Category Archives: Reflections

De-Stress With Mindfulness

My last post focused on the pandemic and the actions that my household is taking in response to it. This week, things have gotten more serious. Monday, our governor issued an executive order that calls for home isolation except to secure food and prescription medicine. Workers associated with essential services may go to work; all others must telecommute. It’s a troubling time.

I recently attended a virtual class on stress management and the immune response courtesy of my local Yoga/Tae Chi studio. Master Brian started the session by reminding us that we cannot control external circumstances. In fact, it creates stress and strain if we try to control them. We’ll get tossed about in waves of thoughts and emotions tied to external events and information. We’ll lose our ability to stay grounded, to see things clearly, and to take right action. And we’ll weaken our ability to combat infection disease should we be exposed to it.

say no to stressThese observations resonate clearly with a post I wrote two-plus years ago entitled Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. It provided high level findings from Dr. Robert Sapolsky’s book by the same name. In it, he notes that chronic stress gives rise to hypertension, excess fatty acids/glucose/cholesterol, digestive disruption, bone disintegration, immune system suppression, memory decline, and sleep deprivation. In short, it damages vital systems, weakens the body’s defense mechanisms, and elevates the risk of illness and death.

While I’m seeing products that purport to bolster immune response fly off the shelves, I’m not hearing many folks talk about stress management and its role in bolstering immunity. Yet I suspect that managing stress is a far more effective strategy for immune system support than loading up on supplements.

Our exposure to news outlets and social media isn’t helping. It’s all gloom and doom. I get it; the pandemic is frightening. Its global impact has been devastating, and there’s no end in sight. We may need to hear how bad things are to get with the program on making sacrifices to keep ourselves and others safe. And yet a steady diet of that kind of reporting is not good for stress management. If you’ve already got the message, it’s probably best to be a little less informed.

be mindfulWe need to create space between all those external events and information sources and our conscious awareness. When the gap is small, things that happen in the external world can hit us and knock us off our feet. They can take over our consciousness and stress us out. When the gap is large, we can simply watch what’s happening and remain unaffected. We can live in a state of total presence. We can let go of expectations tied to the external world and focus on the power and centeredness of our interior life.

Admittedly, I’m not stellar when it comes to practicing presence. I get distracted easily, and unfavorable news can cause me to ruminate and worry. So, I’m making a point of developing habits and practices that run counter to my ingrained tendencies. I’m journaling in the morning to get the noise out of my head, onto paper, and then into the “circular file.” I’m tuning in to my daily Yoga-Tae-Chi (on-line!) to encourage the practice of presence. And I’m establishing routines that create a sense of normalcy despite living in decidedly abnormal times. It all helps.

I’ve read and written about meditation but haven’t started a practice of it. It’s an auspicious time for me to work on quieting my body and mind. One step at a time. One day at a time.

A Pandemic Hits Home

This past week sent shock waves through our nation once again. I’ve experienced them before. I witnessed the oil crisis of the 1970s with long lines at every gas station. I lived in the SF Bay Area during the Loma Prieta earthquake and its aftermath. We’d moved to Raleigh NC in time to catch Hurricane Fran and the devastation it wreaked on our town. And I joined the nation in mourning the loss of life and sense of security with the terrorist attacks of 2011. I know the anxious feeling that uncertainty brings, and I tell myself that we shall get through it. But I surely do not like it.

covid-19The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic one week ago. Federal, state, and local governments have been taking action to restrict travel and establish a measure of social distancing in an attempt to contain the outbreak. As a country, we are scrambling to establish appropriate testing protocols and capacity to identify and (I hope) quarantine affected parties. We have a pressing need to flatten the growth rate of infection so as not to overwhelm our healthcare system. And yet some folks do not take the disease seriously based on the relatively small numbers of confirmed cases reported to date.

