Updated: Mar 12, 2021
Many empaths don armor to protect their emotional and social selves. It can happen at any time in life. I am unable to pinpoint the exact moment I donned my armor, but I believe it was somewhere around age 4. My mom left my dad and I unknowingly assumed the roles of pseudo-partner to my mom and pseudo-parent to my one-year-old sister. I crawled into my shell from that point forward. I was a "good girl", doing what I was told. Even doing things without being told. And that is when it happened. I put on the armor of overfunctioning.
"When anxiety hits, our brain often turns on its autopilot. We find the quickest way to calm ourselves and everyone else down. For many people, the fastest strategy is to become over-responsible for family, friends, colleagues, and even strangers." Dr. Kathleen Smith
Overfunctioning was my way of reacting to the changes that were happening around me that I had no control over. Overfunctioning looked like staying busy, tending to my sister even if she didn't need tending to, and doing things to ease my mom's stress and worry. At that tender age I had no idea I was putting on the armor. But it became my normal way of functioning in the world.
I received praise growing up for being so helpful, which reinforced my overfunctioning. It wasn't until the past couple of years that I've come to realize it's caused more harm than good. It was unhealthy for me because it increased my anxiety and kept me from learning better ways to be calm. And I inadvertently kept my loved ones and co-workers from becoming more capable humans.
Do you recognize any of these patterns in yourself?
doing something for someone they can do because it will take less time
taking on a task because teaching another staff member will be frustrating
taking over for a colleague when they won't do a task the same way you will
leaving instructions for a job that a person could easily figure out themselves
worrying about other people's responsibilities
Family or Marriage
making sure your partner wakes up and/or goes to bed at a certain time
having goals for your spouse or child that they don't have for themselves
lecturing family members about how to eat healthier
doing something for your child that they can do so it will create less of a mess
keeping a mental schedule for your partner because they often forget appointments
taking over a family tradition because you can do it better
hiding alcohol or food from someone so they won't overindulge
steering your child away from experiences that may result in failure
Friend or Other People
finishing people's sentences when they're anxious
giving advice to a distressed friend who hasn't asked for any
doing something for someone after they've communicated they're capable
telling a driver when to stop, speed up, or turn
doing a task for someone when you know the task is going to frustrate them
When you overfunction, you are less likely to show up as you and have your needs met. You struggle to share what you really think or ask for what you want.
Start by asking yourself, "What is mine in this situation?" Getting clarity around what is yours, and assuming responsibility ONLY for what is yours, is the path to shedding your armor and living with less anxiety.
Here's how I work on taking off my armor. I use the Notes app on my iPhone (because it's always with me and I can pull it out at any time). I start an "Overfunctioning Tracker" note. With each occurrence, I capture the:
date and location
situation, i.e. telling him to text his friend because he got sidetracked from doing it
identify what or why it isn't mine, i.e. it isn't mine to remind him to do it
highlight WINS when I catch myself overfunctioning but stop in my tracks, i.e. his shoe was untied and I didn't tell him to tie it because it isn't mine to be a parent to another adult = WIN
When I started addressing this, I gave my spouse permission to lovingly and gently let me know when I was overfunctioning. I have noticed a reduction in both of our anxiety levels and experienced a refreshing freedom to focus on my self-care.
My awareness of my overfunctioning has been good. Healing is good. Healing feels optimistic and peaceful.
Be gentle with yourself as you begin this exploration, my friend. Remind yourself this armor developed as a coping mechanism. Now you are choosing a different way to thrive. Choose Living Bravely!