On Overfunctioning, Margins and the Functioning Perfectionist

[Republished from the Langley Harper blog]

I despise navel gazing. I hate talking about myself, so typing out this blog post has me alternately breaking out in hives, sweating with dread, and cringing in horror. I hate showing my hand, revealing my feelings, and showing my own humanity, so bear with me as I get through this.

With the new year comes new year’s resolutions, vision boards, themes, goals, and words to guide what we want (and believe we should obtain) within the next 365 (or 366 if it is a leap year) days. I have and continue to do a mix of all of these every quarter, and my 2015 was a melange of awful and awe, where most of goals bit the dust. The awful job wise is captured here in this post. The awe has been seeing friends married, engaged, having babies, seeing new things in my life come to fruition after years of waiting.

To kick off the year, after draining experiences with my job and service commitments, I said this on Twitter: “So far, 2016 is shaping up to the year where I half ass the required stuff, quit the unessential, focus on the true/real things, and chill.” Classy and elegant, it is not, but it’s real.

Upon later reflection, I decided to adapt the Chris Brogan model of resolutions, in which he advises that a person pick three words “that will guide you in the choices you intend to make for 2016. They should be words that let you challenge yourself as to motives and decisions. They should be words that help you guide your actions.”

I instead picked two phrases. My 2016 is the year of increasing the margins and the reduction of over functioning.

Over the Overfunctioning

Overfunctioning is when one unit works harder than the other units in a system. According to Will Meek, a licensed psychologist :

“Over-functioners (OFs) are usually seen as people who “have it together”, are detail oriented, organized, and reliable, and are typically viewed as being reliable workers, partners, and parents.”

Classic characteristics of over-functioning include being overly focused on another person’s problems or life situation, offering frequent advice or help to the other person, actually doing things that are part of the other person’s life responsibilities (and believing that “if I don’t do it, then it won’t happen”), feeling anger when help is not “appreciated” or the UF doesn’t change (or even want to), the OF believing he/she knows a better way for an UF to be living, and frequently feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and neglecting self-care. Over-functioning can be seen as a type of “enabling”, even though the intent is the opposite.”

Many women (and some men) have the character arc toward over functioning. I did until my last semester when things started to unravel at the seams. What I had carefully crafted and done.

In spite of my own research on black women in academia who try to do it all and be it all, of thinking that I could continue to add more to my schedule and my life, it all fell apart.

This article in Forbes slapped me in the face: I am an over functioning perfectionist.

Again, I scored an A+ on the seven questions the author posed, but this wasn’t the type of quiz I wanted to pass with flying colors. She followed up with the following advice:

“Shed the need to do it all perfectly, and embrace help from all those who will give it. And learn to trust that you aren’t meant to handle everything yourself, and live two or more lives within your one.  Identify where you can take action to ask and empower others—your spouse, children, colleagues, subordinates, etc.—to take on more responsibility, wherever possible and appropriate. An essential corollary to this is freeing yourself from guilt and shame about needing and wanting help, and remembering that getting help is a way of saying “yes” to what matters most.”

Thus, I received clarity on what my 2016 goal should be: recognize the overfunctioning, reduce the constant need to be perfect and do everything, and create margin and white space in my life.

The Margin Call

2016 is about creating the room for the true priorities and essentials that I need for my life. Because of my graphic design and newspaper layout experience, I call this white space. White space is the negative space. White space gives the eye a rest or breathing room on a page full of text and images. A design firm described it as such:

“the portion of a page left unmarked, the portion that is left blank, or (as Mark would quote) the empty space in a page. In web design terms, it’s the space between graphics, columns, images, text, margins and other elements. It is the space left untouched in order to smooth things out and transform a page into something elegant. It is also the blank space that reminds us that simpler designs are beautiful and that we don’t need to create a layout filled with text and graphical elements to deliver a clear and direct message.”

Shoes lined up by color along the wall

Richard Swenson, M.D. describes margin like this in his book,Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives: “Margin is the space between our load and our limits. It is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed. It is something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. Margin is the gap between rest and exhaustion, the space between breathing freely and suffocating. Margin is the opposite of overload.”

The only way you get a margin is to create it, fight for it, make it happen. As a scholar, I dig deep into anything I am interested (which explains why my browser history logs hours on Wikipedia, etc.). So I did some research and came up with the following steps and ideas:

  1. Determine what is essential to your life. In the book Essentialisms, the author asked, ““If I wasn’t already involved, how hard would I work to attend?” I created a chart and began to fill it in. That helped me understand what I truly loved doing and what I didn’t.
  2. Here’s to making 2016 a year of breath, space, margin, and essentials. Here’s to those trying to right and do better–while sometimes failing at those things. Here’s to a happy and productive 2016, regardless of your resolutions and plans. Reduce or eliminate the non-essentials. As noted in the chart above, I sent emails and letters, gracefully resigning from certain roles. The world did not implode, and the organizations moved forward. I now have some margin with my time for the things that matter in 2016: my family, my triathlon training, my writing, and my business.
  3. Start with the bad boyfriend treatment. “”If your career is a bad boyfriend, it is healthy to remember you can always leave and go to sleep with somebody else.” I am treating everything the way I would treat a bad boyfriend. Read Amy Poehler’s chapter on this. Work hard at what I love to, but don’t get caught up in the outcomes. Outcomes are what my ego and type A over functioning self loves: the achievement, the accolades. Nope, I’m doing the things I love for fun, enjoyment, and learning. If other things come along, that’s great. But that isn’t the priority.
  4. Be alright with “okay.” I have stopped fighting things that I can’t control. I shrug, say okay and move on. It’s hard. It’s unconventional for type A people like me who shudder and bawk at the idea of letting things flow.
  5. Put it on the calendar and batch things together. Block scheduling isn’t just for school days. You have to schedule in the things that you love. As Michael Hyatt wrote, “assign a theme for each day and then batch similar activities together.”