Whenever someone claims there are “two kinds of people in the world” – extroverts and introverts, realists and idealists, optimists and pessimists – you can be pretty sure they’re oversimplifying. But here’s one that’s useful nonetheless: in your relationships with other people, you’re almost certainly an overfunctioner or an underfunctioner. Faced with a challenge, you either switch into fixing mode, taking control, attacking the to-do list, and offering supposedly helpful advice; or you pull back, pleading for assistance, hoping others will take responsibility. Put that way, it sounds like OFs are the productive (if slightly irritating) ones, while UFs are freeloading losers. But the true situation’s much murkier, and more interesting, than that.
The problem – according to Murray Bowen, the psychologist who developed the distinction – is that OFs and UFs get stuck in a mutually reinforcing trap. The OF takes on more than his or her fair share of responsibility for (say) housework, parenting, or finances, because otherwise they don’t get done. But that just reinforces the UF’s dependency, so now those tasks really don’t get done, and the OF must do even more. The relationship curdles, each accusing the other of either laziness or nagging. Once you learn of the OF/UF pattern, it’s hard to avoid seeing it everywhere, including a micromanaging boss who’s surprised to find that the more they meddle in their underlings’ work, the more they need to, because they have taken on their responsibilities.
If you’re reading this, and if you’re interested in these kinds of questions in general, the chances are you’re prone to overfunctioning, like me. (Let’s face it: making suggestions in a newspaper about how others ought to live is basically just pathological overfunctioning.) The thorny part is that it’s hard to perceive overfunctioning as a problem at all. OFs and UFs alike tend to think of OFs as the people whose lives are in order, who get things done, while UFs possibly get defined as an insufficiently motivated employee. Yet taking control is how OFs soothe their anxiety – just like accepting that control is how UFs soothe theirs. “For overfunctioners,” says Brené Brown, “it’s easier to do than to feel.”
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Breaking the pattern is tough, because the OF needs to step back and do less, which means potentially letting bad things happen and tolerating the resulting anxiety. (Harriet Lerner, who popularised the OF/UF idea in her book The Dance Of Anger, calls this “hanging in”: neither taking on the other’s responsibilities, nor checking out emotionally.) And don’t expect the UF to approve at first, either, since being pushed toward more responsibility is anxiety-inducing, too. Still, it’s the only way. To quote the psychologist Carin Rubenstein, overfunctioners need a new motto: “Be less than you can be.”