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How Overfunctioning and Underfunctioning Damages Relationships

Updated: Sep 6, 2022


“I need some help with this…actually will you just do it for me?” “When can you come over to fix it?” “Can’t you just take me?” “I can’t remember how to do this, but you can, right?” “If you did it, it would be so much easier.” “You don’t mind, do you?” “You’re so much better at it.” “I would feel better if you handled it.”

If any of these phrases sound familiar to you, you might be the “designated overfunctioner” of your friend and/or family circle. You may be implicitly or explicitly the one who everyone goes to for support, help, and guidance. While it might feel good to be in a position to offer support, help, and guidance when needed, it can also be a position that leads to resentment and frustration if proper boundaries are not set in place.

If you have found yourself in the position of uttering these phrases, you might be underfunctioning in your life and/or relationships. While it might feel good to know that you can rely on your support systems, relying on them to the detriment of learning how to do things yourself can also hinder your ability to be self-reliant in the long run. This can keep you stuck in a cycle of dependence and lead to lack of self-confidence, and underdeveloped skills.

Relationships like this are damaging to both parties. On the one hand, if you are in the position of being the “overfunctioner”, you may end up feeling responsible to meet every need that is presented to you. If you are this person, your life might look like a constant state of managing other people’s issues. It might look like, once again, being assigned the role of organizer for the school fundraiser because no one else volunteered. It might look like picking up the slack at work on the weekends because your boss “knows he can count on you”. It might look like giving up your own self-care time to be available to a friend who wants to vent to you about her recent break up.

All of these things that are placed on your plate will take time away from yourself, your family, and your own priorities. This will eventually lead to resentment and burnout because it is impossible to be constantly available to others at all times without sacrificing your own needs. This will eventually lead to you operating on a deficit to yourself in order to give to someone else, which is unsustainable in the long run. You cannot pour from an empty cup.

On the other hand, if you are a person who is in the position of the “underfunctioner”, this is also stunting your growth. Maybe you are bypassing areas of your life in which you may need to take a little more ownership because someone else will always do it for you. These types of relationships lead to constant dependence on your end, and removes the opportunities for you to learn how to do things yourself.

Self-confidence comes from knowing that you have the ability and the inner resources to do hard things. However, if your life looks like constantly relying on someone else to do the hard things for you, you might be solving the current problem, but you prolong the ongoing one. Trying new things and putting yourself in the position to make a mistake or do something unfamiliar is not always comfortable, but it is a needed step towards competence and growth.

If you find yourself in one of these positions, here is what you can do: For the overfunctioner: Start setting some boundaries. One of the things I see that hurts people is the idea that “love has no boundaries.” This idea is perpetuated by our society’s emphasis on love looking like self-sacrifice. There are so many examples of “loving behavior” or “kindness” and “generosity” that really are just boundary-less relationships (see The Giving Tree as one example).

So many overfunctioners who identify as “givers” are deeply resentful of the “takers” in their lives, even if they don’t want to be. Sometimes the most loving thing you can do for someone is to set a boundary with them. If you step back, it gives them the opportunity to step up. It is also the most loving thing you can do for yourself. Just remember, when you say no to one thing, you are saying yes to something else. If you say no to taking care of someone else’s priorities, you are saying yes to your own.

Also, if your default is to do things for other people, realize that you might be taking up more than your fair share of space in your family and friend circle. By taking over all the duties and always being the one responsible for planning or organizing or fulfilling all the needs, you might also be taking an opportunity away from someone else. Maybe your own anxiety about things being perfect, or your fear of not being needed is the thing that is driving the overfunctioning cycle. Your “self-sacrifice” may actually be selfishly dominating the relationship dynamics to meet your own needs.

For the underfunctioner: Realize that being overly reliant on other people is not setting you up for success in the long run. Being a competent, self-respecting individual, requires a healthy self-image. If you look at your accomplishments and realize other people have done most of the things in your life for you, it can contribute to a sense of insecurity. When other people are doing things for you, realize that they are also putting their own stamp on your life. Stepping up your skills will allow you to take ownership of your life, rather than taking direction.

Healthy self-esteem often starts with knowing what your internal resources are and feeling confident in your ability to meet your own needs. When you are confident in your skill set and your ability to accomplish hard things, you can also start to feel good about the role you play in other people’s lives. If you are constantly in the position of needing something from other people, it can put you in the position of feeling tolerated rather than celebrated in your friend or family circle.

When you have the ability to show up as an equal partner in your life and relationships, not only will you feel better about yourself, but you will feel better able to relate to others. When you can feel good about accomplishing the goals you set for yourself, without having to borrow anyone else’s power, you can start to see yourself as an equal partner in your relationships.

Recognizing your own tendencies in your relationships will help you to break unhealthy patterns. Balancing out your role in relationships is a key step towards having better, more fulfilling, healthier relationships with yourself and with those you love most.

If you are interested in discovering more on Boundaries, Overfunctioning, and Self-Esteem check out those links, and follow me on Medium for future posts on healthy relationships and mental health. Kristal DeSantis, LMFT, CCTP is the author of STRONG: A Relationship Field Guide for the Modern Man (available for pre-order November 2022) Follow my instagram @atxtherapist or on TikTok @atx_therapist or visit my website: www.strong.love


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