Overfunctioning Part 1: Do You Overfunction in Your Relationship? Recognizing the Pattern of Over and Underfunctioning - Happy as a Mother

Overfunctioning Part 1: Do You Overfunction in Your Relationship? Recognizing the Pattern of Over and Underfunctioning

with Licensed Therapist Dr. Kathleen Smith


  • What Overfunctioning Is and How to Recognize It 
  • What Overfunctioning Looks Like in Parenting
  • How Overfunctioning Leads to Maternal Gatekeeping
  • The Relationship Between Overfunctioning and Underfunctioning

Do you find yourself being the overfunctioner in your relationship? Overfunctioning happens when you take on more than your fair share of the parenting tasks in an attempt to control or fix a situation that triggers your anxiety. It often leads to unhealthy relationship and parenting patterns, and ends up increasing the invisible load moms are carrying. 

I sat down with Dr. Kathleen Smith, therapist and author of Everything Isn’t Terrible, to talk about the relationship between anxiety and overfunctioning, as well as how to overcome it. In part 1, we focus on how to recognize over and underfunctioning and why breaking the pattern is important.

(For the second part of our conversation, how to manage your overfunctioning, catch our blog post for part two!)

The Resistance to Let Go

I consider myself to be a recovering perfectionist—and that recovery hasn’t come without plenty of hard work. One of the places I find myself often wanting to exert control and make everything perfect is when my husband is dealing with tantrums or working through situations with our kids. 

That recovering perfectionist in me really wants to step in and coach him from the side on how to address the situation. I’m so afraid of there being a rupture in the relationship that I want to swoop in and protect everybody. 

But me intervening doesn’t help. It doesn’t help my children learn how to cope with different approaches. It doesn’t help my husband lead the kids through conflict. And it doesn’t help them form stronger bonds and deeper relationships. 

I’ve had to actively work to manage my need for control and step away, giving space for him to take ownership as a dad. 

That little voice inside me that wants to intervene, to control, is an overfunctioning pattern trying to take over. It stems from my own anxieties, my own fears, and my own beliefs. 

What Overfunctioning Is and How to Recognize It 

Through my training as a therapist, I’ve learned about many different approaches and tactics for managing anxiety. But Dr. Kathleen’s book, Everything Isn’t Terrible, really resonated with me. The way she discusses anxiety and how it manifests is so relatable and accessible. I couldn’t wait to interview her about anxiety in parenting and how to manage it. 

As Dr. Kathleen points out, we don’t experience anxiety in a vacuum—it affects those around us, and is impacted by them as well. If your partner seems anxious, your own anxiety might be triggered. In order to try to control the situation, you might remove yourself from the situation, try to fix the problem causing the anxiety, or even break down. 

But for many of us, anxious thoughts lead us to an even more extreme reaction. We try to keep everything around us stable by intervening and doing things for others that they can, and should, do for themselves. 

This is called overfunctioning, and it stems from anxiety. Dr. Kathleen says that it comes with a cost—especially when it comes to parenting. 

What Overfunctioning Looks Like in Parenting

Overfunctioning in parenting comes from an attempt to fix or calm an immediate situation. For example, if your child has a strong preference for you, and your partner tries to put them to bed, they might resist, or even melt down. 

Listening to your child cry out for you can be very triggering, and the easiest, fastest solution is for you to step in and take care of the nighttime routine yourself. 

But not only is that exhausting for the parent taking everything on, but it’s also unhelpful for the relationship between your child and the other partner. 

This happens so often in parenting because we are hardwired to protect our children—we don’t want them to be upset, especially when we have the ability to fix it. So we often fall into a pattern of stepping in and controlling the situation. 

How Overfunctioning Leads to Maternal Gatekeeping

I often hear moms in my DMs asking about maternal gatekeeping. That occurs when moms become highly overprotective, to the point where they think they must be the ones to do everything. 

Moms that find themselves maternally gatekeeping might have difficulty releasing any tasks to their partner, instead taking on every night feed, diaper change, and interaction with the children. Maternal gatekeeping is essentially an extreme form of overfunctioning. 

Dr. Kathleen points out that when we want to intervene in a situation, we have to ask ourselves, “Is this really causing any harm to my child?” Our children don’t always need every obstacle removed. Sometimes, they need to experience different parenting styles, different personality types, or different approaches to conflict. 

For example, you know your child’s quirks better than anyone. You know what will set your child off for a tantrum. But your child is going to encounter people in their lives who don’t know their preferences. It’s important for them to be able to work through that. 

Dr. Kathleen says to ask yourself, “What’s more important? Having my child experience this situation ‘perfectly’ every time? Or having multiple relationships with people who are confident and capable?”

When you put it like that, it’s a no-brainer. But it can be hard to remember in the moment. 

The Relationship Between Overfunctioning and Underfunctioning 

When stressful situations pop up for our children, our anxiety can start flaring up. We want to calm and fix the situation. 

But if we’re always smoothing everything out ourselves, we rob our partners and other family members of the chance to learn coping skills and become empowered in their relationships with our children. 

Overfunctioning can fix situations in the short-term, but it doesn’t help anybody become more capable. 

Often, when we can’t let go, and we step in and coach, instruct, or take over, it leads to an unhealthy pattern of overfunctioning and underfunctioning. As one partner starts taking over situations that the other person could easily handle, that second partner becomes demotivated to try to handle things themselves. 

That makes the overfunctioner in the relationship cling even more tightly. The cycle and pattern continues—and both partners are responsible for it. 

Dr. Kathleen points out though, that there isn’t always one overfunctioner in a relationship. Sometimes, we are both the underfunctioner and overfunctioner, depending on the situation. 

We all have strengths and preferences, and there’s nothing wrong with distributing labor in a way that reflects that. But we should be thoughtful about the way that we do so, and make sure that neither partner becomes incapable or resentful of the other. 

(If you are facing resentment and conflict in your relationship, don’t miss the Reconnect Bundle: How to move past unfairness in your relationship and build real connection!)

Over and Underfunctioning and Mental Health

Overfunctioning and underfunctioning are rarely deliberate. You don’t necessarily intend to take everything on yourself or put everything on your partner. There is a relationship between the way it plays out and mental health. 

For example, many of my clients suffer from extreme postpartum anxiety. They find it almost impossible to let go of even the simplest tasks. 

On the other hand, I recall during my struggle with postpartum depression that it was hard for me to motivate myself to tackle tasks. My husband ended up taking on many responsibilities while I worked through my difficulties with a therapist. 

Dr. Kathleen says that we should give ourselves grace when struggling with mental health. However, sometimes completing tasks can actually help when we’re struggling with depression, giving us a much-needed self-esteem boost! 

In times of mental health difficulties, communication with your partner is key. It’s fine for one partner to take on more for a time—just be aware of the way it happens and avoid getting locked into a pattern in the long-term. 

For more on overfunctioning, be sure to read the second part of the blog post, where we’re covering how to manage your overfunctioning and keep your anxiety in check when the temptation to jump in arises!

If you’re struggling with your mental health, don’t wait to seek help! Our Wellness Center can connect you with a mom therapist to help. Book your free virtual consultation now

Dr. Kathleen Smith is a licensed therapist and author of the book Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down. She is also an associate faculty member at the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family. Dr. Smith lives in Washington, DC with her husband and daughter.       





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