Happily Ever After?

Once upon a time there lived a girl named Cinderella. You may remember bits of Cindy’s story; how her birth mother was a kind and gracious woman who died when Cindy was young and how her father remarried a haughty and overbearing woman with two older daughters. How life became difficult for Cindy in this new household with her stepmother and stepsisters. She works incessantly to please her stepmother and stepsisters and caters to their every need. She does all the cooking and cleaning, and is treated like a servant. The step sisters become more and more demanding of Cindy as the years pass. Her father, meanwhile, was sort of “not there” for Cindy either emotionally or physically as she grew up. Cindy somehow lived through this difficult childhood, went to the ball, met Prince Charming who immediately fell in love with her, she ran from the ball at the stroke of midnight, she lost her glass slipper which somehow remained a glass slipper while the rest of her clothes returned to rags, the prince searches the kingdom for her, he finally finds her and the shoe fit so to speak, they get married and, as movie producers lead us to believe, they live happily ever after.
However, the sequel to Cinderella’s story may have turned out to be something less than a fairy tale ending. Happily ever after it wasn’t. There were many ups and downs to Cindy’s life after the regal wedding, mostly downs. At first, she seemed to fit into the royal family perfectly. Her Barbie doll beauty and docile personality made her popular with most everyone in the court. She was used to doing everything for herself and serving those around her, and this did not change after she became a princess. If something needed doing, she didn’t sit back and wait to be waited on, she jumped in to help. This earned her the admiration of the common folk who were used to the royal family acting like, well, royalty by being spoiled and expecting everyone to cater to their every want and desire. Yes, she was popular. Too popular, in fact. Soon the prince and the royal family started to show signs of jealousy. The queen mother began to snap at her and criticize her every move. Cindy began to constantly overhear the queen tell everyone how she was just a commoner and would never be good enough for her son. The prince, always a little more preoccupied with his image than with his studies or with making a career for himself, fell into a depression. He began to refuse to go out in public with Cindy, his princess, because she seemed to outshine him so much whenever they were together in the public spotlight. The more active Cindy became in civic affairs and charitable works, the more he retreated into the seclusion of the castle walls. Cindy bore him 2 boys, but they did not seem to be any source of joy to him. He began to drink and became rather bitter about his life. The more Cindy tried to motivate him to pursue outside interests, the more despondent he became. She fussed over him, making sure all his favorite meals were prepared just the way he liked them. She tried to engage him in cheerful conversation about her daily activities, but he only became more and more sullen. The more she tried to do for him, the more he withdrew from life. Rather than the life she had fantasized about where her prince came and rescued her from her previous life of misery she was now living a nightmare. It seems that the conditions of her previous life had been recreated all over again.
Given the patterned ways that people tend to function, this rendition of Cinderella’s untold story is quite likely how her life would have gone, considering the hints we have about her family and her character from the traditional fairy tale. The patterns that led to her unhappiness in marriage and childrearing were already clearly established before she even met Prince Charming. Cinderella was a classic overfunctioner, and was caught up in what is called an overfunctioning-underfunctioning reciprocity. When someone is overfunctioning in a family, there is someone else who is underfunctioning. When one person begins to do for others things that they are capable of doing themselves, it often begins a cycle of learned helplessness ala Cinderella’s stepsisters. The overfunctioner in the family system overfunctions and the other family members compensate by downshifting to a learned helplessness form of existence. The overfunctioner responds to this underfunctioning by ratcheting up the overfunctioning, and the followers sink even lower into greater and greater degrees of underfunctioning. It becomes a vicious cycle that, without the intervention of either a fairy godmother or a marriage and family therapist, often spirals into the demise of the family or worse. Actually, I wrote this fanciful continuation of the story not with Cinderella in mind, but with knowledge of a real life princess, Princess Diana. She fit the pattern I described as well, and we remember how her life ended.
Cinderella is such a classic case of overfunctioning that family therapists often refer to overfunctioning as the Cinderella Syndrome. Overfunctioning in the way that Cinderella did, as by fixing your kids lunches everyday when they are old enough to do it for themselves, or picking up after your spouse when he is perfectly capable of tidying the house, will not result in a prince coming along to carry you off to some romanticized disneyesque world. More than likely the overfunctioner will somehow manage to recreate the same hellish circumstances no matter where he or she lives and works. Considering how conditioned we are to avoiding dealing with the real issues in our lives, the sequel I imagined to Cinderella’s life is the all too probable outcome. All too often the dysfunctions we develop in our families of origin, whether it’s overfunctioning or whatever, get transmitted into our relationships with our spouses and partners and our relationships with our children. Wherever you go, there you are.
