The flip side of the coin to the “impostor syndrome in overfunctioners” I just wrote about in my last blog post is a person who develops an opposite set of coping mechanisms based on an opposite family dynamics. These two kinds of individuals often pair up in couples, then seek counseling because of the imbalance.
Whereas an overfunctioner might have learned to compensate for the deficits in a weak family system, an underfunctioner often comes from a strong family system. This does not necessarily mean their family of origin was healthy and supportive. It may simply mean that the family they were born into was defined by a domineering parent, a rigid religion, or strong-willed older siblings. These kinds of forces can preclude a child from having the opportunity or encouragement to test their own strength, especially if their personal traits differ from the family’s culture.
So, they may “go along to get along,” avoid taking risks and offending others, and as a result never fully differentiate themselves from the family. This can make it difficult to integrate into their own families when they marry and have children. They may remain enmeshed with parents or siblings, perhaps even at times more loyal to them than to their own spouses and children, causing a lot of disappointment and frustration for those who really to be able to depend on them most in this chapter of life.
It may seem counterintuitive at first, but this can be all the more true for those who are gifted in some way. They may have learned that it’s offensive to outshine others, and been taught to remain small, innocuous, and polite instead. Unfortunately, along with giftedness often comes some degree of neurodivergence. This means that if the individual isn’t able to express their own unique way of doing exceptional things, they may struggle more than the average person with completing the most mundane tasks. This leaves them stuck with the worst of both worlds, contributing neither what the world expects of any adult, nor what they are uniquely capable of. Those around them throw their arms in the air over the maddening gulf between their potential and their actions.
It can be scary for this kind of person to step outside of their comfort zone and onto what may appear to be precariously thin limbs on a tall tree. Functioning at the level they are capable of may instinctively feel like a threat to their relationships, as an equilibrium has settled around their usual ways of being.
If this is you, extend yourself compassion and grace for these fears and where they originated, and then ask yourself if they are really so threatening now as they were when you were little. Ask yourself what you, your loved ones, and the world are missing out on by your playing small.
If this is someone you love, encourage their “no’s” in the smallest ways. When they say they don’t like something, even if it’s just a food or a song, react positively. This can help them feel safe to be different. And of course, remind them of what is uniquely special about them, what you know they are capable of, and that they have your support.