Category Archives: Reflections

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.

too many items on 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 on 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.

Two Years of Blogging

on-line learning

I launched this website by asking myself the following question: What changes can I make today that will increase the likelihood that I’ll enjoy good health, strong mental acuity, a positive attitude, and warm social relationships as I age? I challenged myself to write a weekly post on that topic for 1 year. On my first anniversary, I re-upped the challenge for another year. And I’ve decided to re-up again.

I’ll confess. I usually grumble and groan when my self-imposed deadline crops up and I’ve got to come up with something about which to write. Most of the time, the task is also accompanied by a call to read a book and make it the focal point of my piece. Yet there have been clear benefits to taking up the mantle.

I’ve learned an awful lot about the human body and how it can be kept in good working order. For me, knowledge is power. Knowing how my body works provides the impetus for adopting healthy behavioral patterns. I’m also a far more effective dialog partner with medical professionals who are charged with my care. I ask better questions and press them (appropriately) for their rationale regarding treatment plans. In today’s environment, I believe wholeheartedly that we must become our own healthcare advocates!

I’ve developed a healthy skepticism for “nutritional experts” given the disparate advice served up by the panoply of published authors. To be sure, some advice finds resonance among them all – e.g., eat whole (not processed) foods, focus on high-quality protein, get plenty of servings of fresh fruits and vegetables, avoid sugar, drink water, etc. But there are some big differences in opinion – e.g., Paleo versus Whole-Food Plant-Based Diet aficionados. My approach: Lean into the evidence-based science, put my money where my mouth is (i.e., free range poultry, grass-fed meat, organic/non-GMO produce), and make my own food so that I’ll know what I’m eating.

I’ve explored the discipline of “change management” by understanding how the brain works, how habits are formed, and what strategies increase our likelihood of instituting healthy behaviors. I’ve realized that no matter how badly I want to get rid of bad habits or practice good ones, I diminish my ability to succeed unless I’m attentive to the ways in which I go on “autopilot” and develop concrete plans to disrupt those cycles.

I’ve read quite a bit about positive psychology along with research on what makes people healthy and happy over the long haul. The findings aren’t so much earth-shattering as helpful “litmus tests” against which to gauge how I’m currently living my life.

I’ve devoted a fair amount of attention to the enneagram, a personality typing system through which I’ve gained insights about myself and greater compassion and understanding for others. It’s a subject matter that I find interesting and useful.

I’ve read lots of books that espouse the benefits of healthy eating, regular exercise, restorative sleep, detoxification, deep relaxation (e.g., yoga, meditation), and de-stressing. Again – not earth-shattering news but well-worth the reinforcement.

I recognize the value of stimulating the intellect, pursuing meaningful work, and surrounding myself with loved ones and a caring community. It’s not just pleasurable; it’s good for the body!

While most blogging pundits serve up loads of strategies for promoting one’s sites and increasing readership, I’ve never once been concerned with pursuing those disciplines. I’ve never checked to see whether or not anyone reads what I write (although I hope they do!) Rather, I consider this practice a kind of “spiritual discipline” through which I pursue self-improvement. Absent the internal deadline of a weekly post, I probably wouldn’t be as proactive in learning new things and applying what I’ve learned.

What subject matter grabs your attention at a level that might spur a weekly blog post?

Empathy in a Fractured World

Effective October 1st, I stopped reading the morning paper and scanning news stories on the Internet. It has been a substantive break in my habitual patterns, but one I deemed necessary for my well-being. I’m still a dedicated citizen and plan to vote in the upcoming election. I will research the candidates and issues thoroughly before casting my votes. Thereafter, I’ll turn a deaf ear to the commentary… at least for the foreseeable future.

It’s not that I don’t care. I do… perhaps, too deeply. With every acrimonious comment from either side of the political divide, I ache. I cringe at the loss of civility. I long for a resurgence of our better angels.

The political upheaval has caused me to reflect on my time at the Duke Divinity School. Religion, like politics, has always been subject matter with the potential to engender conflict. As I set foot into those hallowed halls 15 years ago, I wondered how the institution would forge community out of a collective characterized by disparate ages, ethnic backgrounds, and religious upbringing. How would we find common ground on which to build a productive and life-affirming learning environment?


Dr. Warren Smith provided the answer in his introductory lecture on church history. The course was designed to explore the historical framework underpinning the development of Christian theology and doctrine. To that end, we’d revel in his expertly crafted lectures while reading original texts by the great theologians of the early church. The latter demanded a “close reading” of each classic text. As he explained:

“In your Bible courses, this ‘close reading’ is called exegesis. The basic aim of exegesis is to uncover what the text itself means, rather than reading into the text our own ideas and beliefs. Exegesis tries to prevent the all too common impulse in the Church, making the Bible say what we want it to say.

“As students of Christian theology, we have the same goal when we are reading Athanasuis and Augustine, Bonaventure and Aquinas, Luther and Barth. This ‘close reading’ I often call sympathetic reading. By ‘sympathetic,’ I do not mean that you accept as true the presuppositions and conclusions of the thinker. Rather I mean that you try to understand his argument within his own framework. In the end, you may not be persuaded by his arguments, but you will be able to level your objections more effectively if you have given a detailed and accurate description of his view.”

Were we to institute this practice in today’s political climate, there’d be far greater emphasis on listening instead of casting aspersions and assigning blame. It would call upon us to learn about our erstwhile opponent’s formative years, family relationships, professional development, interests, concerns, and world view so that we might ably walk in his or her shoes. We’d then sit quietly and attentively while absorbing the main arguments and taking note of the supporting details to sustain them.

Of course, we’d probably need to spend time together to develop the kind of trust that this level of communication demands. It would help to share stories and laughter over sumptuous meals or warm fires while getting to know one another and our families. On the surface, that time might seem “unproductive.” But it would enable us to see one another as thinking, breathing, caring, passionate human beings worthy of respect. And it might encourage us to have patience while we cover the same ground over and over and over again until a level of understanding and compassion can break through our differences.

Of course, modern day campaigning doesn’t lend itself to that depth of conversation. It ties up candidates with the demands of campaign financing and encourages them to go for the jugular.

I’d love to relieve our elected officials of the burden of fundraising. I’d like to see the country adopt provisions that limit campaigning to a relatively short interval before Election Day. And I’d love to see all this recaptured time devoted to extending hands across the aisle toward mutual understanding and a commitment to finding common ground.