When anxiety hits, our brain often turns on its autopilot. We find the quickest way to calm ourselves and everyone else down. For many people, the fastest strategy is to become over-responsible for family, friends, colleagues, and even strangers.
Overfunctioning for others can be effective at managing anxiety or tension, but it can prevent both you and the other person from becoming a more responsible human. Sometimes the best gift you can give someone you love is to step back and let them function for themselves. If you don’t believe me, clearly your spouse has never told you how to load the dishwasher, or your mother has never tried to drive your car from the backseat.
Overfunctioning can be an easy concept to understand, but it can prove difficult to recognize and interrupt as it’s happening. Here's a list of behaviors that might indicate you’re taking responsibility for other people, and not your own anxiety. How many of these behaviors do you recognize?
- Making sure your partner wakes up/goes to bed at a certain time.
- Using phrases like “no worries” in emails to calm other people down.
- Having goals for your spouse or child that they don’t have for themselves.
- Finishing people’s sentences when they’re anxious.
- Lecturing family members about how to eat healthier.
- Giving advice to a distressed friend who hasn’t asked for any.
- Always picking the restaurant for your friend group.
- Lecturing a family member about how to cook dinner when they’ve volunteered.
- Reminding people they should hurry up and book travel.
- Doing something for your child that they can do, so it will create less of a mess.
- Doing something for someone they can do, because it will take less time.
- Taking on a task at work because teaching another staff member will be frustrating.
- Keeping a mental schedule for your partner because they often forget appointments.
- Being overly accommodating when people need to reschedule meetings.
- Not sharing important beliefs to prevent making others anxious.
- Telling people on the Internet what they should think or how they should act.
- Reminding someone to take their medicine.
- Telling someone what to order.
- Researching information for someone who can look it up.
- Creating a secret alternative plan when you know someone will mess up.
- Reminding your spouse or partner to call their family.
- Taking over a family tradition because you can do it better.
- Giving your adult parent dating advice.
- Explaining someone else’s thinking in a work meeting when they’re present.
- Updating your friends and family about people they could contact themselves.
- Putting more food on someone’s plate when they haven’t requested it.
- Hiding alcohol or food from someone so they won’t overindulge.
- Taking over for a colleague when they won’t do a task the same way you will.
- Giving someone directions when they are capable of finding their way.
- Buying someone a self-help book you’ve recommended.
- Doing something for someone after they’ve communicated they’re capable.
- Reminding an employee about an upcoming due date they already know about.
- Talking to a doctor on behalf of someone who is capable of communicating.
- Making decisions for an adult parent that they can make themselves.
- Mindreading the wishes of a family member without asking them.
- Telling a driver when to stop, speed up, or turn.
- Constantly checking in with someone who’s agreed to take on a project.
- Doing a task for someone when you know the task is going to frustrate them.
- Leaving instructions for a job that a person could easily figure out themselves.
- Furiously completing tasks for others when you feel bored, anxious, or distressed.
- Planning out a day for someone who you know will complain about being bored.
- Talking a lot to fill in the gaps and awkward pauses in conversations.
- Hectoring people to follow your previous unsolicited advice.
- Trying to convince someone that your thinking is right.
- Automatically paying for something to calm someone down.
- Taking over a group project that is coming together slowly.
- Steering your child away from experiences that may result in failure.
- Worrying about other people’s responsibilities.
- Always volunteering for the most challenging piece of a project.
- What else comes to mind for you?
Most of these behaviors seem pretty harmless. However, when they become our automatic way of managing our stress, we prevent those we love from becoming more capable humans. And we keep ourselves from learning to be calm without taking over.
We all have family members, friends, and colleagues who are happy to let us take over if it calms everyone down. This dynamic of overfunctioning and underfunctioning is reciprocal—meaning both people play a role. But what is the cost when this dynamic plays out in a marriage, a friendship, or multiple generations in a family?
To interrupt overfunctioning, you have to be able to do a few things:
- Observe the behavior in important relationships.
- Determine how you’d actually like to behave.
- Be willing to sit with the discomfort of letting other people be responsible for themselves.
- Look for opportunities in important relationships to enter into this discomfort.
On a great day, I can sit on my hands as my daughter makes a mess while eating a peach. Or when a group of humans bumbles their way through a task I could do on my own. On a good day, I’m halfway through a sentence when I realize that I’m trying to calm everyone else down instead of myself. But most days, my autopilot thwarts any opportunity for me to be my best self. The most I can do is keep paying attention, remind myself of who I want to be, and try again.
As you pay attention to the small ways that you overfunction for others, you can ask yourself these questions:
- When does my sensitivity to others’ anxiety make me overly “helpful?”
- How would I like to be less responsible for others and more responsible for myself?
- What are upcoming opportunities for me to turn off my autopilot and let people manage themselves?
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Bowen, M. (1978). Family therapy in clinical practice. New York: Aronson.