Creating Healthy Relationships and Learning to Set Personal Boundaries
In any relationship, there are two types of people – over-functioners (OFs) and under-functioners (UFs). A basic understanding of this difference and how it plays in your life with others is the first step to creating the type of balanced relationships we all want and strive for. An imbalance of met needs is common in many relationships whether it is with family members, friends, co-workers, or intimate partners. In most cases, we learned or were “conditioned” early on how to respond and behave around others. Through our role in the family system, we learned as children what to expect from others and what were acceptable ways to treated by others. These lessons are adopted and taken with us into adulthood. They become the groundwork for relational boundaries.
Before discussing problematic levels of functioning, it is important to know what healthy functioning looks like. By “functioning” I am referring to the acts and behaviors we engage in that dictate our role or position in any relationship. For example, do I tend to communicate passively which leads to others getting their way or do I stand strong on my decisions, set limits, and get my needs met as well. When we are functioning optimally, we are often keeping firm boundaries and finding a balance between giving and taking. We feel we can be there for others when they need us but not in a way that feels taxing or like we are compromising our values or emotional well-being. Healthy functioning allows us to create successful balanced relationships that our emotionally and psychologically fulfilling. Although the term over functioning and under functioning may be novel to you, you may identify your own pattern as you read on.
This term is used to describe people who are less successful than our healthy functioning person at relationship management, fulfilling roles, and making decisions. UFs often rely on others to make decisions, have problems maintaining boundaries, and may often be described as “needy.” Some common under functioning characteristics are always relying on others for advice, constantly feeling or communicating a sense of distress or need for others, self-sabotaging, frequently asking for help, making unwise relationship choices, and being overly accommodating. Some causes of under functioning may be growing up in a home where parents were over-protective, too permissive, or did everything for the child without allowing space for the learning of autonomy and self-efficacy. This is especially true if the individual was an only child. Needless to say, over time this behavior from parents creates a sense of self-doubt for children, especially about their capacity to handle distress or manage crisis on their own. This is the type of child that grows up and experiences a great deal of distress when making decisions or relies heavily on others to make the decisions for them. They greater the implications of the decision, the greater the anxiety.
Almost always, someone who is UF seeks out, gravitates towards, or is paired with an OF. The OF tends to take on greater responsibility in the relationship, often being the one to solve all of the problems. While this may initially feel good for the OF, over time they may become resentful and feel overwhelmed because the relationship is so one-sided. The energy differential shifts toward the OF making them feel a greater sense of responsibility for the well-being of the relationship. Unfortunately, and at the same time, this dynamic encouraged or enables the UF to not make decision or take some responsibility for the relationship. OFs are usually seen as individuals who “have it together”, and tend to be reliable friends, co-workers or partners. Classic characteristics of over functioning include being overly focused on another person’s needs and problems, offering frequent advice or help even when unsolicited, taking charge of doing things that are part of the other person’s life responsibilities, feeling upset when their help is not “appreciated,” and frequently feel overwhelmed, stressed, and resentful. Additionally, because they are always so focused on others, the tend to neglect their own needs causing further resentment.
Some causes of over functioning are having been placed in a role as a child of assuming the role of a parent, especially in families where there is a disconnect or conflict between the parents. This is especially true in families with divorce and separation. This child may be utilized as a confidant or “emotional outlet” for one or both parents. The child may also become the rescuer or fixer for a distressed family dynamic. While this may cause emotional or psychological stress for the child, they are also “conditioned” or trained to become fixers. There is a sense of value attached to participating in this role because when they do, they receive positive reinforcement in the form of love, attention, or added affection. It is easy to see why these children become OFs in their adult relationships.
Clearly, OFs and UFs often find themselves in relationships and families together. An OF paired with another OF is very unlikely. Because they both tend to come across as “having it together,” it leaves no room for the other person to feel needed. “How can I feel valued in a relationship if there is nothing to ‘fix’.” An UF paired with another UF is even more unlikely because they would fall into a pattern of always looking to each other for solutions which neither can provide. Additionally, because they are both be so accommodating and tend to be more passive when it comes to expressing their needs, problems get swept under the rug building until the relationship can no longer stand the pressure.
