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Hi, everyone, I'm Bernie Brown, and this is Unlikeliness, don't push me cause I'm close to the edge.
Oh, man, we are kicking off the podcast today with the 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 under functioning overnighter functioning is something 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 are 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 common practice.
And before I even go on, I just need to tell you that Harriet Lerner's books have changed my life. The Dance of Anger was my first, quote unquote 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. And about three days later, I got a FedEx package with the entire cassette collection in a box that I listened to it, and then it turned everything upside down. So here it 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.
So before we get into Harriet's work on Over and Under Functioning, 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 U.S. adults will be affected by an anxiety disorder in their lifetime and that the prevalence of most anxiety disorders are 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. When we think about kind of 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 data 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 in 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.
For example, have you ever been in a situation at work when things are stressful, that your team is doing OK? Everyone's 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, what's one person's anxiety flares up. It's really hard for it not to spread.
It's just the contagion. 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's on her book, The Dance of Connection, Dr. Lerner explains that we all have these patterned ways of responding to anxiety that she calls overfunctioning and under functioning.
And if you're a student of Bohane family systems, a lot of the origin of this word came out of Bohane family system. So you'll recognize it there, too. So let's talk about overfunctioning and under functions. Overfunctioning tend to move quickly to give advice, rescue, take over, micromanage, get in other people's business rather than looking inward under functionaries 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.
Harried 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. For many of us, the descriptors people use to label are patterned. Responses to anxiety can be incredibly shaming. You know, 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's Briney. I'm an overfunctioning are a serious overfunctioning.
I don't want to be labeled or thought of as the micromanaging control freak in times of anxiety. Those are shame triggers for me and for almost all the people who under function in anxiety, they don't want to be known as unreliable or flaky. 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 overfunctioning.
I see a lot of folks assuming the double hands up Roller-Coaster position an overfunctioning the oldest of four codenames, Sister Superior. The same is true for youngest in birth order. You know, 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 under function, 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. 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 over function are like I am the oldest of four when you grow up hearing things. Like Briney, don't leave the toilet lid up, your little sister's could drown or Briney pick up that piece of paper, your little brother could fall on it and break his neck, which is not 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 jumping to 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, get it. Don't worry. Your brother can handle that. Oh, you know, you don't need to take care of that. I think birth order, a new birth order, family roles and family functions play a huge part in this. 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 and rising strong, very hard personal story that really illustrates the family dynamic of over and under functioning and anxiety and how our willingness as siblings and family members to name and talk about it changed us. So in 2000 and 2007, I just remember it was a very cold January afternoon. I received one of those calls, the kind that when we dress rehearsed 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 reorganizes everything.
And it was my sister Ashley, and she was screaming, Something's wrong with Mom, something's wrong with mom. She's passed out in the driveway. Something's wrong, something so wrong. 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 practice 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, you know, 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, you know, 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.
So 30 minutes after that call, I'm in the emergency room with Steve and Ashley were 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's a doctor, so he can translate what's happening for us.
And the bad news is I've been looking into those eyes in that base 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.
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. And of course, this made no sense to me at all. My mom was healthy.
She's young, active, work 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 he 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, you know, on standby in San Francisco in terms of when he should fly in. 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 are 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 straightened 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. 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 intervened with my parents when I thought one of my sisters or my brother was in trouble unfairly. And so I slide into this role a protector and co parent, and while I'm in it, I'm fierce.
You know, nothing bad can happen. And unfortunately, I start over functioning at the highest level possible, again, as an overfunctioning. We tend to move very quickly to advise rescue, take over, basically get in other people's business rather than looking at what's going on inside under functionaries 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's causing the stress and anxiety they become, the focus of more stress and anxiety on the outside isn't overfunctioning.
Or we can appear to be very tough and in control, and sometimes the under functionaries can appear to be irresponsible or even fragile. When we were finally allowed to see my mom, my sisters did you know 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 overfunctioning, so overfunctioning to overfunctioning. 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, introduced myself and began drilling him for information. My mom's husband just took a step backward and let me run the show. 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's 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 is always seems a no no jarring.
Is that the right word? Maybe jarring to me. 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 kind of 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 task 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 Barritt 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 buttoned up the front.
I know what she likes. I was looking down 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, you know that feeling.
If you've got sisters or friends that are like no bullshit straight talkers, you know, it's a terrible sense of dread and relief, but mostly, I guess, dread. 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. Your overfunctioning briney. And Bear jumped in and said, we can help, we know how to do this, we know what to do and.
The hard story to tell, to be honest with you, even though I've written it, and the minute Ashley said you're overfunctioning, 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 started crying, but they held me and they kept saying that we were going to be OK 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.
And when you look at Overfunctioning and under functioning through a vulnerability lens, it's easy to see that both ways of functioning are forms of armor. You know, their 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 under functioning. 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, I don't know, Martha's Vineyard or something. My sisters and I just could not start 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.
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. Overfunctioning. Like me, if we can name it and own it, can work on being more vulnerable in the face of anxiety and under functionaries can work to amplify their strengths and competencies. And on top of all that, both under and over functionaries can work to develop a calm practice that I think cintas us and keeps us from defaulting into these patterned ways of behaving.
So when it comes to calm, I consider myself to be Nuvo calm. It is 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 the probably the past since Elian 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. 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. And Steve, my husband, he is his super power 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 common practice, and I hope it can be helpful or make a small contribution during this time. Where? Things are hard.
The fear is real. So no one from the data around can practice, and I call it practice because it's like authenticity. The idea that there are authentic people and not 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 in a more supportive way.
But we all have the ability to practice calm so no one try to be slow to respond. And quick to think, do I have all the information I need to make a decision are former 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? No, to stay mindful about the effect that karma 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 that small things matter again. Your response? Can you count to ten 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?
It's really interesting. Some of the best speakers that I know who talk to teenagers, 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, you know, in high schoolers 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 the 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.
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 week? Oh, my God, I think they're going to fire everybody. And our response is no way. Oh, my God. Who said that? What 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, you know, lay off everybody in that division.
They're shutting the whole team down. Ba ba, ba, ba. Say more, I haven't heard that what did you hear from whom they have a tendency to ratchet down the tone, the cadence in the volume. 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, you know, 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 have a graduation in graduation. We're not going to do this. What are we going to get? Grades. You know, it's three graduation.
It's really hard. What's 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 him in the nose.
I'm with you. I feel the same way. But I have used this kind of calm practice for a long time. It is so effective.
I'll give you an example of practicing nonresponsive, 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, 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. 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 a practicing calm. And unless we had calm model 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 under functioning behaviors. Name them.
And if you're in a family group, a friend group, a system, a team where 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. Hey, overfunctioning, our buckle up.
But to name that you're in anxiety and talk about that collectively, 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 really have enough data to freak out? And so the answer to that is 90 percent of the time I don't. And the answer to the second one, will freaking out help? The situation is always now. So this is my podcast on Over and Under Functioning as Your Sister, overfunctioning, 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.