Overfunctioning, Underfunctioning, and the Search for Balance

Written By Alison Gurevich

In the last year I discovered the work of Dr. Brene Brown. It feels odd to use her full name and title because in my head we are good friends. Her research is fascinating and the hours we’ve spent with her speaking directly to me (okay, fine – they were audio books) gave me more than a few insights on my path to know myself better.

My favorite new-to-me concept from Brene is that of overfunctioning and underfunctioning. The distinction was developed by psychologist Murray Bowen and to keep it simple both are stress/anxiety responses: over does too much, under does too little. I typically thought of anxiety responses as simply fight of flight (freeze being a newer addition to the list) and did not give it much more space in my mind. If I was not running from the room or having some sort of argument, I assumed I was doing fine.

The reality is far more nuanced. I am someone who does things. I’m rarely still, because of all the doing. A few years back my yoga practice was a five day a week hot power practice and I had those classes booked as soon as the month started – along with everything else – so that my calendar was filled well in advance and I knew exactly where I could fit in more doing. Just hovering my mouse over the word ‘does’ my computer is quick to let me know it means to fix, perform, make or solve. Everything in my day would have fit neatly under one of those. But occasionally something would pop up and I just could not seem to bring myself to get it done.

The story I told myself about this was both easy and easily accepted: I was so busy no one could expect me to get everything done. But being a valid reasoning did not make it fully honest, and the more complete story is that in those tasks I know and now admit that I felt some anxiety. My normal tends toward overfunctioning but my anxiety response is fully underfunctioning with a bonus of skipping out on even acknowledging the anxiety by overfunctioning on other things at the same time. As Brene Brown says, “For overfunctioners, it is easier to do than to feel.”

Thankfully, yoga brought me towards balancing this even before Brene and I developed our current one-sided friendship. Before I discovered Brene, I discovered yin yoga. Yin was my first real journey into sitting with feeling and offered no mechanism to speed up the process. Yin brought me to stillness and meditation, the counter to all my doing. It was so distinctly not “doing” anything that it was tough. Do not stretch to your fullest? Do not move for 3 or more minutes? Why am I just laying here? 

Yin was the hardest class in my week, the hardest part of my day. My brain would plan the next ten years in the first 3-minute pose. Only 57 minutes to go, which of the world’s problems shall we solve while here in caterpillar? Sometimes by the last couple of shapes I would experience a breath (or two) without my mind filling the space with mental gymnastics, blaming, list making, fixing and doing. And on those days, I left with a calm and a balance that stayed for a while.

I believe that yin yoga originally felt like underfunctioning to my brain. Over time and with consistent practice I have reconciled that into a space of yin and yang balancing each other. This balance did not come by merely coexisting side by side in my calendar, but in each side understanding why it needs the other to exist. As with the symbol, there is a circle of yin in my yang and a circle of yang in my yin. There is still plenty of full speed ‘doing’ in my life, but I also now give myself a lot more grace and space to slow down and feel what’s happening in the moment so that I can recognize when I am too yang and heading out of balance.

We may each cope differently, but every single human is processing some level of anxiety on any given day. Some of us will overfunction as a form of the fight response, and some will underfunction as a form of the flight response, and most will find a mix of the two. I’m here with you. I’m doing both my yin and my yang yoga and keeping tabs on how and what I am feeling at any given moment. In this, my yoga practice has given me an amazing barometer on how I am doing at “hanging in”, a term Harriet Lerner uses to describe being in the more balanced place of neither over nor under functioning.

So if you ask me how I’m doing, I just might skip the typical “fine” and tell you instead that I’m hanging in. I hope you are too.

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