One effect that under and over functioning has on romantic relationships is that it keeps the people bound together by more than choice. Two people that take care of 100% of their responsibilities are freer to choose their partners. In contrast, UFs and OFs often report there being a “need” to be together. The UF “needs” the OF or else his/her life would “fall apart,” and the OF “needs” to be there for the UF so this doesn’t happen and the guilt of it happening can be avoided. In that sense both people can feel important and “needed”. At much deeper levels, urges or patterns toward dependence and dominance arise. Gone unnoticed or unaddressed, emotional and psychologic manipulation and abuse may result.
Balancing & Change
The route to change for OFs is often in returning responsibility back to the UF. This may mean not bailing the person out for the 100th time, not asserting opinions or managing the other person’s life, and tolerating the natural inclination to give advice or provide solutions. For many OFs, there is often guilt that must be tolerated while potential negative outcomes happen for the UF. This is extra hard because in close relationships, big consequences for one person can impact the other person greatly. Furthermore, the UF will often try to pressure or manipulate the OF to remain in the OF role. The goal is to instead have the OF provide empathy and emotional support during the UF’s moments of distress which will then create a space for the UF to feel a sense of confidence that they can find and implement their own solution.
The route to change for UFs ironically often comes at the hand of an OF doing the above, which forces the UF to change and deal with the new consequences. However, UFs will often find a new person to over-function for him/her. For real lasting change to occur, there simply needs to be a movement of personal energy toward greater responsibility, which often comes when negative consequences and problems begin to mount. Unfortunately for many couples with this dynamic, if the levels of over-functioning and under-functioning are too great, resentment usually take hold on both sides and it results in a break up. Changing this pattern can be complicated and challenging, especially the longer the relationship has existed. When that is the case, counseling can be very helpful.
It is possible to change when both parties are willing to openly communicate their feelings and needs, as well as provide each other with empathy and compassion along the way. If they are willing to hang in there, a shift in the dynamics of the OF and UF will lead to a healthy, fruitful, and balanced relationship.
For many people, it is difficult to set boundaries or say no to others. This can be especially challenging for UFs and those who identify as “people-pleasers.” Learning how to set boundaries and how to say no is the real key to sustaining healthy relationships with yourself and others. For OFs, saying yes to everything and not setting boundaries with people, can lead to feeling stressed, overwhelmed, and burned out. Most of us want to be liked and feel valued by others so it becomes difficult to turn down opportunities or requests that others have made of us. It may also be challenging to set limits with difficult people. However, it’s important to know that we teach others how to treat us based on what we allow and what we don’t allow. This is the essence of boundaries. Remember that if we are always putting others first, we are teaching them that we come second.
The first step in learning to set boundaries is to understand what your personal limits and needs are. We all have an inner sense of what feels right and wrong. The problem arises when we ignore or argue with that inner voice. If you are not used to tuning into your intuition, it is important to practice paying attention to how you are feeling. There are times when we need to put our needs in front of others. When you do this, other people may get angry or disappointed, especially if they are accustomed to you always complying or giving in. The reality is that whenever you set boundaries with people, they may not have a pleasant reaction. At first, there is certainly a sense of guilt that comes with saying no and setting limits. Know that this is just a conditioned response and as you continue to say no and set healthy boundaries, the guilt will turn into confidence.
Setting boundaries with people will actually help to improve your relationships in the long run. If you do not respect your personal boundaries, neither will other people. It is also likely to lead to bitterness and resentment over time. The people you want to surround yourself with are those who will respect your boundaries, even if they initially feel upset or disappointed. It’s helpful to remember that when you say no to things, it frees up your time to focus on the pursuits that truly energize and excite you. If you want to be giving and compassionate toward others, it is critical that you apply the same level of compassion toward yourself. It is so easy to give compassion and understanding to others but we feel “wrong” for giving it to ourselves. You deserve to treat yourself with the same kindness and compassion that you so readily give to others. Setting boundaries can be difficult, but it is such an important part of having healthy relationships and establishing an overall sense of well-being. Having good boundaries also enables you to experience less stress and to follow your life’s passion and purpose.
Contributed by: Dr. Carlos Garcia