From our Ask The Experts Contributor Dr. Merry Lin
I’ve recently been going through some major decisions in my life, and as part of that processing, God led me to an article I read about “over-responsibility” and boy, did it hit me between the eyeballs. In fact, I cried during the first part of the article because it described me to a T, and why I was feeling trapped in parts of my life, rather than free. God was showing me that it was an internal trap I had created, based on taking on responsibilities that he never intended for me to take. Any of you with me on this??
There were places in my life where I realized I was in bondage to expectations and limitations (real and perceived) placed on me by others, to my own inner compulsions and to popular misconceptions of what life in Christ is all about. I struggled with questions about what it meant to be a woman, especially a Christian woman.
We now have a plethora of choices in front of us – while this can give us the freedom to choose, it can also paralyze us and we can ultimately feel trapped with all that we have on our plate, all the responsibilities around career and family – feelings of guilt because we can’t do it all well.
For me, that guilt drives a sense of over-responsibility, where I have felt the only way to deal with my sense of guilt and responsibility by over-functioning. I don’t want MY choices to have a career to harm my family, and so I over-compensate. And even though I know being a superwoman isn’t possible, I still try!!
When we’re high functioning leaders or parents, we can end up in this dance of over-functioning to compensate for gaps that we see around us. And this is where I see committed, conscientious people often burn themselves out.
Over-functioning is taking responsibility not just for your own life but for the lives of everyone around you – I know, isn’t that the definition of a leader?? I’m pretty sure I read that in the Bible somewhere. The over-functioner is someone who looks like they have it all together. They are high capacity, reliable, typically viewed as a strong performer. The characteristics include doing work you know you should delegate to others, feeling responsible for someone else’s feelings and happiness, being overly focused on another person’s problem, offering frequent advice to help others, worrying about others, having goals for others they don’t have, and doing things that are part of the other person’s responsibility. I know THAT is the definition of a parent!!
Notice that over-functioning is not just about doing for others; it includes thinking or feeling for others in a way that interferes with their own self-efficacy. This means that excessive worrying is a form of over-functioning, as is spending too much time thinking about how to solve another’s problem.
Burnout is not simply a matter of working too long or putting in too many hours; rather, it is largely an emotional-world phenomenon, created by feeling responsible for things that are not ours to carry. The solution, therefore, is not necessarily to do less (although that is often part of it), but rather to feel less responsible for what is another’s responsibility to own.
Two things we know for certain: (1) Over/under-functioning is always anxiety-driven. (2) Over-functioning always leads to someone else under-functioning, which then interferes with their growth. If you’re going ding, ding, ding, I’ve included a link to a questionnaire on my website (click here!) that will help you self-assess on whether you are an over-functioner! You can also listen in to this episode of The Fully Lived Life podcast that digs in even more into this whole idea of over-functioning.
Scripture tells us that “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,” Paul says (2 Corinthians 3:17). Here Paul is talking about an interior freedom. It is the freedom to be completely surrendered to God and give of myself to others in love in any given moment as the Holy Spirit guides me. BUT the key is that when I am secure in my identity and my belovedness, when I don’t have to protect or promote myself, when I’m not afraid… . I can live a life of full responsiveness to the Spirit of God rather than being limited or driven by the expectations or needs of others. This freedom moves us from the perfectionism, people pleasing and over-functioning that binds us, to the grace of embracing what is most authentic within us and offering it freely to our world.