By Cathryn Bond Doyle.
When we really care about someone and/or really want something to happen, we can end up doing too much for them or the situation. It’s one thing to be helping someone with a task beyond their ability or strength but it’s entirely different when, for one reason or the other, we put lots of time and energy into “helping” someone who is completely capable of helping themselves.
When our approval-seeking, care-taking, anxiety, fear-based or controlling behaviors compel us to do unsolicited favors or take action on behalf of others to get something done, we may be crossing the line from helpful to harmful behavior. I call this tendency “over-functioning.”
The next time you feel exhausted, angry, hurt or unappreciated by someone’s reaction to your efforts ask yourself, “Am I doing too much for others when I could be helping myself?” The purpose of this article is to explain the concept of “over-functioning” and bring the causes, triggers and options to your attention.
You may be “over-functioning” if:
1. You’re willing to do whatever it takes to get something accomplished even if it’s not your job, responsibility or even your business.
2. You’re doing someone else’s tasks, often without them asking or even knowing. As one of my long-time coaches, Kit Carson says, “Help is not help unless perceived so by the recipient.”
3. You’re surprised when your efforts are called, “overly enthusiastic”, pushy, trying too hard, bossy, etc. especially when you’re just trying to help.
4. You’re doing something for someone else and they feel pressured or annoyed by your attempts to help and the relationship feels strained because your actions to get something accomplished “for them” feels like pressure to them.
5. You find yourself placing most of your daily attention and energy on fixing someone else’s problems.
6. You feel hurt and/or angry if the “recipient” of your actions doesn’t appreciate you and your efforts. (That’s martyrhood in a mini-nutshell.)
7. You are very busy and working very hard helping others while you feel exhausted and neglect your self-care and your own life situation.
This behavior is certainly not a science or a black or white kind of thing. Over-functioning isn’t bad or wrong. It just doesn’t generate the desired win: win results. The desire to help people or to change something can be so strong that you can lose your ability to see things objectively. It can stem from a sincere desire to be a team player, to be helpful and productive but sadly can also be self-defeating and ineffective in both the long and short term. When the people you’re trying to help feel pushed, judged as incompetent or pressured by your actions, a whole series of arguments and tensions can arise. This can be hurtful and confusing especially when you believe you are only trying to help.
Determining if you are over-functioning requires some thought and reflection so you can distinguish kind, generous, responsible behavior from unsolicited, controlling or self-punishing over-functioning. Actions that can be helpful in one situation can turn out to be over-functioning in another situation. It isn’t the actions themselves that qualify as an example of over-functioning; it’s the situation, your intention and the underlying motivation to act that will make the difference for you and recipient of your efforts and attention.
What triggers the urge to over-function?
1. Believing that if you don’t do something for someone else, you’ll be forced to live with whatever is happening and you don’t like that option.
2. Finding it hard to do nothing while you watch someone in a jam or under stress. You know you have the ability and willingness to step in and help them…even though they don’t seem to help themselves.
3. The desire to distract, numb, reduce or eliminate your anxiety or fear about an upcoming event by taking some kind of action.
4. Wanting something to happen, seeing nothing happening and holding the belief that ‘If I don’t do this, it won’t happen.” This is a particularly uncomfortable, vulnerable kind of feeling especially if you’re going to be effected positive or negatively from the resulting accomplishment of someone ELSE.
5. Believing that you know how to fix, solve or handle something better than the person facing the situation.
6. Feeling helpless or out of control about a painful or fearful situation and coming up with action-steps and creative options for everyone involved to give yourself something to do with your energy and to give yourself some hope that the situation can be resolved. This seems very positive, however it becomes over-functioning when your energy and actions are uninvited or unwanted by others and are at the cost of your own self-care.
As you can see from this list of triggers, there’s nothing wrong with anyone who reacts to any of these feelings. The key is to recognize that taking action for another is not the only choice you have. However, it’s probably the “well worn” path for do-ers and helpers and may even be an unconscious reflex. It can be scary when someone else seems to be in-charge of your life circumstances and can have a direct and potentially negative impact on you. Over-functioning to try to save yourself pain and suffering seems like a logical survival strategy.
What can you do to avoid Over-functioning?
Just being aware of the possibility of over-functioning is going to have a huge impact on your future decisions and actions. That’s a great start and may be all that is required. Becoming conscious of how fears can trigger over-functioning is another important step. The more conscious you are of your reactions to any of the tempting triggers, the more effective and powerful your conscious response will be. Taking action to help another is only one choice.