Here’s why I take it seriously:

  • Confirmed cases are likely grossly underreported given the relatively small numbers of tests performed to date.
  • Many people present mild symptoms and, therefore, do not realize that they are carriers of the disease.
  • The virus appears to have more staying power on surfaces that have come into contact with an affected person, thereby increasing its transmission rate.
  • Death rates are disproportionately high, especially for older persons. (My husband and I are older adults!) Those with severe symptoms often require hospitalization to avoid becoming a statistic. They may require a lengthy convalescence and may not recover fully.
  • I had an especially nasty bout with the flu 5 years ago. While it did not rise to the level of hospitalization, I have a keen sense for how “severe symptoms” present and the reality of never quite getting back to “normal” again.
  • The growth rate of cases has been exponential; demand for hospital intervention can rapidly outpace capacity.

We’ve opted to practice social distancing and home isolation. We’ll venture forth to address necessities, e.g., to secure food and prescription medicine. We’ll maintain a discrete distance from others when out and wash our hands thoroughly upon our return. In short, we’ll err on the side of caution to protect ourselves and others.

Meanwhile, we’ll take the opportunity to attend to some long-standing projects that have been on the “to do” list but just never gurgled up to high priority. For example:

  • We’ve reached out to our attorney to update our estate plans. We have been meaning to do it for ages. While I don’t anticipate them having to go into effect, we’ll feel comforted in knowing that we’ve done a yeoman’s job preparing for worst-case scenarios.
  • We’ve updated our emergency suppliers to hold us over if we need to shelter in place for 2-4 weeks.
  • We finished planting all the trees and shrubs for our updated front and back yards. We’ll pay closer attention to them going forward. It’s great exercise!
  • I’ll be catching up on sewing projects that have been nagging at me for weeks (if not months!)
  • We’ll finally get around to going through our closets and garage to identify things that we no longer use or need. I’m not sure when we’ll be able to dispose of them, but at least the hard work of going through everything will be behind us!
  • We’ll both catch up on “office work” that proves time-consuming, mildly tedious, and worth doing.
  • We’ll exercise consistently, eat well, and get plenty of rest.
  • We’ll make the most out of the quality time that we get to spend together.
  • We’ll practice gratitude for all the things that we have and be mindful of others whose predicaments are more precarious than ours.

I’m still unsettled by the uncertainty that surrounds me. But I will do my best to keep this household healthy and upbeat. Fortunately, having a blissfully ignorant, unerringly jubilant Scottish terrier helps!

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year 2020As far back as the Babylonia Empire, human beings have been making agreements with themselves or their god(s) at the start of the new year. Some involved returning borrowed property. Some related to charitable or chivalrous behaviors that they intended to sustain. Moderns focus on self-improvement (e.g., eat healthy foods, lose weight, exercise more, quit smoking, improve finances, make career advances, be more spiritual.)

Studies show that despite our best intentions, we often fail to attain our stated goals. A 2007 study from the University of Bristol revealed an 88% failure rate among its 3,000 participants. A 2014 report from Australia showed a 66% failure rate. Typical reasons for getting off track include setting unrealistic goals, setting too many resolutions, failing to track progress, and forgetting about them entirely. Yet despite our poor track records, over 40% of us continue to make resolutions every year.

This topic struck a chord a year ago when I wrote about the top 10 mistakes people make when launching self-improvement initiatives. I’ve also written a couple of posts regarding the science of change management. (See The Psychology of Change and A Business Model for Change Management.) Here are a few quick pointers rooted in neuroscience:

  • Don’t wait for New Year’s Day to create the new you. Start your program as soon as you can make a bit of time to set realistic goals, define baby steps toward achievement, and hold yourself accountable by tracking progress toward your goal.
  • Recognize that will power is a limited resource. Don’t try to make too many changes all at once or amidst a particularly stressful period in your life.
  • Build in support systems that make it easy for you to stay the course. Enroll your family in your program. Get a friend to take the journey with you. Leverage professional help, where applicable (e.g., physicians, nutritionists, trainers, coaches).

Even knowing all of the foregoing, I still make a bit of a ritual out of the onset of a fresh calendar year. I start by making a detail list of the major accomplishments and events that transpired during the preceding year. (This task feeds into the authoring of our annual holiday letter!) I get a real sense of satisfaction looking at everything that my husband and I got done while reliving the joyful memories. I think about the ways in which I have grown over the past year. And I compare this year’s list with last year’s version to note material changes or trends.

