Overfunctioning (Episode 52)

In this episode, Kay Coughlin confesses to being an overfunctioner, and explains what overfunctioning is and when it might be a problem for caregivers. Importantly, when a caregiver overfunctions for a care receiver, it might be keeping both people in that relationship from improving their own health and well-being.

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Transcript of episode is below.

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Transcript: Overfunctioning (Episode 52)

Hi there. I’m your host Kay Coughlin. And you’re listening to From One Caregiver to Another. I am a sandwich family caregiver. I have kids at home and I’m the primary caregiver for my own mother. And you know what? I don’t believe the old stories and traditions about being a caregiver have to be true for any of us. I believe we caregivers can have dreams. Even when we have caregiver responsibilities, we have value as individuals. We deserve to say no and to have our own lives. Nobody can do it all of course, but we can decide what’s okay with us, what’s not okay with us, and we can dare to be ourselves. This is episode 52.

If you’re new to this podcast, you might not know that I am offering a workshop on boundaries and the holidays, and it starts on October 19. If you picture any upcoming celebration or holiday, maybe that’s Thanksgiving for you, or it could be the winter religious holidays, maybe it’s a wedding or even the Superbowl party that your family always throws. And if you picture those things and you have any anxiety or dread or if you feel resentful because you just don’t get to do the things you want because somebody else is always telling you where you have to be and what you have to do? I get it.

And I know that if you feel those things, then this workshop will be great for you. It’s for you even if you’re not ready to set boundaries yet but you still just want to learn some more so that you can do it someday, when you are ready. I’m going to invite you to register and the link is in the show notes, or you can always go to Facilitator On Fire.net/Learn More to get that link.

Okay. Onto the topic for the podcast today, which is overfunctioning. As you’ve probably already figured out if you are a regular listener of this podcast, I don’t rely on dictionary definitions a lot. I do this because a really common experience for caregivers is that true definitions of words don’t matter. The people around us interpret words and phrases however they want. And then they try to get us to fall in line with their definitions.

So what ends up happening a lot in my work as a coach is that I help caregivers redefine words and phrases and tell themselves different stories about their life. This helps cut through the noise of what other people want from us and helps us figure out what we want for ourselves instead, how we want to shape our own lives, you know, rather than living only according to what the people around us.

But just because I don’t talk about dictionary definitions much doesn’t mean I don’t look up the words I use to see what their technical or actual definitions really are. I love words. And it’s really fascinating to me to see how they are used. The topic of today’s podcast episode is overfunctioning, but when I tried to look up the word overfunctioning, I couldn’t actually find a formal dictionary definition for it.

It’s true. Now I did find a whole bunch of articles about it. So clearly the word is in use somewhere. And if you do a search for it, I’m pretty sure you’ll come across those articles too. And I will tell you this, if you do find a dictionary definition somewhere, especially if it’s in a dictionary that’s in common circulation, you know, like dictionary.com or something like that, rather than a technical dictionary, like one a dictionary that psychologists would use? If you do find a dictionary definition somewhere, please send it to me. I would love to be corrected on this point.

So what is overfunctioning? I’m going to write a definition for us here. Overfunctioning is when someone does something for another person that that other person could do on their own. Or when we do something for another person that they don’t actually need help with.

And then this help would be given on a regular basis to one person or maybe a group or an organization like a company, or it could be showing up as a pattern in a bunch of different relationships or situations.

I’ve got to be the first one to admit here that I have definitely been someone who overfunctions in the past. I try very hard not to do it now, but I really have to watch myself. I have a tendency to do this. I’m pretty sure that in my case, it comes from my perfectionism, which is honestly something that I’ve been living with as long as I can remember. And I mean when I was very, very tiny. I remember being a perfectionist.

But I can also see where that motivation to overfunction might come from a need to please other people. Or maybe overfunctioning as a way to relieve anxiety. Or some of us will do it to buffer from our own lives or things that are in our own heads or things we need to work on because after all, if you are busy overfunctioning for somebody else, it’s a really great excuse to ignore whatever you need to work on for yourself.

And as somebody who has done this throughout my own life, please know, I am not judging you if you overfunction for others too. And I’d like to encourage you not to judge the people in your life who do it as well. It makes it really hard to examine our own behavior and what’s behind it if we are busy judging ourselves or other people. And FYI, spending time and energy judging other people is another coping mechanism we use to avoid having to deal with our own lives. That’s not the podcast topic today, but I do want to kind of leave that thought right here since I was already going in that direction.

Anyway, back to overfunctioning. Before we get any farther into this. I do want to talk just a moment about the difference between overfunctioning and co-dependency, which actually is a word that you can find in a dictionary.

