desired outcome.” This approach is not only efficient but also reminds us that more isn’t always better. 

Embrace Delegation: Learning to trust others with tasks has been liberating. It not only lightens my load but also empowers those around me, fostering their independence and growth. I’m also focused on accepting help from others without the weight of indebtedness.  

Set Clear Boundaries: Establishing what I will and won’t take on has been crucial. Learning to say “no” protects my energy and ensures I’m only committing to what truly matters.

Cultivate a Grateful Disposition: Incorporating gratitude rituals into my daily routine has shifted my focus from what needs to be done to appreciating what already is. (You can read more about grateful living here.)

“Spot, Stop, and Swap”: Jay Shetty’s “spot, stop, and swap” method for negative thoughts has also been a game-changer in addressing overfunctioning:

  • Spot: I’ve become more mindful of when I’m taking on too much, often recognizing the signs before I’m overwhelmed.
  • Stop: Pausing has given me the space to assess why I feel the need to overfunction, allowing me to address my anxiety or need for control directly.
  • Swap: I’ve learned to replace my overfunctioning behaviors with healthier actions, like delegating tasks or engaging in wellness practices.

Moving Forward

Implementing these strategies hasn’t been an overnight success, and I’m far from perfect. It’s an ongoing journey, but the progress is undeniable. Delegating, setting boundaries, practicing self-care, and embracing gratitude have all contributed to equilibrium in my life. The “spot, stop, and swap” technique, in particular, has been instrumental in making these changes more intuitive and effective.

As we navigate the complexities of our lives, especially in uncertain times, it’s vital to remember that overfunctioning doesn’t have to be our default mode. By consciously choosing to engage differently, we can foster healthier relationships with ourselves and those around us. Let’s commit to slowing down, being present, and living more consciously. What’s one strategy you could implement to avoid overfunctioning in your life?

With gratitude,

Photo Credit: Ono  Kosuki