With the results of those exercises in hand, I visualize where I’d like to be when another year has rolled by. I come up with lists of things I’d like to accomplish, experiences I’d like to have, things I’d like to learn, and areas in which I’d like to grow. These lists become my monthly guideposts as I plan activities throughout the year.

I’ve read compelling research that argues for the efficacy of translating such lists into actionable, measurable goals. But I’m at a stage in my life where I don’t feel compelled to put myself on that kind of program. Rather, I let my general inclinations set the course and give myself the freedom to simply enjoy the ride.

Merry Christmas!

A few years ago, I got up a head of steam and digitize ALL of the old family photos. There were hundreds of 35mm slides and an even greater number of prints. Thanks to the miracle of PhotoShop, I was able to restore the color to a lot of photos and correct some defects that had crept in… but it was major undertaking!

As I sifted through the photos, I was struck by how many pictures we had of the family sitting at the dinner table awaiting the serving of a holiday meal. There were dozens of them with the same faces and very nearly the same seating assignments. But for my brother and I aging through the years, you could hardly tell which picture went with which holiday or year!

christmas dinner

I love looking at the old photos and remembering the rituals that accompanied our preparations for the holiday feast:

  • Mom bought San Francisco sourdough French bread a week before the big day so that it could be dried out and made into breadcrumbs
  • Dad worked the meat grinder the night before Christmas as my brother and I took turns placing the ground pork, bread crumbs, onion, celery, and parsley into the funnel. That mixture would merge with a pound of butter on the stove top and be stuffed inside the turkey the following morning.
  • Mom made homemade cranberry jelly and a cranberry jello mold. (Yep – we all ate jello molds back in the day… and Mom’s version was pretty good!)
  • We got up early on Christmas Day to stuff the turkey and get it into the oven. Dad always insisted that we clean the kitchen thereafter.
  • Mom made the creamed spinach, mashed potatoes, and gravy to go with the rest of the fixings.
  • We had pumpkin pie with whipped cream for dessert.

Once I married and set up my own household, the Christmas feast moved to our place with Dad and Mom taking control of our kitchen to prepare the traditional meal. Spike’s family joined in the fun with gratitude for the delicious food and the break from cooking and cleaning up. I still helped out, but Dad and Mom were the chefs extraordinaire.

I’ve always meant to carry on the tradition once my parents turned in their aprons. But my packed schedule combined with the magnitude of the task have conspired against me. Besides, it has been so much easier being a guest at my folks’ continuing care community. The food is delicious, and someone else does all the work.

I’m a bit melancholy this year with the realization that my mother, brother, and I are the only ones left from all those years of family Christmases. I’m grateful to have lived near the extended family and had the opportunity to share holidays with them. I grateful for having parents who knew how to make those days really special. And I’m grateful for all those photos that captured the merriment… even when I looked like a total dork!

Here’s hoping you have a delightful holiday fill with joy, laughter, and memories that will last a lifetime.

Take Time for Self-Care

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about slowing down with a nod to Cheryl Richardson’s short essay on the benefits of boredom. That message still resonates loudly for me. Having just come through 2 straight weekends of performances (and all the rehearsals that go with them), I feel an intense craving for down time. Unfortunately, I still have a packed holiday schedule, so I may not satisfy my craving for a little while.

I’ve been thinking a good deal about what happens when my schedule gets congested. Chief among the outcomes is the noticeable absence of healthy self-care rituals:

  • rushingI didn’t make it to any of my yoga/taichi classes last weeks (and could sense how much my body tightened up as a result!)
  • I didn’t make it to the gym. Not even once!
  • I didn’t prepare my usual complement of healthy meals and had an unusual craving for salty, sweet, fattening offerings. Yep – comfort food was screaming my name!
  • I got home late several nights and was so wound up that I had trouble sleeping.

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that these lapses are not good for my body or my immune system. And it’s an especially difficult time of year to put myself under this kind of strain given all the germs that are flying around. No wonder I’m feeling under the weather today!