Codependent is a term that’s used by therapists a lot in their work, and it’s a more technical term. Being codependent is actually about a relationship where one person is addicted to something and that could be alcohol or gambling or anything else. And the other person is then dependent on that person for support, but in an unhealthy way. Psychologically, codependency is also known as relationship addiction. So it’s more about developing a relationship where only one person benefits and that relationship then is often emotionally destructive or even abusive. Basically codependency applies to a specific relationship and the dynamic in that relationship rather than a pattern of behavior.

So when I’m talking about overfunctioning, I’m actually talking about the behavior pattern, not the relationship between two people specifically. I define overfunctioning as helping people too much in a way that kind of enables their helplessness or that actively promotes another person’s dependence on you in ways that probably don’t encourage healthy behaviors or growth for them or for you.

And yes, overfunctioning behavior is pretty likely to show up in a codependent relationship.

Overfunctioning then is about individual behavior. And as individuals, we do have control over our own behavior, whether or not we do something. Now we can’t control when other people do it, although we can ask them to stop and set other boundaries, but we can’t control another person.

We can’t control when somebody else does and does not overfunction for us or for other people. It’s up to each of us only to manage our own behavior.

I’ve got an example of what I saw as overfunctioning, once upon a time. This is from many years ago, and it’s really stuck with me all of these years.

I was having lunch with a high level executive and his assistant. These two had worked together for a lot of years and I knew them both pretty well, but I didn’t sit down to have lunch with the two of them together very often. So what happened was our entrees arrived at the table. And I noticed immediately that before the assistant paid any attention to her own meal, she took the fork and knife that were set with her boss’s plate and she cut up his steak for him.

So when two adults are having a meal together and they are both capable of cutting their own food, but one person does it for the other. That’s what I would think of as overfunctioning.

Why does this matter anyway for caregivers? Well, to be totally honest, I see it happen in a lot of people who have caregiver responsibilities.

And again, I just have to be very clear that I am not judging and I don’t want to try to pretend to diagnose somebody’s reasons for overfunctioning. In fact, I think it’s an incredibly complicated topic because I do see it has its roots in Human Giver Syndrome. If you don’t know what Human Giver Syndrome is, I’ve talked about it a lot across these podcast episodes, but I recommend that you start learning about it by listening to episode number 35.

And I want to tell you about two ways that I noticed I had been overfunctioning for my own mom. The first one is that when we go for walks, I was making her hold my arm and I was really hovering over her. I saw after a while that she didn’t actually need that help and even worse, it wasn’t helping her get stronger. So now I encourage her to use two walking sticks, one in each hand, and I give her a lot more space so I can still keep an eye on her. But she loves the independence and she is getting a lot stronger and a lot faster and she has become way more confident and more sure-footed. And that’s because I stopped overfunctioning for her.

The second time recently that I noticed myself wanting to overfunction for my mom has been about a year ago. Mom wanted to start hosting zoom meetings so that she could visit with her friends, even during the pandemic. She asked me to teach her how to use zoom in that way. And at first I agreed, but you know, a day or so later, I came back to her and I said, you know what, mom, I think this is something you can actually try to figure out on your own. Maybe you could go to the zoom website and look for a tutorial or something like that.

So mom agreed. She thought it sounded like a great idea. And she went on YouTube and she tried a few different tutorials until she found one that she liked and that made sense to her. Now she’s got friends all over the country who call her for help with their zoom accounts. She’s a zoom guru now because she taught herself to do it because I stopped overfunctioning.

Here’s another one that I thought of, and this was five or six years ago. It may have been longer ago, I can’t really remember, but I noticed I was trying to manage who could communicate with my mom and about what, and when I was even asking my mom not to talk to certain people about specific topics, because I felt like when she did, I was getting blamed and shamed by those people for just some different things Mom and I were trying to work through in our own relationship. But I saw that she didn’t need that kind of help for me. That definitely wasn’t helping her because I was doing it from a place of trying to control who could talk to her so I wouldn’t have to do what I thought of as damage control afterwards. This one was really hard for me when I saw myself doing it. I won’t try to pretend it was easy to stop doing it, but I have felt a real sense of freedom by stopping myself from overfunctioning in that way and stopping myself from trying to control everybody else’s relationship.

One of the things I’m not saying here is that overfunctioning is necessarily a negative thing. It can be really nice to do things for other people. And obviously children and adults with different abilities from us could need a lot more help with different things. But learning to notice when you might be stepping over some imaginary line into overfunctioning and noticing is always step one, when you want to explore something and possibly change it while noticing it can serve you as a really practical clue to looking at your own life.

