Doing for others what they can and should do for themselves. Overfunctioning. This is one of the many helpful concepts of Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST). In BFST, overfunctioning is not a moral category. It is a response to anxiety. The flip side of overfunctioning is underfunctioning. Underfunctioning is not doing what we can and should do for ourselves. This is also a response to anxiety in BFST, and it accompanies overfunctioning in a sort of reciprocity.

These are not necessarily bad ways of relating. Overfunctioning and underfunctioning get us involved with other people and reduce our anxiety. What they do not do is help other people grow. These reactions bring relief to anxious situations to a greater or lesser degree.

Like other responses to anxiety such as distancing and conflict, overfunctioning and underfunctioning can become problems when they produce symptoms. One of those symptoms may be the relationship itself. Overfunctioning can also keep us from focusing on the things that are within our power and are our responsibility. It can keep others from having to face their own responsibility.

Here are five quotes from practitioners of BFST that help to explain what overfunctioning is:

  1. “The pattern of overfunctioning and underfunctioning becomes a problem if chronic anxiety intensifies the emotional reactivity (overly sympathetic, overly caring, overly controlling) and drives the relationship interaction. These sorts of anxiety-driven interactions are based not on the realities of people’s capabilities but on anxiety and distorted perceptions” (Bowen Theory’s Secrets, xvii).
  2. “The fixer’s Achilles heel is underestimating the resources of the people he intends to ‘help.’” (Michael Kerr & Murray Bowen, Family Evaluation, 109).
  3. “To the extent a third party to an emotional triangle tries unsuccessfully to change the relationship of the other two, the more likely it is that the third party will wind up with the stress for the other two” (Edwin Friedman, From Generation to Generation, 37).
  4. “Everyone knows that chronic underfunctioners need to change. . . . In contrast, if we overfunction, we may truly believe that God is on our side” (Herrington, Creech, and Taylor, The Leader’s Journey, 118).
  5. How do overfunctioning and underfunctioning relieve anxiety? “The underfunctioning one is freed from the anxiety of responsibility and decision making, and the overfunctioning one is freed from the anxiety of not being in control and in charge” (Bowen Theory’s Secrets, 52).

Overfunctioning is not bad, but it’s worthwhile to consider how and when we do it. When we see this pattern in our lives, we can become more intentional about when we overfunction and do not. Heck, we might even try underfunctioning once in a while for kicks. The key is to be aware of the pattern and the potential consequences. Any of the works cited above are good resources, if you want to explore this issue further.


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