We live in a culture that venerates hard-charging “warriors” who’s active in all kinds of things and gets lots of thing done. We look up to leaders who carry substantive responsibility for the world, their organizations, their people, and themselves. I like being someone who can run with the “big dogs” and carry a big load. And yet I recognize the toll that it takes … and I have had that flash of insight many, many times over the years! It’s time I either lighten the load or get others to help me carry it.

Don’t get me wrong! I’m incredibly blessed to have all of the wonderful opportunities that have come into my life. I love being active; I relish the relationships that come with membership in my various groups. It’s just long past time that I practiced moderation and delegation.

One of the side benefits of following a predominantly whole food plant-based diet is all the time spent in the kitchen chopping, slicing, dicing, and cooking. It forces me to step away from the hustle-bustle of life – generally with my husband as Sous-Chef – where I’m in a somewhat meditative state while basking in the aromas that waft through the air. It just takes a little bit of planning and a commitment to my role as Head Chef. And, of course, I get great food in that bargain.

Perhaps I should follow the sage advice of personal coaches everywhere – put self-care on my calendar and declare that time sacrosanct!

Slow Down!

Nearly 20 years ago, seven other ladies joined me in a year-long discussion group centered on Cheryl Richardson’s Life Makeovers: 52 Practical & Inspiring Ways to Improve Your Life One Week at a Time. Each week’s reading includes a short essay, a Take Action challenge, and a list of resources for further study. It’s a manageable way to effect change in your life even if your schedule is as congested as mine always seems to be.

Our little group was cobbled together by pairings of associations. We each knew at least one other person in the group, but we met others for the first time at our first luncheon. Within six months, we’d formed a tight-knit association that provided a solid base of support as we each experienced substantive life changes. It has remained intact over the years despite a scattering across the country.

This year, I decided to go through the weekly lessons one last time on my own before sending it off to the library resale store. (I’m gradually thinning out my bookshelves as part of my long-term downsizing effort.) Most of the lifestyle adjustments she recommends have been integrated into my life. Some are active long-term projects. And some stubbornly refuse to yield to her good advice.

slow downAs a case in point, I just finished reading the chapter entitled “The Benefits of Boredom.” She notes that in an adrenaline-fueled society, it can be really challenging to slow down and do nothing – especially if you’re someone who has become inured to being on-the-go all the time. Sitting still and doing nothing can be really uncomfortable. And yet it’s that quiet time that promotes physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health.

I’ve written posts previously on the deleterious effects of sustained stress on the body. I’ve also written several posts on the positive impact of a regular practice of meditation. I understand intellectually why it’s not helping me to operate with such a congested calendar all the time. I really notice it when I’m in the thick of an overbooked schedule and make promises to not let myself get caught up in it again. And yet, I find myself in that position repeatedly. A good friend has told me that she’s going to partner with my husband and call for an “intervention.”

Clearly, I don’t like the do-nothing feeling. That’s why I’ve had such difficulty settling into a meditation practice even though I know it would be good for me. But my circumstances also arise as a function of excitement over opportunities that present themselves. For example, I’m presently singing in two choirs and have a small role in a musical theater production… on top of work, parent care, book group, entertaining, and the usual household responsibilities. But I’d kick myself if I didn’t take advantage of them while I’ve got the energy and resources to do so.

That being said, life managed to give me a wake-up call last week. I received a traffic citation by mail for exceeding the speed limit in downtown Beaverton. In fairness, I didn’t realize that the 4-lane road on which I drive repeatedly has variable speed limits depending upon one’s proximity to the main downtown area. (Lesson learned!) But the message that I’m rushing around entirely too much has gotten through loud and clear. It’s time for me to take a step back and make more intelligent decisions regarding how I spend my time.

In truth, I have plenty of time for self-care and quiet contemplation if I would just pay closer attention to how I spend it. I can say “no” to things that are low priorities. I can watch less television. I can put placeholders in my calendar for soul-nourishing activities for which I do not feel rushed in their pursuit. I can pace myself with respect to performing arts opportunities so that I’m not booked solid in the evening. And I can opt for activities that might be fun for my husband and I to enjoy together… now that he is retired!

