On this episode of Unlocking Us
We all have patterned ways of managing our day-to-day anxiety, and these patterns often reflect the roles and expectations of our first families. In this episode, we’ll talk about over and under-functioning in anxious times, why anxiety is contagious, and how we can cultivate a calm practice.
Listen to the episode
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, The Message
The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships, by Harriet Lerner, Ph.D.
From an epidemiological standpoint, approximately one-third of U.S. adults will be affected by an anxiety disorder in their lifetime, with yearly prevalence estimates ranging from 10.1% to 21.3%. Bandelow, Borwin, & Michaelis, Sophie. (2015). Epidemiology of anxiety disorders in the 21st century. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 17(3), 327-335.
Prevalence of most anxiety disorders is almost twice as high in women as in men. Bandelow, Borwin, & Michaelis, Sophie. (2015). Epidemiology of anxiety disorders in the 21st century. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 17(3), 327-335.
Production by Cadence13
Brené Brown: Hi everyone. I’m Brené Brown, and this is Unlocking Us.
BB: “Don’t push me, ‘cuz I’m close to the edge.” Oh man, we are kicking off the podcast today with a little Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. I love how their music is as relevant today as it was when I was skating backward to it 30 years ago. This week, I have been pushed and I have pushed; I have been close to the edge, and I have been over the edge. These are anxious times, and I am working so hard not to fall back into my classic anxiety overfunctioning mode. So today, we’re going to talk about over and underfunctioning. Over and underfunctioning is something that I learned about almost 20 years ago, in Harriet Lerner’s book, The Dance of Connection. And we’re going to talk about it and talk about how understanding our patterned, habitual ways of managing anxiety can help us change those patterns, help us show up with more integrity, and can help us develop a calm practice.
BB: And before I even go on, I just need to tell you that Harriet Lerner’s books have changed my life. The Dance of Angerwas my first “psychology book”. My mom mailed me a copy with a little note that said, “You might find this helpful.” Of course, I didn’t read it. And several months later when she said, “What did you think?” I was like, “Oh, I don’t know, I haven’t looked at it yet.” About three days later, I got a FedEx package with the entire cassette collection in a box. Then I listened to it, and then it turned everything upside down. So Harriet has been kicking my ass for a couple of decades. And once it’s safe to move around the country again and this pandemic has run its course, I will make sure that you meet her here on this podcast, because she is a real life-changer.
BB: So before we get into Harriet’s work on over and underfunctioning, I want to talk about anxiety in general. It’s important to note that today I’m talking about day-to-day anxiety. Not diagnosed anxiety, which is pervasive in our culture. In fact, I just read a recent study, a 2015 study that said that one-third of all US adults will be affected by an anxiety disorder in their lifetime, and that the prevalence of most anxiety disorders is twice as high in women as in men. So, if you have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, know that you’re not alone. And also know that today, we’re going to really focus on day-to-day anxiety.
BB: When we think about general day-to-day anxiety, I have found it incredibly helpful to develop some self-awareness about how we show up in anxiety, and how we move through it. And let’s start with what we know about day-to-day and anxiety. First thing, when I first learned this, it made so much sense, but it was new data for me. First, anxiety is one of the most contagious emotions that we experience, and many mental health professionals and researchers believe that because anxiety is so contagious, it’s rarely a function of individuals. It’s normally a function of groups.
BB: For example, have you ever been in a situation at work when things are stressful? That your team is doing okay, everyone is holding it together, until one person’s anxiety just flares up and within minutes, it spreads like wildfire through the team? That’s the contagion of anxiety. We even see it in our families. We even see it in groups of friends when everyone is under pressure and things are hard like dominoes. Once one person’s anxiety flares up, it’s really hard for it not to spread. It’s just a contagion.
BB: The other thing that I think is really important to understand, in addition to anxiety being incredibly contagious, is that we all have habitual ways of managing anxiety that often stem from when we were kids. These are patterns of dealing with anxiety that we developed in our first family. So, in Harriet Lerner’s book, The Dance of Connection, Dr. Lerner explains that we all have these patterned ways of responding to anxiety that she calls overfunctioning and underfunctioning. And if you’re a student of Bowen family systems, a lot of the origin of this work came out of Bowen family systems, so you’ll recognize it there, too.
