Do You Over-Function or Under-Function?


Words by Paula Coogan
July 9th, 2018

We all have stress in our lives; it is normal and we know that some days can be worse than others, depending on what we have on our plate at any given moment. The most common form of this that seems to plague our generation is a mix of anxiety and feeling flat or sad. However, stress in itself is not a problem.

Some people thrive on having an impending deadline (or at least tell themselves that they do!) but stress can become problematic when we feel we cannot control it; when the pressure on us outweighs our ability to cope. When we feel this way, we tend to default to our patterned ways of responding; we either over-function or we under-function. I’m a complete under-functioner!

The first time I came across this concept was in a book called The Gifts of Imperfection by Dr Brene Brown. This idea of how we handle stress blew me away because I had definitely experienced it but never really understood it before. The theory is that we all have patterned ways of responding to stress/anxiety. We either respond by over-functioning or under-functioning. Neither is good or bad, right or wrong; it just is what it is.

Over-functioners respond to stress by wanting to take charge of the situation. They become controlling, feel that they have to rescue others, they take over, micromanage, and tend to believe they know what is best for others rather than looking at themselves first. Their thought pattern goes something like this, “It’s up to me. I’m the only one who can do x,y,z. It needs to be done this way…” etc. etc.!

They can see other people as either unwilling or unable to “shape up” to their standard. Rather than feel vulnerable they go into action mode. They often can get labelled as bossy, controlling and a know-it-all and they absolutely hate being thought of that way!

Under-functioners like myself respond to stress by wanting to avoid the situation. They get caught up in their feelings, feel too vulnerable and start showing up less. They tend to get less competent under stress, they detach, procrastinate and retreat from the world. Their thought pattern goes something like this,  “I’m not good enough. I don’t know. I can’t…” etc. etc.!

They can see other people as overbearing and demanding. They can often get labelled as lazy and unreliable and they hate the idea of people thinking that of them.

The key thing is to remember that these are patterned responses to stress and anxiety, rather than truths about who we are. THIS DOES NOT DEFINE YOU. Understanding this point helps us to understand that we can ALL learn to take control of how we tend to handle stress.

So, how about you? Do you tend to over-function or under-function when you are dealing with stress?

Here’s what to do:

We all need people in our lives that we trust and who will be brutally honest with us! We need to ask for their help but rather than they tell you that you’re being controlling or unreliable – which would make you feel ashamed of yourself and even more stressed – these trusted people need to focus on your behaviour.

It is easier for over-functioners to “do” than to “feel” so if this is your default response to stress then you need to work on being more willing to embrace your vulnerabilities in the face of stress. Imagine, something incredibly stressful is happening in your world right now and you go into the default mode of operating, organising, delegating and taking charge. Someone you trust comes up to you, looks you in the eye and says, “You’re over-functioning. You’re not on your own”. This allows you to take a step back, breathe and realise that you’re not on your own and you have support.

It is easier for under-functioners to “avoid” than to “feel” so they need to work on building their self-regard and strengths. Imagine something incredibly stressful is happening in your world right now and you go into your default mode of operating- you start to step back, retreat and feel that you have nothing to offer. You need someone to come to you, look you in the eye and say, “You’re under-functioning. You have what it takes. Your opinion matters and you need to step up and be involved”. This allows you to breathe and acknowledge what can be done. You can break things down into smaller pieces and tackle things in pieces.

Other things you can do to help during stressful times include:


  • Get more exercise i.e. go for a walk, a swim, yoga- anything! Get your body moving and if possible, exercise outdoors.
  • Cut back on caffeine!
  • Practice calm and stillness. For you, this could be meditation or mindfulness. For me, this is purposefully going for a walk on the beach with the intention of calming my mind.
  • Get it off your chest; express your emotions either by talking to someone, writing in a diary- whatever works for you! If I’m really stressed or upset, I’ll actually watch a sad movie that I know will have me in tears at the end! It’s a way to release the built up tension or emotion (especially for over-functioners).
  • Bank your successes! By this I mean make a note of all the times that you stepped up and did great despite your anxiety! Try journalling regularly and making a note each day of three things you did that day that demonstrated self-confidence or self-regard (especially for under-functioners).

I hope this concept has resonated with you as much as it did with me when I first read about it. Do check out The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown if you’d like to find out more. I think it’s really powerful and I challenge each of you to take some time to think about what your default response to stress is! Then, go and find people who are willing and able to speak the truth to you when you need them to.

Until next time,



Paula Coogan is the founder of The Quarter Life Coach – a vibrant career and life coaching company aimed at empowering women in their 20s and 30s to practice courage, figure out their true desires both personally and professionally and then, to make it happen.

Her work is delivered through several live group programs and Masterminds including Career Breakthrough Mastermind and The Wisdom Circle. She also works one-on-one with clients who are ready for big transitions in their relationships, careers and businesses.