The holiday season brings both joy and a bit of craziness to most of our lives. This year, I’m giving myself the gift of peace and a promise to take things a little easier next year.

My Football Stadium of Relationships

I was never much into football in my youth. But when I joined a co-ed, intramural flag football team in college, I got totally hooked. All of a sudden, the Saturday collegiate and Sunday professional games made sense. In fact, during the first 25 years of our marriage, my husband and I were glued to the tube on Sundays watching football while eating mass quantities of popcorn. Those were the days!

So, when I started thinking about all of the relationships in my life, it was easy for me to think about them in the context of a football stadium and all the action that takes place on the field.

My “teammates” represent the most important relationships in my life. They’re the folks who’re on the field figuring out how we’ll reach our goals and doing the work to get there. They show up week-after-week, ready-to-go in all kinds of weather. We rejoice together when we make progress toward our goals. We keep one another motivated when we have set-backs. We pick one another up when we fall. And we don’t care how much mud we accumulate in the process.

I cannot do anything meaningful, challenging, risky, or great without “teammates.” And I can’t imagine relishing life as much as I do without them.

The “opposing team” might include challengers or challenges that we intentionally place on the field to stretch ourselves and perfect our skills and strategies. They might include “teammates” who temporarily fill that role to help us become better prepared to address the real thing. And they might include adversaries and adversities that we hadn’t anticipated and for which we need effective responses.

Opposition is not a bad thing. It creates opportunities to expand our horizons while making us smarter, stronger, more experienced, and more vibrantly alive. It also encourages us to deepen connection with our teammates.

My “coaches” are experienced teachers, trainers, observers, and subject matter experts who’ve played the game and know how succeed. They may excel at strategy, individual training, team building, or all of the above. They are passionately committed to crossing the goal line yet retain the professional detachment to render objective assessments and advice.

Having a coach is not a sign of weakness. It’s an indication that you take the game seriously and want to give yourself the right tools, training, and level-headed counsel to succeed.

In life and on the field, you need to be as adept at playing offense as you do defense. You may wind up having slightly different teammates and coaches to attain mastery in both disciplines. And these “rosters” will likely change many times over the course of lifetime.

Changes in lifestyles, circumstances, goals, shared interests, etc. have a ripple effect on everyone’s lives. If you’re lucky, a precious few will sustain key roles in your life over the years. Yet, you’ll always need to be engaged in community to attract people into your stadium (and be open to entering theirs!)

Everyone else hangs out somewhere in the stands. Some serve as a cheering squad to provide loads of encouragement during the game of life. Some occupy close-in seats so that they can keep a close watch on the action. Some sit farther afield and pay attention from time to time. Others sit in the end zone up in the second tier and spend most of their time talking to their friends while eating and drinking. They may plug in when something noteworthy occurs.

We all make varying investments in the people in our lives. And we all implicitly set expectations for how we expect folks to show up for us. We need to discern accurately where folks “choose their seats” in our stadiums and set our expectations accordingly. As such, we won’t work ourselves into a lather if someone doesn’t notice what’s happening on the field if they’ve opted to sit in the nosebleed seats and drink beer. Just bless them for showing up!

I reserve the right to deny access to my stadium. I’m good to go with constructive opposition that serves a useful purpose for all concerned. But I’ve come to a place in my life where I don’t need relationships that are chronically and incorrigibly negative. That’s my definition of a lose-lose proposition. And why go there?

As you look at your stadium of life, do you have all of the people you’d like to fill the positions you have available? If not, what are you prepared to do about it?

Woman’s Best Friend

Brodie as a puppyHappy birthday, Brodie! Our Scottish terrier turns 7 years old today. Hard to believe that a few short years ago he was an adorable little 8-pound pup. That cuteness still tugs at my heart strings.

My husband and I grew up with dogs as family members, but we didn’t add a furry member to our household until Fall 2011. At the time, my parents had a Scottish terrier named Angus whose care had exceeded their capabilities. So, Angus came to live with us. He was a really mellow dog who enjoyed hanging out with me in my home office and using my husband’s foot as a pillow when we gathered in the den to watch TV. We lost him 6 months later to lymphoma. I was heartbroken and really missed his companionship. We remedied the situation later that year with Brodie.