BB: So let’s talk about overfunctioners and underfunctioners. Overfunctioners tend to move quickly to give advice, rescue, takeover, micromanage, get in other people’s business rather than looking inward. Underfunctioners tend to get less competent under stress. They invite others to take over and often become the focus of family gossip, concern, worry. They can get labeled as irresponsible, or the fragile ones, the ones who can’t take the pressure. Harriet explains that understanding these behaviors as patterned responses to anxiety rather than deep truths about who we are can help us understand that we can change. This is where my shame research really comes into play.
BB: For many of us, the descriptors people use to label our pattern responses to anxiety can be incredibly shaming. Shame is all about unwanted identities. I don’t want to be perceived as. Shame is how we see ourselves through other people’s eyes. So for example, “Hi. My name is Brené. I’m an overfunctioner, a serious overfunctioner.” I don’t want to be labeled or thought of as the micro-managing, control freak in times of anxiety. Those are shame triggers for me. And for almost all of the people who underfunction in anxiety, they don’t want to be known as unreliable or flaky.
BB: This is what’s interesting to me. I don’t think we have enough data to talk confidently about birth order theories, but I will say that in rooms where I ask people to raise one hand if they’re first-borns, then I ask them to raise their other hand if they’re overfunctioners, I see a lot of folks assuming the double hands up roller coaster position. I’m an over-functioner, the oldest of four, code name, “Sister Superior.” The same is true for youngest in birth order. When I ask people, “Raise your hand if you’re the youngest or the baby, sometimes even if you’re the middle child. Raise your other hand if you underfunction under anxiety.” You see a lot of people saying, “Yes, that’s me.” It doesn’t always follow that pattern. We mostly have anecdotal evidence here.
BB: But I can tell you in my family, that’s absolutely how we functioned until we all gained awareness around it and started naming it. I want to drill home this part. Break this sentence down. We have patterned ways of managing anxiety that we developed in our first families, possibly around birth order. But it’s how our families functioned, it’s how… Even if it’s not birth order, it’s certainly our roles. And of course, I’m an over-functioner, like I am the oldest of four. When you grow up hearing things like, “Brené, don’t leave the toilet lid up, your little sisters could drown.” Or, “Brené, pick up that piece of paper, your little brother could fall on it and break his neck,” which is that emotionally flammable language is what I heard a lot growing up. Worst case scenario language. You grow up with an inflated sense of trying to control everything, take care of everyone and jump into the in-charge mode. I think when you’re the youngest and you grow up getting a lot of reinforcement, “Don’t worry, your sister will get it. Don’t worry, your brother can handle that. Oh, you don’t need to take care of that.” I think birth order or no birth order, family roles and family functions play a huge part in this.
BB: So I thought I would… I’ve never done this on the podcast before, so we’ll see how it goes. I thought I would tell you a story. It’s a story that I write about in Rising Strong, very hard personal story that really illustrates the family dynamic of over and underfunctioning in anxiety, and how our willingness as siblings and family members to name and talk about it changed us. So in 2000… I think it was 2007. I just remember it was a very cold January afternoon. I received one of those calls, the kind that when we dress rehearse tragedy, these are the calls we dress rehearse. I received one of those calls that brings time to a standstill and without warning, kind of violently re-organizes everything. And it was my sister, Ashley, and she was screaming, “Something is wrong with mom. Something is wrong with mom. She’s passed out in the driveway. Something is wrong. Something is so wrong.”
BB: And I have to say that I’m someone who chronically and compulsively rehearses things like that, assuming that then I’ll be prepared when it comes. That did not work. I think I also practiced it, just to be honest with you, because I think that if I constantly stay on ready and scared, that that’s the price I’ll have to pay. That’s my deal with the devil basically, that I’m always kind of scared and worried, so nothing really bad could happen because I’m always prepared, but the devil never pays up. So all I felt in that moment when Ashley was saying that was sheer terror. I just remember thinking, “Nothing can happen to my mom, I won’t survive it. Nothing can happen to my mom; I won’t survive it.”
BB: So 30 minutes after that call, I’m in the emergency room with Steve and Ashley. We’re huddled together, waiting for someone to tell us what’s happening to our mom behind those big heavy scary doors. And there was no doubt in my mind that it was serious because there was just too much commotion behind the doors. Plus, it was written all over Steve’s face. The good news in these situations is that Steve is a doctor so he can translate what’s happening for us. And the bad news is I’ve been looking into those eyes and that face for decades and I know when he’s scared or worried. And again, I just remember on repeat saying, “No one can come through those doors with that look on their face. I refuse to let anyone come through those doors with that look. I refuse to accept that outcome. I cannot do it. No one can come through those doors with that look on their face. I just can’t do it.”