What are some other choices?
1. Do nothing for someone else and allow “natural consequences” for the people involved.
2. Talk with the person about your view of the situation and review the possible action steps, as you see it, with the ones directly involved. Realize that providing them with more choices and ideas is valuable in and of itself, then step back from the situation.
3. Ask “How can I best support you?” If they say, “There’s nothing for you to do,” believe them, and honor their answer. If they give you any ideas, help them where you can without creating any negative impact on yourself.
4. Focus on what you can do for yourself. Create choices that will provide YOU with as much safety as possible for each possible outcome that you think/fear may occur.
Example of Over-functioning and an alternative choice
Classic Over-functioning: It’s your spouse’s Aunt’s birthday next week and you have reminded him or her about it once or twice already. You’ve even written it on the kitchen calendar. You’re afraid they might forget and, in your mind, that would make you all look bad. Last year there were all kinds of melodrama and bad feelings when your spouse did forget her birthday.
You feel anxious and do not want to repeat that situation. In the past, you have gone so far as to get, address and stamp a card, write the phone number on a sticky note, hand it to them as they leave for work and then left voicemail and email reminders for them at the office…all in hopes he or she will take action but it hasn’t worked and your actions cause tension between the two of you.
A Supportive Choice: Say something like this: “Honey, I want to support you in remembering your Aunt’s birthday this year. What can I do to help you?” Listen. If they say they don’t want your help…believe and honor their feelings. You can get a card “from both of us” and send it with your best wishes. If your spouse forgets again, at least the Aunt will have a card from you. If Auntie gets upset because she didn’t get a signed card from her niece or nephew, let them deal with it their own way…or not. Do your best to stay out of it. Their relationship is NOT your responsibility-although it can sure feel that way sometimes.
This second choice keeps you from trying to control and judge others, gives voice to your concern in a helpful way, usually bringing you and your spouse closer while honoring the boundaries of the other relationship. This alternative is also effective because it gives you something to do with your energy to contribute to a positive solution.
Pausing is a powerful antidote for over-functioning.
The next time you feel yourself getting ready to help someone, stop and take a moment to breathe and reflect. Stop for a moment to give yourself a chance to realize what you’re about to do. Sometimes a pause to ask yourself, “Am I over-functioning here?” is all it takes to help you see you have options. Ask yourself a couple of questions so you can become conscious of what you’re thinking and feeling.
1. “In this situation, what’s really MY responsibility?
2. “What am I hoping to accomplish with my actions?
3. “How much have I already done? Am I about to do too much?”
4. “Am I acting out of fear or love?”
5. “What can I do to help myself deal with this situation?”
Why would you want to stop over-functioning?
Because it can be exhausting, sometimes creates more problems than it solves, can enable others to continue to avoid their responsibility for their own lives and usually creates relationship stress. (Just to name a few reasons.) When we become aware of this draining behavior, over-functioning can be avoided and we can use our “freed-up” energy to focus on self-care and boundaries-a good thing for everyone.
If after reading this article you realize that you have been over-functioning, please be compassion and forgive yourself. You didn’t know. It’s helpful to reflect and learn from the past. Honor any feelings you have about being exhausted or angry or frustrated or afraid. Remind yourself of one of my favorite lines, “That was then and this is now. What do I want to create going forward?”
Learn from your past so you can calibrate the feelings of over-functioning and recognize it ASAP. Make a commitment to get better and better at holding your boundaries. Decide to value yourself more by making more conscious choices about how and when you use your energy. Decide that you’re going to help yourself first and then anyone else (like the airline oxygen mask line) so the quality of your support will stay high and so you will not put your own health and well-being at risk or at the mercy of other people’s needs and problems.
Sometimes realizing that you’re doing or have done something with good intentions but bad impact can be uncomfortable to acknowledge. Please don’t let that remorse or embarrassment get in the way of your newfound awareness or the joy and freedom that follows any self-revelation. There’s no need to judge yourself or beat yourself up if you have been over-functioning.
Over-functioning is a natural pitfall for loving and caring people that can be corrected or avoided with a moment of conscious thought and a new intention. The good news is that with this new awareness, you can make wiser choices, potentially reduce or avoid pain and anger in your relationships and focus more of your precious resources (time, energy and attention) on having a more balanced and effective impact on yourself and others.
© 2002 Cathryn Bond Doyle. All rights reserved.