The Overfunctioning Woman

I recently spent a weekend in the company of two overfunctioning women.  Both have been orchestrating others’ lives for some time. I found being around them exhausting and frustrating. I wanted to run away and hide.  I also wanted to examine my own tendencies to take charge.

Holding It Together

The phenomenon of the overfunctioning women is not new.  For many generations, women have been the ones to hold families together.  More recently, women have been multitasking at home and at work simultaneously; often women who support executives are the one’s holding companies together.   It’s easy to see overfunctioning play out in others’ lives; trickier to spot one’s own directive behavior.

Anxiety At the Core

Anxiety is at the core of overfunctioning.  Terrible things might happen if one sits back and watches others take charge...or not. Appointments would be missed; wrong turns would be made; and the world as we know it would be in jeopardy. Overfunctioners do make life run smoother but at what cost?  Doing all the heavy lifting is physically and emotionally draining.  Relationships also suffer.  An overfunctioning person sends signals that he or she knows better than anyone else; can perform better than others.  Sometimes the overfunctioning person is overtly critical; sometimes the judgment is covert. 

Overfunctioning at home or at work is a way to prove one’s worth; again, at great cost to the one in overdrive and to those left in her wake.  The children and partners of an overfunctioning woman are often woefully underdeveloped.

The Symbiotic Relationship

The “perfect” symbiotic relationship is an overfunctioner with an underfunctioner.  Sometimes being a slacker is fun. In the long run, however, allowing others to do your dirty work takes a toll on one’s self esteem.  With a steady diet of underfunctioning, one starts believing that the other person is vital to one’s survival and that functioning well on one’s own is near impossible. Such beliefs tend to foster resentment and passive/aggressive behaviors.  Thus, the overfunctioning/underfunctioning couple is not a match made in heaven.

A Life Examined

After my weekend observing overfunctioning in others, I started observing my own tendencies to be Ms. Bossypants.  Once or twice, I have been able to censor a “suggestion” and see that nothing terrible happened as a result.  Of course, a fine line exists between assertiveness and overfunctioning.  Becoming a doormat is not a good antidote to overfunctioning.

Here’s a story that turned out well: 

Seven of us meet for dinner at small neighborhood restaurant the other night.  My husband and I arrived first and were seated at a table on the converted porch.  Immediately the dampness affected me and I asked if we could be moved to another table when/if one became available.  Fortunately, they were able to accommodate us in the warm part of the restaurant after all the guests arrived.   One guest, a woman, made seating recommendations around the table; two men ordered bottles of wine and another woman familiar with the menu began ordering tapas for all of us to enjoy. I could retire from taking charge and have a relaxed evening.

Observing these interactions and one’s own responses makes for an interesting parlor game.  And limiting one’s own tendencies to overfunction or underfunction is a healthy activity for women and men alike.