How do you manage stress, responsibilities or make decisions in the midst of your relationships with partner, children, friends or work colleagues? How do you stop overfunctioning in relationships? Do you step up or step away?

Overfunctioning is a term where one person habitually takes responsibility for ensuring the smooth functioning of their relationships. An example could be of Zara who organises activities for her family such as holidays; she takes on the emotional worries of those in her circle of relationships; resolves conflicts between family members; and gets her partner and kids to work and school on time. When Zara sees the burden and distress of those around her, her automatic response to the situation is to fix the problem instead of allowing others to assume responsibility and learn self-reliance.

Overfunctioners (OF) are the ‘fixers’, the ‘rescuers’, the ’reliable’, ‘responsible’ ones. They feel they have to take control of the situation. They have difficulty holding back and allowing others to ‘fix’ their own problems. This can often be an unconscious act. In taking on more responsibility, overfunctioners may get burnout.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the Underfunctioners (UF) who hold back, take on less responsibility, can be disorganised and have learned to allow others to make their decisions. Families may identify the UF’s as ‘lazy’, ‘spoiled’, ‘fragile’, ‘irresponsible’, ‘the black sheep’, and having difficulty showing competence when under stress.

If the OF takes on the worries and work of the UF, then UF will say to him/herself “why bother about it, my [OF] is doing all the work, so I’ll just sit back and do nothing or as little as possible.”


Overfunctioning-Underfunctioning Polarity

Therapist and author, Harriet Lerner, has written about these traits in her best-selling books ‘Dance of Anger’ and ‘Dance of Intimacy – A Woman’s Guide to Courageous Acts of Change in Key Relationships’. She explains that “…an overfunctioning-underfunctioning polarity gets set in motion and each person’s behaviour only provokes and maintains the behaviour of the other.” She said that when intensity is high, we react rather than observe and think; we overfocus on the other rather than on the self. We find ourselves in polarised positions where we are unable to see more than one side of an issue and will find new ways to move differently.

Harriet Lerner continues “…like a seesaw, it is the under-functioning of one individual that allows for the over-functioning of the other…. Under-functioners and Over-functioners provoke and reinforce each other’s behaviour, so that the seesaw becomes increasingly hard to balance over time.”

Patterns within the family system

As a practitioner of family systemic therapy, I map out patterns of behaviour within the family system and the roles which members of the family have played. It is these roles within the family system from the past that can impact your current relationships.

For instance, overfunctioners were taught to follow the rules of the family and being the responsible one. Perhaps taking on the mantle of the Good Son or the Good Daughter.

Underfunctioners were often overly supported by family members, they received more attention and did not develop self-reliance.

If you, as the overfunctioner, seeks change in behaviour from your partner or child, then the onus for change will be your responsibility as the UF will be happy for things to remain the same. The UF wants to hang on to the status quo.

Changing patterns of behaviour is not an easy task. It will mean taking small steps at a time so that others get used to the new patterns being introduced. There will be difficult days when it seems like you are ‘hitting your head against a brick wall’.

Before these changes are introduced, write down one change you would like to happen. Organise a time to have a conversation with your partner/child about why you want change to happen (yes, you will need to make this happen). Change is hard for most people and without this conversation, anxiety and disruption can increase.

Changing a child’s behaviour can be easier than changing an adult’s behaviour. Depending on the age and the behaviour, it may take around three to six weeks for a child to change. Adult UF’s may not grasp the impacts of their behaviour on you. Some UF’s may decide not to change, they like to keep things as they are. The OF will need to be firm in their boundaries. It may mean seeking a counsellor to help you in setting boundaries with a UF.

Whose issue is it? 

Ask yourself, “is this my issue”, or is it another’s issue. It can be easy for OF’s to step back in to sort out issues and be the ‘fix-it’ person. Being a rescuer or fixer is a trigger for you. It’s an automatic response because you have stepped in countless times in the past. As you become aware of your triggers, you can start to move away from your established behaviours.

If the issue is to do with the kids, and you are taking on more responsibility of getting your kids to school on time, then Stop. Tell your older kids that from now on, getting up and out in the morning is going to be their responsibility – totally. You will neither supervise nor nag them. Your kids will not at first believe you are serious, but they will believe you after they turn up at the school office for a late note and walk into their classroom late with all the other students staring at them. It’s embarrassing for your child but a learning experience. You may want to ring the school and let them know what you are doing, especially if you explain your purpose and label it ‘Independence Training’. Kids won’t learn maturity and critical thinking if parents take on their tasks and responsibilities.

You will be doing your family a favour by stepping back and letting them think critically on resolving an issue. Your kids will become independent and mature adults, and they will appreciate and love you for this. They will see how you resolve challenges, they will be led by your example.

Change doesn’t happen overnight, it’s a process. It may mean stepping away gradually, doing less for your partner, your kids, the extended family. Change requires self-restraint. And courage to see a better future. 

Tips to navigate your relationships 

  • Be aware of your own anxiety and the need to step in to fix it.
  • Consider lowering your responsibility towards others and being responsible for yourself.
  • When other changes occur within the family system such as moving to a new area, starting a new job, or having a baby, then re-establishing boundaries will need to happen or things will return as they once were.
  • Surround yourself with supportive people who will be calm in the midst of your anxiety and will encourage and sustain you on this journey.
  • See a counsellor who can help you navigate relationships and give you tips on repairing connections.

The ideas discussed in this post, though mainly focussed on family relationships, can be adapted for friendships or colleagues.

Functions within the family covers a large area. This article is a snapshot of ideas in helping family members to function in the best possible way.

If you would like more tips and strategies to manage anxiety or family relationships, give me a call or send me an email.


Janice WIlliams Counselling


Janice Williams is a Certified Mother-Daughter Relationship Specialist.

Sessions are available across Australia and worldwide.

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