BB: Finally, a nurse walked out and without breaking her stride, she said something to Steve about getting my mom a heart catheter and something else was going to happen. And Steve started explaining to us how a heart catheter works. And then the doctor came out and apparently my mom’s heart had stopped, which is why she had passed out in the driveway. And the doctor explained that the electrical system that controlled her heartbeat had shut down and the default condition I guess of our body is this very low heart rate. And that they were moving her to the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit.
BB: And of course, this made no sense to me at all. My mom was healthy. She’s young, active, worked full-time, lived on black beans and spinach. It just was not possible. So the doctor explains that they scheduled her surgery for the next morning and that it would be at least a couple of hours before we could see her that afternoon. So we stayed at the hospital and waited while my other sister, Barrett, who’s Ashley’s twin, arrived from Amarillo. And then we put my brother on standby in San Francisco in terms of when he should fly in.
BB: One of the things that started happening to me slowly in that moment outside of my awareness is that my physical stance became very resolute. I don’t know if it was my response to my own pain or watching my younger sisters in such deep fear. But it was definitely a stance that I have known in the last couple of weeks during COVID, teeth clenched, jaw hardened, eyes narrowed with focus. Tears stop right away. My hunched shoulders straighten up. The armor begins to lock into place. It’s a series of barely perceptible movements that have definitely been choreographed by my history. Very quickly, my arms will slide around my younger sisters. I grow taller. I become the protector. It very much takes me back to who I was growing up when my parents would fight and I would gather my brother and my sisters in my room. It’s the same protector who’d intervene with my parents when I thought one of my sisters or my brother was in trouble unfairly. And so I slide into this role, as protector and co-parent. And while I’m in it, I’m fierce, nothing bad can happen. And unfortunately, I start overfunctioning at the highest level possible.
BB: Again, as an overfunctioner, we tend to move very quickly to advise, rescue, takeover, basically get in other people’s business rather than looking at what’s going on inside. Underfunctioners tend to get less competent under that stress and they often invite people to take over. And often not only do they invite people to take over, but in addition to whatever is causing the stress and anxiety, they become the focus of more stress and anxiety. On the outside as an overfunctioner, we can appear to be very tough and in control. And sometimes the underfunctioners can appear to be irresponsible or even fragile.
BB: When we were finally allowed to see my mom, my sisters did their very best, but they were barely holding it together. I, on the other hand, was in my unflinching mode. “What do you need from home? What can I do? Who do I need to call from the office? What needs to be done?” My mom is also a massive overfunctioner. So overfunctioner to overfunctioner, my mom and I came up with a long to-do list. When the doctor came in, he reached across my mom to shake hands with her husband. But I intercepted the handshake, of course, to introduce myself and began drilling him for information. My mom’s husband just took a step backward and let me run the show.
BB: Afterward, we regrouped on the first floor of this hospital. And I have to tell you this, we were at an amazing hospital, Houston Methodist Hospital. It’s weird downstairs in that hospital because it’s very beautiful. There are big fresh flower arrangements on top of tables and sculptures and a grand piano. It’s wonderful, but it’s weird. And every time I walk through it, I always struggle to reconcile what feels like the lobby of like… I don’t know, the Hilton with all of the wheelchairs and people in scrubs. And it just it always seems… I don’t know, jarring. Is that the right word? Maybe jarring to me.
BB: So I’m standing next to the grand piano and I pull out the list that my mom and I had made and began to delegate the assignment. “So Ashley, go to mom’s house and get all of her medicines. Put them in a baggie, including her vitamins. Barrett, call Jason. Give him the update.” That’s our brother. “We also need to get mom some lightweight cotton pajamas.” I started writing down everyone’s initials next to what their task was. And then as the tasks started getting taken over by everyone and the list started getting shorter, I started getting panicked and nervous. And I finally just said, “You know what? Let me get mom’s medicines. I know where she keeps everything. Barrett, let me call Jason. He’s scared. He’s so far away. It’ll be a tough conversation. And I’ll also run by and get the pajamas that button up the front. I know what she likes.”
BB: I was looking down at the list, I was changing all the initials from my sister’s initials to my initials and rank-ordering what order I should do all the chores in. And this is better, I’ll do this myself. And in that split second, it took me to change the initials and make the notes to myself. My sisters had stepped back from our talking circle next to the piano and were whispering to each other. When I finally looked up and saw them, they were holding hands and looking straight at me. And you know that feeling, if you’ve got sisters or friends that are like no bullshit, straight talkers. It’s a terrible sense of dread and relief, but mostly I guess dread.
