How to create new operating instructions.
One morning last week, I was working outside at a coffee shop. At the next table, two women were catching up over breakfast. One ordered something large, frosted, and flaky, and when she asked friend if she wanted a bite, she declined. I watched her offer it up a second, and a third time, inching the pastry towards the other woman’s sealed lips until she finally got the message.
What is it about humans that we don’t trust people to know their own mind? It’s easy to spot evidence of other people’s overfunctioning. It’s much harder to see our own attempts to manage others. On a calm day, I can catch myself before I help my three-year-old pull up her pants or remind my husband to follow up with somebody. Before I offer an immediate solution when a client asks, “What do you think I should do?”
On an anxious day, I’m shoving metaphorical pastries into people’s mouths.
Here are a few ways you might subtly (or not so subtly) overfunction this week.
Finishing someone’s sentences.
Jumping in to fill silences in a conversation.
Debating someone’s version of events.
Giving people constant reminders so they don’t forget.
Asking, “Does that make sense?” a lot.
Saying, “But maybe I’m wrong” a lot.
Giving feedback before someone asks for it.
Explaining things that people haven’t asked you to explain.
Trying to convince someone to see a doctor/go to therapy.
Trying to get someone to make a “healthier” choice.
Trying to get someone to not make a “healthier” choice.
Assigning a task but then doing it yourself.
Assuming you know what people think without asking them.
Not being able to watch someone struggle as they learn.
Warning people about another person’s mood.
Taking on tasks you assume no one will want to do.
Telling your partner it’s time for them to do X.
Cleaning up after your kid because you don’t want to argue about it.
Overfunctioning is not a personality trait. It is one end of a reciprocal relationship process. People often act in a way that invites us to be over-responsible for them. They’ll look at you to finish their sentences. They forget things when they know you’ll remind them. They won’t tell you something is confusing unless you ask them. They’ll leave dishes in the sink because they know you’ll wash them.
Either person can interrupt the pattern. Often it’s easier for someone to step back than it is for someone else to step up. It’s less socially risky for the woman to put down her pastry and apologize, than it is for the other to say, “I need you to listen to me the first time I say no.” But the opportunity is there for each of them to define the boundaries between self and the other.
When I have a client who’s a therapist, I ask them what I call the “post-it note question.”
If you could put a single post-it note on the wall behind your client, what would it say?
Most people say they’d write instructions to help them ease up on overfunctioning.
Ask don’t assume.
Let people surprise you.
Connect but don’t control.
So this week I’ll leave you with the same question. What does your post-it note say when you’re having lunch with your mother, or getting your kid ready for school? When a work meeting becomes tense? How can you hold onto this wisdom when the anxiety goes up?
A predictable thing happens when you step back. You’ll have more energy to be responsible for yourself, and so will everyone else.
News from Kathleen
On August 24th, I’ll be speaking at the Family Systems Institute’s annual conference on triangles.
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