So here are two questions you can ask to figure out if you might be overfunctioning and just let yourself observe it. Remember, please do your best not to judge yourself for whatever you notice here.

The first question is: what are some things that I do for this person on a regular basis? This could be anything really, it could be making breakfast or making coffee, doing the laundry, always ordering the plane tickets or like. Always insisting on holding their arm while you take a walk.

And then the second question is: what do I think this person’s limitations are that are preventing them from doing this for themselves totally, or at least a little bit more than they are right now. So this is about you. What’s the thought that you have that this person has a limitation.

So just ask yourself those questions and see what you notice, see what you start to observe around yourself.

Then I think we have to ask this question for all of us who might be considering this: why is overfunctioning a problem? But I think an even better question here, or maybe a more useful question is: when is it a problem? Because it’s just not always a problem. It’s more complex than that, like a lot of human behavior. Sometimes things don’t work out very well and sometimes they kind of work out for us.

So if overfunctioning is something you are doing to relieve anxiety or to get people to like you, or if you’re like me and you’re doing it because you’re a perfectionist, that’s something you might want to explore. If you’re doing it to avoid something in your own life or to avoid having certain conversations, like conversations about boundaries, you can even look at your overfunctioning behaviors as an opportunity to learn more about yourself, if you want to. And you also might want to consider getting professional help from a therapist or a life coach or a real time support group.

If you are overfunctioning to save somebody from the trouble or because whatever it is would be hard for them, well, that’s enabling something for them and you actually could be getting in the way of improvement or the change that you’re hoping. So you could be helping in the short term, but at the expense of long-term healing or growth. You might be doing the opposite of true helping. The overfunctioning you’re doing could be causing more problems because you might actually be speeding up their physical or mental decline or aging.

I cited some research on this in episode 34, and that episode is called,  “People can change at any age.” So you might want to go listen to that. What we know now is that when people don’t use either physical muscles or mental muscles, those muscles are going to fade away over time.

Another thing to consider here is that if you are overfunctioning for someone else, especially if it’s just because you’ve gotten into the habit of doing it, that’s time and energy you aren’t giving to yourself. If you’ve been pruning your mom’s hedge because she was sick and frail, but now she can do it for herself again, even if it will take her 10 times longer than it used to. Maybe you can take back that time for yourself and let her get some exercise at the same time.

If you find that you can’t make time to shower or take a walk because you’re always in the middle of making meals to put into your father’s freezer, but you know he could eat sandwiches he makes for himself on some days. Could you stop cooking for him so much and take a shower or a walk instead?

I guess what I’d really like to leave you with today is this thought that when you overfunction for someone else you might be getting in the way of their health or growth or improvement, but you also might be getting in the way of your own self care. And since this podcast is about people as individuals who just happen to have caregiver responsibilities, I think this idea that we can stop overfunctioning and take care of ourselves instead could be, for us, wild and radical self-care that we can dare to do for ourselves.

Thank you so much for listening today. You can learn more about me and about all of this work at FacilitatorOnFire.net, and that’s facilitator on fire dot net. And there’s a lot of good stuff there, including links to my book, a link to my online community about boundaries, and I really do hope you join us over in that community. And links to learn more about human giver syndrome.

If you want almost daily doses of healthy support messages for family caregivers and sandwich family caregivers who want to dare to live their own lives, please follow me over on Instagram. And there’s a link for that in the show notes.

If you liked this episode, please leave a review and think of two people you can tell about it. If they’re new to podcasts, show them how to subscribe. Word of mouth is the best way to help podcasts grow, which will help more caregivers find their way here to get the help they need. I can’t wait to be here with you again in the next episode, From One Caregiver to Another.

your guide

Kay Coughlin, CEO of Facilitator On Fire, is a business coach for the non-profit sector and social justice businesses. She is also well-known for being an advocate for family caregivers.

In every forum she can find, she shouts that it's OK for every human to earn a living, set and enforce boundaries around their bodies, thoughts, feelings and actions. You can join Kay's free, private online community to talk about boundaries here.

Kay also teaches about emotional labor, how to rest, and Human Giver Syndrome, and is the host of the "From One Caregiver to Another" podcast and author of "From One Caregiver to Another - Overcoming Your Emotional Grind."

Kay is well-known for her public speaking on boundaries and self-care. 

Facilitator on Fire is a subsidiary of Donor Relations Mindset LLC, which Kay founded in 2015. She lives with her husband and children in central Ohio, and is the primary caregiver for her own mother, who lives right next door. Kay can be found on LinkedIn and Instagram.

Copyright 2022. All rights reserved, Julia Kay Coughlin and Facilitator On Fire.

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