Right now anxiety is at an all-time high. We are living in a world none of us has ever before experienced. At times we seem to be coping. Other times, not so well. We each struggle with making sense of all this anxiety, both in ourselves and others, while trying to manage as best we can. Our patience with self, and definitely others, is wearing thin.
Harriet Lerner, Ph.D. writes in The Dance of Connection, that each of us have patterned ways of managing our anxiety. Some of us may respond to our anxiety by over-functioning. Some of us may respond by under-functioning.
Those who over-function tend to move quickly to rescue, take over, advise, micromanage, or get involved in the details of someone else’s life rather than focus inward on themselves and what they may need.
Those who under-function are likely to become less competent under stress. They invite others to take over for them, and frequently becomes the focus of family concern, worry, or gossip. These behavior patterns may set up someone to be labeled as “the irresponsible one,” “the problem child,” “the fragile one.”
Dr. Lerner believes that it is important for us to see these behavior patterns as responses to anxiety rather than truths about who we are. Being mindful of how these behaviors can actually be coping strategies rooted in anxiety, may help us understand how we might change our own thinking and behaviors and allow us to better understand others.
I personally can see how many of us may exhibit both over and under-functioning patterns, particularly under very stressful and prolonged conditions. For example, when a crisis hits, one may jump in to over-function and race along like that for a few weeks only to suddenly just “hit the wall,” exhausted and burnt out. They may fall into an under-function pattern as a way to simply try to heal and regroup. Once restored, they can jump back in and tackle what needs doing. Others, may under-function when the crisis hits, but once they process and make sense of what is happening they can shift to an over-function pattern to help get things done. In both instances, we sprint. Yet, Dr. Lerner is correct to suggest that we each have a dominant pattern. Being able to shift between the two can help us get through crises. With COVID-19 we all have plenty of opportunity practice these adaptation skills! First step is to be aware of the patterns and how they play out in ourselves and in our relationships with others.
Harriet Lerner , Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, and a contributor to psychoanalytic concepts regarding family and feminist theory and therapy. She is the author of many books written for the general public. I have a number of her works on the bookshelves in my office and at home.