Healthy Mind

5 Tips Overfunctioners and Underfunctioners Can Each Use to Process Stressful Situations

Mary Grace Garis

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Photo: Getty Images/JGIJamie Grill

In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, it’s abundantly clear that every person copes differently. Maybe your partner goes into overdrive, trying to to-do list themselves out any and all problems, while you feel incapable of finishing a single thing. A key component that’s likely at play to explain the difference between these largely polar coping responses is what overfunctioning versus underfunctioning looks like in times of stress.

Psychiatrist Murray Bowen, MD, originally used these terms to describe how family members function together, but you could be quarantining alone and still fall into the patterns of overfunctioning or underfunctioning. “Overfunctioners move quickly, take over, and micro-manage other people’s business rather than looking inward,” says leadership coach Carrie Skowronski, founder of leadership-development firm Leadology. “Underfunctioners are seen as less competent during crises, because they’re perceived as flaky, unmotivated, having problems meeting deadlines, making progress, and let others take over.”

Overfunctioners tend to be prone to burnout because of their rapid and constance pace of work, while underfunctioners can get so overwhelmed, they become fatigued by the obstacles in front of them.

And while neither personality tendency is particularly bad or negative, they both come with a unique set of challenges: Overfunctioners tend to be prone to burnout because of their rapid and constant pace of work. They like to control a given situation to the extent that that they have difficulty giving themselves a break. Underfunctioners, on the other hand, can get so overwhelmed and become fatigued by the obstacles in front of them. Because underfunctioners often don’t develop a strong sense of self-reliance and resilience, they may have a difficult time completing tasks themselves; they struggle with taking control of problems that can, indeed, be controlled.

Whether either of these identities seem familiar to you, or you more so exist somewhere in the middle the two, know that you can be mindful of typical overfunctioning and underfunctioning traits and override your response instincts when they don’t serve you. That means you can either slow the gears or pick up the speed to handle a given situation—whether that’s a global health crisis or anything else. Below, Skowonski shares a few tips on how to manage your over- or underfunctioning coping response.

Below, find 5 coping strategies for both overfunctioning and underfunctioning when faced with a stressful situation.

1. Notice your triggers

With both overfunctioning and underfunctioning tendencies, the first step for handling a stressful situation in stride is to notice your triggers. “When we can identify what we’re feeling and why we’re feeling it, then we can begin to talk about it, work with it, and start to shift away from patterned behaviors to a more optimal state of functioning,” Skowronski says.

2. Breathe

“When you catch yourself slipping into either [overfunctioning or underfunctioning], it’s important to breathe,” says Skowronski. “Breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which triggers the relaxing and calm function in our brains.”

There are a number of breathing techniques for stress you can try to help you restore a state of calm.

3. Do a self-compassion check

Again, whether you’re prone to overfunctioning or underfunctioning under stress, Skowronski recommends giving yourself grace in order to approach challenges calmly and with a level head. To gauge your sense of self-compassion, Skowronski recommends taking this free quiz—developed by Kristin, Neff, PhD—and working to elevate your score.

4. Reset your expectations

Resetting expectations is a component of self-compassion, but the way you do it differs based on your personality type. Overfunctioners, for example, might reset their expectations by doing less. “This could include putting less on your plate for the week, doing less for other people, as well as getting really deliberate around the things that they can truly impact and contribute to right now,” says Skowronski.

It can be tricky, though, to pull back from helping friends, family, significant others, or even your kids. What helps is to prioritize who actually needs your help versus who will probably be fine if you don’t answer their texts right now (your friend’s bored musings can probably wait for enough time). “A reframe when it comes to doing less is to consider how important it is for the people in your life to feel like they can handle tough situations in order to build personal agency and efficiency,” Skowronski says.

For underfunctioners, resetting means getting one thing done, and then seeing what unfolds from there. “When you feel like you can’t move and you’re stuck, begin shrinking the issue and deciding on just one thing you might do to get in momentum,” says Skowronski. “Instead of thinking about the bigger picture, which can feel overwhelming, ask yourself ‘What’s the first most important step you can make to create change in whatever you’re trying to achieve?'” Get that first thing done, and you’ll be shocked by how much you can get accomplished.

5. Connect

Whether you have the tendency to overfunction, underfunction, or otherwise, during this time of widespread isolation in quarantine, all of us need connection with other people right now more than ever. That said, depending on your personality type, with whom you connect might look different.

If you tend to underfunction in times of duress, then you might be lacking the motivation or inspiration to really tackle the problem at hand. But believe it or not, self-resilience can be learned, with the correct guidance. “It’s best to connect with someone who will help you shrink the issue and mirror understanding and empathy back at you, whether that’s a peer, coach, or mentor,” says Skowronski.

For an overfunctioner, your objective is to surround yourself with a few people—a parent, a therapist, at least a good friend or two—who can be a grounding force. “Overfunctioners should aim to find someone who can help respond with calm since they tend to have a bias for action,” says Skowronski. “If you’re running on hyper-speed ask yourself ‘Who can help me slow things down and reconnect to how I feel?'” It might also help overfunctioners to connect to themselves once in a while, which might involve disconnecting from the rest of the world by taking a walk and perhaps a break from technology.

What matters most right now, though, is that you function at a speed that feels comfortable to you, and give yourself permission to be human.

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