When we overfunction in our families or organizations it means that we are taking on more than our share of the responsibility for the welfare and ownership of the system. It is such an easy pattern to fall into. Our overcaffeniated society actually encourages us to fall into this trap, by giving us messages like: always being fearful of losing our jobs, encouraging us to go into debt to have it all now, to always be multitasking one more thing than the human brain was designed to do. Whether we call it overfunctioning or just chronic “busy”ness, it has deleterious consequences. If we are overfunctioning toward others, it encourages them to underfunction. If we are overfunctioning toward others, we are underfunctioning toward our self. If we are overfunctioning at work, we are underfunctioning in some other aspect of our relationship in our life.
Several things attracted me to family systems as the best way to think and process one’s way through life. First, in the family systems way of thinking, the focus is not on the cause of the problem – in this case overfunctioning – the focus is on recognizing it and changing the dynamic. Traditional psychoanalysis usually only encourages us to focus on the psychological cause of the problem. So, before we might have discovered that the person who overfunctions is the oldest of siblings, and thus compelled to take care of the younger siblings, or perhaps that they are the adult child of an alcoholic and they grew up overfunctioning to keep some semblance of normalcy and homeostasis in the family, or that they developed a pattern of overfunctioning because they grew up feeling unloved and this led to compulsive efforts to earn love and acceptance by constantly doing things for the family. These psychodynamics are all very interesting, but family systems cares little about what led to the problem.
Second, family systems thinking focuses on the whole group, or system, rather than just the one on one relationships within that system. This gets us away from thinking “cause and effect,” which automatically leads us to assigning blame for the problem. In systems thinking, we retrain and rewire our brains to think of the interrelations of the entire group or system. Rather than focusing on finding fault in others, systems thinking encourages us to consider the part we play in creating the problem, and how we might better manage ourselves in the situation. This keeps us in the emotional system, but it also allows us to step back, gain perspective, and maintain our objectivity while also lowering our reactivity. Systems thinking doesn’t mean we ignore emotions. On the contrary, it gives us the edge to critically assess and process the emotional field of the entire system. It allows us to be mindful that the entire system is affected by what each person does. But conversely, it also raises our awareness that each person can effect a change within that system.
In a relationship where one person is overfunctioning and the other is underfunctioning, our tendency is to think of the overfunctioner as the healthier, more independent, and more complete of the two. But both are equally dependent on the other for what is missing in themselves. Overfunctioners are invasive of the space of others. They are convinced that they know what is best for someone else and rob them of the ability and initiative to do things for themselves and limits the other persons functioning and makes them dependent. Ever heard of killing others with kindness? That saying likely came from a good systems thinker.
Third and most important, family systems is concerned primarily with effecting change in the system. So, I would ask you today, are you experiencing the Cinderella Syndrome in a relationship at home, work, or perhaps even here in this congregation? If any of this rings true for you, you may be wondering how does one bring about meaningful change, how does one recover from this dysfunction? It requires us to gain an understanding of systems theory and the part we are playing in this dysfunctional dance. Then the overfunctioner has to take control and make themselves less responsible for the other. It requires Cinderella to take stands with the stepmother and stepsisters and perhaps even suffer some of their nastiness. The overfunctioner has to step back and take responsibility for themselves and only themselves, speak for themselves and only themselves. Often, if the overfunctioner can function in this way consistently over an extended period of time, the underfunctioner will step forward and begin to take initiatives to a reciprocal degree. Similarly, if an underfunctioner wants to recover his or her equal place in the relationship, he or she can take initiatives to advance his or her own contributions and take his or her own responsibility for decisions. In systems parlance, this is called defining yourself to the other. Sometimes the best approach is to sit down with the other person or persons and directly renegotiate the terms of your relationship. However, you choose to go about it, expect resistance. You are interfering with the homeostasis of an entire system, and there will be a flurry of protest. If you have been doing things for others that they should be doing for themselves, they will resist, perhaps even call you selfish or insensitive. But if you stay the course, the relationship can be expected to establish a new pattern at a higher level of functioning for all members.
Keep in mind what we discussed last month about putting on our own oxygen mask first. We are not responsible for how others may respond to our initiatives. We are not responsible for their anger and we can’t bring about their happiness. We can only be responsible for our own. If we offer a relationship of mutuality and they accept, wonderful. If they refuse, that is their choice. Our responsibility is to act in a way that honors ourselves as much as the other. To act in any other way disrespects the inherent worth and dignity of every individual and, even though it may give the appearance of being helpful and earn us lots of kudos, its ultimately self defeating and eventually causes more harm than good.
Living with others in an environment of mutuality while at the same time finding and maintaining our own self respect is really the only way to grow peace in our heart and fulfill our human need to both give and receive. Striving to be better differentiated in ways that avoid beckoning traps like overfunctioning is really the only way that life in the real world will ever approximate the wistful ending of happily ever after promised to our imaginations by the magical fairy tale of Cinderella.


About lfhoward

Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Valdosta
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