Overfunctioning Part 2: How to Stop Overfunctioning in Relationships: Managing the Over and Underfunctioning Pattern - Happy as a Mother

Overfunctioning Part 2: How to Stop Overfunctioning in Relationships: Managing the Over and Underfunctioning Pattern

with Licensed Therapist Dr. Kathleen Smith


  • What to Do When You Feel the Overfunctioning Pattern Begin
  • Managing Expectations as You Break the Cycle
  • Self-Regulation Tips for When Letting Go Feels Hard
  • How to Evaluate When to Stop Overfunctioning in Relationships

In last week’s blog post, we took a look at how to recognize overfunctioning—when one partner tries to control situations and do everything themselves because of their own anxiety. Today, Dr. Kathleen Smith returns for part 2—how to stop overfunctioning in relationships. 

With the right strategies, you can understand where overfunctioning comes from and how to evaluate when to stop. You can also develop the tools you need to step back and manage it, breaking the cycle and letting your partner and children become more capable.

The Need to Step Back

But when he wants to help, he has to gather up his gear, get a stool to reach the sink, then take a painstakingly long time to wash each dish. It turns what would be a three-minute task into a 20-minute ordeal. 

For a recovering perfectionist like myself, that situation can be very stressful. Not only do I need to make sure that he’s washing the dishes correctly, but I also have to let our day slow down while he helps. 

My son gains a lot from doing the dishes—confidence, self-assuredness, and a feeling of contribution to the house. So, even though I have to almost physically bite my tongue and let go, I know that it’s important to step back and just let it happen sometimes. 

And it isn’t just the dishes. I’ve had to develop skills to manage my desire to jump in and overfunction when my kids are fingerpainting, doing sensory activities, or anything else that might cause a mess or put a hitch in our routine. 

For many of us, managing our overfunctioning can be very difficult. Dr. Kathleen’s advice on how to stop overfunctioning in relationships is practical and doable—even for those of us who want perfection! 

What to Do When You Feel the Overfunctioning Pattern Begin

One of the first tips Dr. Kathleen has about letting go and putting an end to the overfunctioning cycle is to not go too hard on ourselves. Some of us have been building these tendencies for our entire lives. We’ve taken on the majority of the load for so long, it seems scary to let go. If we can give ourselves grace, we have a better chance of changing the pattern. 

The first step to managing overfunctioning is to build up awareness and curiosity. We have to recognize our own tendencies to jump in and control situations, and train our brains to stop and ask, “Where is this coming from? Why am I trying to control this situation?” 

That curiosity allows us to separate out situations where we need to intervene from those where we benefit from stepping back. 

We also need to learn how to tolerate discomfort. As we pull back and stop controlling situations, there might be more mess and less structure. But that isn’t always a bad thing. If those around us are gaining independence, pride, and capability, then it’s often worth the discomfort. 

Finally, we have to learn to set healthy boundaries, with others and with ourselves. Think about what you can release, and what you need to hold onto. For example, in my situation, that might look like allowing my son to wash the dishes for just ten minutes and then moving the day along. 

Managing Expectations as You Break the Cycle

Breaking the pattern of over and underfunctioning doesn’t happen overnight—not for us, and not for those around us. When we start overfunctioning, those around us often pull back and lose the motivation to do things for themselves. 

That pattern has already been established. It’s going to take some time for others to build back up their own muscles and start to take ownership. 

Be patient and resist the urge to give up and swoop in. Dr. Kathleen reminds us to hold onto our position through the adjustment period. The goal isn’t to change your partner—it’s to work as a team through an unhealthy pattern. 

Self-Regulation Tips for When Letting Go Feels Hard

For many of us, letting go and tolerating that discomfort can feel impossible. (I often feel a physical urge to swoop in and wash the dishes so they can get done better and faster.) We have to learn self-regulation techniques. 

Dr. Kathleen points out that there isn’t one magic self-regulation tool—instead, you have to spend time working to find out what works for you. 

Traditional stress-relieving techniques, like meditation and deep breathing work for some people. Others might thrive more with mindfulness and observation—things that pull us out of the reactive part of our brains.

Humor can also be a great tool for self-regulation. My husband and I often do this—we joke around about our own over and underfunctioning tendencies, bringing them to light in a less serious way. 

Finally, just getting curious about where your discomfort is coming from can help you pull yourself out of it. As Dr. Kathleen points out, the goal doesn’t always have to be calmness. Sometimes the discomfort is a great area for personal growth. 

How to Evaluate When to Stop Overfunctioning in Relationships

It’s also important to know that overfunctioning isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes, it’s a tool to help a situation. 

The key is thoughtfulness—what is the intention behind your overfunctioning? Are you trying to avoid discomfort? Or is it for growth? Is something an actual threat to your family? Or is it stemming from your anxiety? 

Dr. Kathleen says to start with asking yourself what your principles or core values are as a parent. Once you define those, it’s easier to see when you start slipping into unhelpful overfunctioning patterns. 

Remember that as you evaluate what feels right to you as a parent, you have to look within. It doesn’t matter what social media or the internet says makes a “good” parent. Your personal values are a better tool for evaluation. 

Your children don’t have to sleep through the night or behave perfectly or eat all of their veggies for you to be a good parent. And if you choose something like that, a measure that you can’t control, to evaluate your own parenting, you’re setting yourself up to feel like a failure. 

If you find that your anxiety and stress are difficult to manage, seeking help can make all the difference! Our Wellness Center can connect you to a qualified mom therapist to help you work through barriers. Book a free virtual consultation today!

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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