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Over and Under-functioning

I got myself into a bit of a pickle the other day. I was part of a small committee looking into ways we could raise money to support our local sports club. Everyone thought it was a good thing to have but no one seemed to want to take the lead on the project. In the silence (unending as it felt to me) that followed the 'any volunteers?' or 'any ideas?' from the Chair I sensed my own burning need to fill the void. My hand moved, as if separate from me, upwards and the words 'ok I'll do it' were forming in my mouth . ,My mouth had opened and a 'Naagh' sound came out. 'What's up, you ok?' my neighbour asked? 'Yeah', I said. 'I'm good' and let my arm fall back by my side back like someone had removed the bone from it. 'It would be good to have some fresh talent on this on project.' I said, making eye contact with no one.

I recognised a tendency I have. I jump in and start getting everybody organised, in particular when things seem to be going a bit pear-shaped. I become very active. In fact I take over. I'm good at rolling into action, making lists, and giving directions to get things sorted.

Just recently I was listening to a set of audio CDs by Brené Brown called 'The Power of Vulnerability'. Some of you may have heard her superb TED talks on 'Vulnerability' and on 'Shame'. On one of the CDs she talks about how we all have a tendency in the face of anxious situations or systems to respond in one of two patterned ways: over functioning or under functioning. She cross-referenced the findings of her extensive research to Harriet Lerner's book 'The Dance of Anger.

Over-functioners, in brief, get into 'doing'- big time. They micro-manage. They quickly assess what needs doing and swing into action, multi-tasking as if they were on fire. Over functioners truly believe they are doing everything possible to be helpful to fix the situation They can see other people as either unwilling or unable to 'shape up' to their standard. Rather than feel vulnerable they go into action mode. Unfortunately those around them may reinforce this attitude by under-functioning and just letting them get on with it. Over-functioning is not just a description of a person's defensive style; it refers to a reciprocal relationship pattern. Interestingly, Brown found that the research she did showed that over-functioning appeared more in first-born children or first girls in families.

Under-functioners, by contrast, in the face of an anxious situation, get caught up in their feelings and start showing up less, don't get stuff done and get less competent. They especially slip back in the face of the over-functioners who are stepping in and vacuuming up all the jobs.

I was thinking about this in relation to coaching supervision. Sometimes a supervisee brings their anxiety or the anxiety of the coach's organisation into supervision. Our response may be absolutely on the money. However there may also be times our own under or over functioning can be triggered. Being really mindful we can spot this as it happens. I know I have noticed it at times when I see myself being over helpful with a shakey novice coach.

At CSA we put great emphasis on the importance of being fully present and really reading the field so we may already be picking this up with our supervisees . For some coaches who regularly work with clients frustrated with the behaviours in their staff, or in other colleagues, might find these notions useful too.

Brown says that leaders should know who they are in the face of anxiety and how they function in that state. When someone is in it they often can't see it themselves in the moment. She says leaders should have a couple of people around them who have permission to say if he or she has tipped into over- functioning. I think as coaches and coach supervisors we may have just such a privileged place.

When someone get stuck in over functioning changing can be quite a challenge, even difficult. This rigidity originates, according to Lerner and Brown, not just as a habit or a behaviour pattern. Over functioning, like under functioning, is a patterned way of managing anxiety that grows out of experience in our primary family. Under and over-functioners often come as a 'pair'. Where there are keen over-functioners there is probably one or more under-functioners. Like a see-saw it is the over-functioning of one individual that allows for the under-functioning of the other. The over-functioners may not appreciate that the more they 'do' the more it reinforces the under-functioned position. Given sufficient anxiety in a situation or a system, the pattern can become polarised and stuck.

The will not to change is often particularly powerful in chronic over-functioners. First they tend not to see they have a problem (or see the 'problem' as other people), or they don't know how to change.

Lerner says that 'if we can modify a chronic over functioning pattern, we will begin to be in touch with the real costs. It is frustrating, exhausting, angering, and draining to over function and be rescuing, bailing out, pulling up slack and paying more attention to the problems of others' than one's own.'

The payoffs though are high if we persevere and succeed. It is an act of courageousness to step out of a long established pattern and be fully engaged with our own vulnerability. It also means relating to the other person's competence, which is essential in encouraging a different way of rebalancing what gets done, when and by whom.

The Power of Vulnerability,CD 6, Brene Brown Sounds True audio CD set, Colorado USA (
Lerner, Dr Harriet Goldhore the Dance of Anger (1990) Grapevine, NY, USA.