The Cascade Scottish Terrier Club posted a meme today on Facebook that declares: “All dogs are therapy dogs. The majority of them are just freelancing.” Those statements ring so true for me. We’ve had a difficult few years taking care of my elderly parents – watching their physical and cognitive capacities slip away as they’ve transitioned from independent living to various levels of assisted care. It has been challenging for all concerned. I’ve truly valued having a happy little guy who brings dozens of smiles to my face daily. He also models behaviors that I’d like to incorporate into my life.

He is intensely loyal to his tribe and relishes being with them. He greets us at the door with great enthusiasm whenever we’ve been separated. He wants to be where we are and keeps tabs on us as we move about the house. He loves to sit in my lap or lay down next to the sofa with his head on Spike’s foot. He monitors “intruders” (e.g., squirrels, cats, rodents) and lets us know that they’re on our property.

He’s a low maintenance fella yet knows how to get what he needs. His internal clock senses when it’s meal time; he turns on the charm to make sure that we know it, too! He has a clear and unobtrusive way of letting us know when he wants to respond to the call of nature. And when he needs cuddle time, he gives a look that melts the heart and opens the arms.

He welcomes guests as if they’re family. He LOVES people. Few things get him as excited as a new face at the door. He prances around to get their attention, graciously accepts scratches behind his ears, and runs around the lower level to disperse all that excess energy. He’s not great about detecting when visitors are lukewarm about canine companionship; he assumes that everyone will love him.

BrodieHe loves to play. He stands at the ready to play “chase,” to run around the back yard, or to take on the dreaded “blanket worm” (a.k.a. a moving hand beneath a padded blanket.) He can get so excited that you’d think he’d wag his tail off!

He works for pay. He knows quite a few tricks, but he won’t readily perform them unless treats are involved!

He gets plenty of rest and enjoys “alone time” in his crate. He takes comfort in having the protection of his crate when taking naps or nodding off for the night. He hangs out there when we’re gone unless a comfy spot under the dining room table beckons. He gets a good night’s sleep every night… well, unless there’s thunder or fireworks.

There are times when it’s a hassle having a dog. We’re restricted when going out, being mindful of attending to his basic needs. And we’ve got to arrange caregiving if we leave town for the weekend. But those are minor inconveniences in proportion to the joy he brings to our lives.

Yep. I love my dog.

Becoming Locavores

LOCAVORE: a person whose diet consists only or principally of locally grown or produced food

I feel really, really blessed to live in the Willamette Valley. Our summer weather is spectacular: not too hot, not too cold. We’ve got the Pacific Ocean out West and the Cascade Mountains to the East with lush farmland in between… and some calming forests for good measure. It’s a little slice of paradise.

We’re blessed with a wealth of famer’s markets throughout the Greater Portland Metro Area. We try to get to the Beaverton Farmer’s Market every Saturday during the Summer Market (May through October) and at least monthly during the Winter Market. I love being around all the organically grown fruits and vegetables, and I honor the hard work that goes into producing them. And though we’re mostly vegan, we do partake of the grass-fed beef and pork as well as free range poultry from time to time. Fresh food really does taste better. And it’s all available right on our doorstep.

Beaverton Farmer's Market

A friend joined us for our weekly Farmer’s Market visit. She noticed how much more we pay for all that food relative to the average grocer. Here’s why we do it:

  • The average meal in the United States travels 1,500 miles from the farm to the plate. That effort consumes a lot of fossil fuel (of which there is a diminishing supply) and pumps a great deal of carbon dioxide into the air (which is bad for breathing and has been linked to global warming). The growers who support the Beaverton Market live and work within 100 miles of their fruit and vegetables stands.
  • Because grocery store fruit and vegetables travel a substantial distance, they must be picked while unripe and then gassed to ripen during transport. It just doesn’t taste as good and may not be as nutritious. (To their credit, many of our local grocers are doing a better job sourcing produce from local growers.)
  • Factory farms that generate ultra-cheap produce may engage in practices that result in resource depletion, soil erosion, water and air degradation, and food contaminants (e.g., pesticide residue). By shopping at the Farmer’s Market, we get to know the farmers and the methods they use to grow their crops. It’s better for our bodies and better for the planet.
  • Farming is hard work; the advent of industrial farming has been economically brutal for the “little guy.” In 1900, 40% of the population lived on farms; today no more than 2% do. Just since 1960, the number of farms has declined from 3.2 million to ~2 million. We want to support the folks who are still committed to this work. We’re voting with our wallet!
  • I like having a weekly reminder of our need for exercising stewardship of the good earth that we’ve been given. As Wendell Berry says: “Agrarian farmers know that their very existence depends on their willingness to receive gratefully, use responsibility, and hand down intact an inheritance, both natural and cultural, from the past… The land is a gift of immeasurable value… It is a gift to all the living in all time.”

Won’t you join me at the farmer’s market?

The Perils of Overfunctioning

My last post brought me back to my experience as a hospital chaplain when I studied family system theory as part of my pastoral care education program. It also got me thinking about an important dynamic that has informed my behavior ever since.

As noted previously, I’m a fan of Dr. Ronald Richardson’s book Family Ties That Bind. A brief section on overfunctioning and underfunctioning hit home for me. He defines these terms as follows:

  • The overfunctioner tends to feel that there is no option but to take on the responsibility and do the work required.
  • The underfunctioner may feel incapable and so allow – or even expect – the other to be responsible, saying: “I can’t” or “You won’t let me.”

In healthy relationships, we take turns being the overfunctioner and underfunctioner… or simply function independently and cohesively without over or under doing it. But in unhealthy relationships, we can get stuck playing one role or the other. We may even allow that way of being to spill over into other relationships.

I’ve spent most of my life being an overfunctioner. I learned this behavior as a small child within the context of my family system. Part of it came from a strong family work ethic. Part of it had to do with gaining approval for achievement, which often entailed doing far more than my share of group efforts to ensure our collective success. Part of it had to do with a sense of responsibility for my mother’s emotional well-being (which she encouraged). Over the years, overfunctioning became a deeply engrained pattern.

really long to do listOf course, the world rewards overfunctioners. We’re praised for being strong, hard-working, responsible, get-it-done team players. We get promotions on the job because the higher-ups realize that we’ll make sure that our assignments and those of our subordinates will be completed… even if doing so renders us bone-weary. And we may feel a sense of pride in the skills that we develop and the work that we achieve along the way. But there’s a cost…

When we overfunction chronically, we hold other people small. We’re sending out the implicit signal that we don’t find them capable of doing their work. We’re not giving them the opportunity to step up and grow. And we’re creating a dependency that we may not be able to sustain. They may buy into this bargain and, in fact, enjoy being coddled. But in reality, we’re not doing them any favors long term.

Overfunctioning introduces tension in a relationship. No matter how noble our intentions might be at the onset, we may resent doing all the extra work and get irritable with the folks who we deem underfunctioners. And they may grow resentful of us for creating a dependency… even if they’ve agreed to it implicitly or explicitly. Furthermore, by failing to bring forth the richness of our compatriot’s wisdom and talents, we miss out on a level of greatness that accrues to a genuinely collaborative effort.

Overfunctioners can fall prey to pridefulness. We can feel as though our ways are the only ways. We may see ourselves as indispensable when, in reality, the world will continue to spin in its axis whether we participate in its daily rotations or not. Beyond the arrogance of it all, we can run ourselves into the ground keeping up with a needlessly hectic and overstuffed workload.

I’m hardest hit on my overfunctioning tendencies in volunteer roles. In most not-for-profit organizations, there are a handful of people who do a lion’s share of the work and a whole lot of folks who enjoy a free ride. I usually count myself among the lions, especially when I see the burden that the stalwart volunteers bear. However, I am learning to pace myself and do my share (and then some) and let others choose how much they’re willing to contribute. That may mean letting the organization come to terms with how much work it is willing to take on and how many things it is willing to let go undone.

It’s a life-long challenge for me… but I’m working it every day.