BB: So I said, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong? What is it? What’s wrong? What’s going on?” And then Ashley very quietly said, “You’re overfunctioning Brené.” And Barrett jumped in and said, “We can help. We know how to do this. We know what to do.” And it’s a hard story to tell, to be honest with you, even though I’ve written it. The minute Ashley said, “You’re overfunctioning,” and Barrett said, “We can help, we know what to do,” my body gave up. I just went limp and I dropped the list on the floor. And I fell into the chair behind me and just started sobbing. But I mean sobbing, inconsolable sobbing. And I know people cry in waiting rooms, but it felt weird to be crying in the fancy lobby. And I’m sure I was making a scene, but I couldn’t stop. My sisters had pierced the armor. And in that moment, it was as if 40 years of doing instead of feeling had caught up with me. Ashley and Barrett started crying, but they held me, and they kept saying that we were going to be okay and that we were going to take care of each other. And David was there, my mom’s husband, I apologized to him. And we divvied up the list.
BB: And when you look at overfunctioning and underfunctioning through a vulnerability lens, it’s easy to see that both ways of functioning are forms of armor. They’re learned behaviors for getting out from underneath fear and uncertainty. Overfunctioning, I won’t feel I will do. I don’t need help, I help. Underfunctioning, I won’t function, I’ll fall apart. I don’t help, I need help. So the good news from my mom’s surgery is that everything was successful. And that afternoon, we were back with her in the hospital room. Someone brought her this pamphlet that explained her new pacemaker. And the cover of the brochure had this silver-haired couple and matching pastel sweaters riding bikes. I guess like in… I don’t know, Martha’s Vineyard or something. My sisters and I just could not stop giving her shit about her sweaters and her bicycle riding. And so we were all laughing until we cried, but then we actually got kicked out for making too much noise.
BB: So I think for me, this story is about how we all have patterned ways of managing anxiety that come from roles that we played in our early families or our first families. Over-functioners like me, if we can name it and own it, can work on being more vulnerable in the face of anxiety and underfunctioners can work to amplify their strengths and competencies. And on top of all that, both under and over-functioners can work to develop a calm practice that I think centers us and keeps us from defaulting into these patterned ways of behaving. So when it comes to calm, I consider myself to be “nuevo calm.” It does not come naturally to me. I was not… I don’t know that I was born calm, but I have made it a priority over probably the past… Since Ellen was born. I made a commitment when I was pregnant with her that I wanted to be a calm parent. And so I started reading and studying on calm.
BB: And I define calm based on the data that I’ve collected as perspective, mindfulness and the ability to manage emotional reactivity. And when I think about calm people, I think about people who can bring perspective to complicated situations and feel their feelings without reacting to heightened emotions like fear and anger. Again, let me repeat the definition for you because it’s so helpful for me and I couldn’t find a definition of calm that I really liked. And so I looked at the data and I first shared this I think in The Gifts of Imperfection. I define calm as perspective, mindfulness and the ability to manage emotional reactivity. So not only do I have great data about what calm practitioners have in common, I also have an incredible role model in Steve, my husband. His superpower is calm. And I think by watching him, I’ve learned about the value of bringing perspective and quiet to difficult situations. So let me tell you what I’ve learned about calm practice and I hope it can be helpful or make a small contribution during this time where things are hard. The fear is real.
BB: So number one, from the data around calm practice. And I call it practice because it’s like authenticity, the idea that there are authentic people and non-authentic people does not bear out in the research. There are people who choose authenticity and practice it every day, every hour. And there are people who don’t choose it. So calm is a practice. You practice it or you don’t. Maybe some personalities lend themselves to it in a more supportive way, but we all have the ability to practice calm. So number one, try to be slow to respond and quick to think, “Do I have all the information I need to make a decision or form a response?” A lot of times, a panicked, anxiety-driven response is due to a lack of data. So do I even have the information I need to emotionally respond?
BB: Number two, stay mindful about the effect that calm has on anxious situations. A panicked response produces more panic and fear. Harriet Lerner says, “Anxiety is extremely contagious, but so is calm.” So the question I think for us becomes, do we want to infect people with more anxiety or heal ourselves and the people around us with calm? If we choose to heal with calm, we have to commit to practicing it. Small things matter. Again, your response. Can you count to 10 before you respond or can you give yourself permission to say, “I’m not sure or I need to think about this some more or tell me more.”
