Recognizing Your Reactivity to Anxiety: Overfunctioning/Underfunctioning

By Faithwalking

Does this sound familiar? Dad comes home and is really upset about something that happened at work and takes it out on the family by yelling at the kids for being noisy. Rather than asking him not to take his anger out on her and the children, Mom apologizes, gets him a drink, and hurries the kids out of the room so they won’t upset dad further.

Families, congregations, and groups at work function as emotional systems.They are emotionally hard-wired together. When one person in the group gets anxious, their anxiety ripples through the emotional system.

Anxiety is a part of life. When anxiety is high, the part of our brain that helps with thoughtful responses begins to shut down, enabling the reactionary part of the brain to take over. To diminish the power of anxiety in ourselves and in the group we must first learn to recognize it.

In our previous post Recognizing Your Response to Anxiety: Distancing, we shared how distancing can emerge within a group and the impact it can have on individuals and the group. In this post we will discuss how anxiety can express itself in a group when individuals engage in an overfunctioning/underfunctioning relationship.


When anxiety beings to ripple through a system, one way individuals deal with the anxiety is what we call the “underfunctioning/overfunctioning reciprocity.” Those are big words to basically say that in the  presence of anxiety, some people do more than their share. When some do more than their share, others get to do less than their share. An overfunctioner will manage her emotions and will also begin to take action to help the other person calm down as well. They might do this by not saying what they really think or not asking for what they want.

wherever someone is overfunctioning, someone else will be underfunctioning.

One way to step out of this pattern is to simply ask the question, “What is mine and what is not mine?” My feelings are mine and it is my responsibility to manage them in a healthy manner. Your feelings are not mine. While your feelings may make me uncomfortable, they are not mine to manage. The discomfort I feel when you express negative emotions is mine. [blockquote type=”center”]Getting clear about what belongs to whom is the start to getting out of this unhealthy pattern.[/blockquote]

look for these signs

Overfunctioning is….

  • Assuming more responsibility than is reasonably yours
  • Advice-giving
  • Doing things for others that they can do for themselves
  • Worrying about other people
  • Feeling responsible for others, or knowing what is best for them
  • Talking more than listening
  • Having goals for others that they don’t have for themselves

Underfunctioning is…

  • Assuming less responsibility than is reasonably yours
  • Asking for advice rather than thinking things through independently
  • Getting others to help when help really isn’t needed
  • Acting irresponsibly
  • Listening more than talking
  • Floating with no goals most of the time
  • Setting goals but not following through with them

Learning to assume responsibility for what is reasonably yours, and encouraging others to assume responsibility for what is reasonably theirs is an important part of a healthy and functioning group – whether it be family, church, work, or a missional community.

Are you interested in learning more about anxiety? Check this: Understanding Anxiety Independent Study.