BB: It’s really interesting. Some of the best speakers that I know who talk to teenagers and middle schoolers, high schoolers and middle schoolers mostly, are the quietest speakers I’ve ever been around. You would expect like, “Hey everybody, welcome to this talk on being self-aware. Woohoo!” And high schoolers are like, “Yeah!” But the most effective teachers I see come out and the audience is restless, and the kids are moving, they’re talking to each other. And then all of a sudden you see this speaker come out and say, “Hey everyone, we’re going to spend the next 30 minutes.” And I guess in order to hear them, they have to get quiet. But I think probably it comes down to mirror neurons and we mirror what we see, and we match level of intensity, we match level of tone, of cadence of speech.
BB: So if we have someone who reports to us that says, “Oh my God, did you hear they’re closing this whole section of the business next weekend? Oh my God, I think they’re going to fire everybody.” And our response is, “No way. Oh my God, who said that? What did you hear? When is everyone going to get fired?” It’s just we’re matching the cadence, the tone, the volume of anxiety versus really calm practitioners have a tendency to respond to, “Oh my God, did you hear? They’re going to lay off everybody in that division. They’re shutting the whole team down. Blah, blah, blah,” to, “Say more. I haven’t heard that. What did you hear? From whom?” They have a tendency to ratchet down the tone, the cadence and the volume.
BB: So I think sometimes breath – slow; ask questions. Don’t be afraid to say, “I’m not sure. I need to think about this some more.” I just practiced this with my 14-year-old who said, “Wait, does that mean we’re not going to have the end of the year school play, we’re not going to have graduation, we’re not going to do this? When are we going to get grades? It’s 8th grade graduation.” It’s really hard. Especially hard right now, in addition to the disappointment is not knowing. Bring it down. And I know if you’re listening right now and think, “Wow, if I’m really stressed out or scared about something and someone does that to me, I’m going to punch them in the nose.” I’m with you, I feel the same way, but I have used this calm practice for a long time. It is so effective.
BB: I’ll give you an example of practicing non-responsive… Emotional non-responsiveness. A couple of years ago, there was this PSA, this public service announcement that showed a couple screaming at each other and slamming the door in each other’s faces. When I first saw it, I couldn’t believe it. It was like, “What’s happening?” And this couple would just scream, “I hate you,” and slam the door. “Mind your own business,” and slam the door. “I don’t ever want to talk to you,” and slam the door. And as you watched it, you kept thinking, “Why are they saying these things to each other? Why are they slamming the door and then starting over?” And after 20 seconds of this, the couple held hands and walked away from the screen. And one of them says to the other… You can only see the back of them walking away, “I think we’re ready.” And then the commercial cut to the announcer who said something like, “Talk to your kids about drugs. It’s not easy, but it could save their lives.”
BB: And so the whole idea was in order to try to prepare to be emotionally less reactive, they were practicing. It sounds crazy, but it’s real, and I think it works. And it’s a perfect example I think really of practicing calm. And unless we had calm modeled by our parents and grew up practicing it, it’s unlikely that calm is going to be the default response to anxious or emotionally volatile situations. So for me, breathing is the best place to start, taking a breath before I respond, slowing down. It starts to spread calm right away. Also, staying aware of over and underfunctioning behaviors, name them. And if you’re in a family group, a friend group, a system, a team or you trust each other, help each other, be the first to say, “I think we’re in anxiety right now. I’m feeling myself leaning toward overfunctioning.” What I am not asking you or suggesting to you to do is say, “Hey, you’re overfunctioning right now,” or, “Hey, overfunctioner, buckle up.” But to name that you’re in anxiety and talk about that collectively.
BB: The last calm practice for me is really, there’s two questions that I always ask myself and they’ve become default in times of high anxiety. One is, do I have enough data to freak out? And the second one is, will freaking out help even if I have enough data? And I rarely have enough data to freak out and so the answer to that is 90% of the time I don’t. And the answer to the second one, will freaking out help the situation is always no.
BB: So this is my podcast on over and underfunctioning as your sister overfunctioner. I wish you a lot of calm right now. The news is hard. It’s going to get harder and anxiety is going to ratchet up. And I think if we can be aware and understand that our calm can be as contagious as the anxiety, we can start to have an impact in our relationships, in our homes, on our teams and in our communities. I’m thinking about you. I am praying for all of us. And I’ll be back again on Unlocking Us. Thank you again for listening and stay awkward, brave, and kind.
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