Julieta is a dedicated psychologist with over 11 years of experience in the field. In her practice she uses a contemporary adaptation to psychoanalytic therapy drawing form her training in clinical psychology.
Last Updated on February 5, 2024 by It’s Complicated
Are you tired of the routine, yet at the same time, when you have free time, leisure, or even vacations, it seems like you spend it waiting to return to that routine? Does the free time invite worries or thoughts about the future? Does having your time occupied help you have a sense of security?
If you identify with the questions above, this article is for you.
Navigating Over-Adaptive Behaviour: Understanding the Modern Strain
As a therapist working in private practice in Berlin, I find that this symptomatology is increasingly prevalent. Generally, it manifests as a need to meet certain self-imposed expectations that guarantee an entirely productive existence. Also, individuals become excessively worried about what others think about themselves and how others feel—essentially caring more for others than anything else.
This type of presentation can be associated with what we know in psychology as “over-adaptation.” Considering our environments and systems is crucial when encountering over-adaptive behaviour.
With the environment and systems, I refer to the society of the xxi century—workplaces and generally a capitalist society where everything moves faster, constantly demanding more from us. Our life consists of obligations and things to accomplish, and we worry more about them.
Breaking Point: Exploring Burnout and its Diagnoses
We use the term “over-adaptation” because, theoretically, a person’s response to the environment involves over-adapting. The person gives too much of themselves to conform to the environment’s demands. The individual becomes very attentive to these demands, yet the feeling persists that time and performance are never enough. It is as if the mind, the body, and everything in your being only respond and focus on fulfilling obligations.
The result is harsh, as we continuously side-line our enjoyment and drain our energies worrying about accomplishment.
The fixation on productivity and “success” ultimately leads many people to receive diagnoses of burnout. Simply said, burnout represents a breaking point where clear thinking becomes challenging due to shouldering more responsibilities than one can handle.
In an episode of burnout, a person does not find the resources that are needed to fulfil the demands and starts to feel an imbalance that creates anxiety and despair. For example, thoughts about being a failure can appear. Exiting this situation is more difficult because it represents a long time of dismissing other symptoms, feelings, and behaviours, and it often requires psychiatric leave in the hope that the person will be able to rearrange priorities.
What Drives People Into Over-Adaptative Behaviour?
Because I draw from a psychoanalytic approach, I hypothesise that over-adaptation is a form of defence. By staying in constant motion, we shield ourselves from confronting things that are challenging to face—could be other problems, aspects of our lives, or past traumas.
In other instances, it might be an unsuccessful response to an insatiable desire to become the idealized version of oneself or the idealized version of our parental figures.
It could also stem from a fundamental lack of attention and love in childhood, leading an individual to excessively seek validation from different figures in adulthood, believing that a sense of fulfilment will finally be attainable through recognition.
Therapy Solutions: Tackling Over-Adaptation and Finding Balance
Firstly, it is essential to discover whether the person might have internalised the exterior demands of the environment and what aspects of that person’s history could explain why this happened to them.
When we recognise that sometimes the pressure comes from within ourselves, we can start to work on it. We can begin to confront questions like: how are you treating yourself? Also, what makes it challenging for you to set external boundaries? Is this pressure tied up to something else?
Secondly, it’s crucial to challenge and dispel the notion that worth is tied to your productivity or others’ views of you.
Productivity and a person’s value are not correlated. Suppose these two notions are somehow connected. In that case, guilt will surface whenever you engage in activities that oppose productivity, fostering the sense that you should be doing something else. From my experience, it is essential to explore how this idea emerged. Moreover, are there new ideas on which we can base self-worth or self-evaluation?
Other people’s views are essential to everyone, especially when we speak about others with experience in our work field, mentors, or bosses. But a colleague, a mentor, or a boss should always be attentive to your needs and provide support to enable you to do a good job. If this other person, vital to us, is constantly demanding more and continually dissatisfied, it is crucial to set clear boundaries and limit expectations.
Thirdly, it is crucial to recognize that failure and impossibility are inherent to being human. These notions neither define a person nor determine their value. In the sessions, I would explore what happens when you encounter limitations, when you realize that you can’t do it all. Also, what gets lost, avoided, or remains unseen in the whirlwind of constantly meeting demands?
Lastly, I would work on questioning how one wants to live. It is challenging and unsustainable to live wanting to fulfil a system or other people that is impossible to satisfy. What different ways are possible?
Sometimes, it’s worth consciously asking straightforward questions: Why do you do what you do? Is it vital for you to take on that particular project? Why? Is one task more critical than another? How is my schedule at the moment? What drives the decision-making process?
Redefining Self-Worth Beyond Productivity
Primarily, understanding one’s personal history is crucial to weaving together the threads that lead to this state of overwhelm.
Moreover, reclaiming those spaces where productivity is not necessary, where personal interests and hobbies take precedence, is vital to shield ourselves from the havoc that the system wrecks on our bodies, mental well-being, social connections, and overall enjoyment of life.
Ultimately, I attempt to conceive a different way to inhabit the world (at least from time to time, because nothing is so black and white), where the priority is oneself and one’s desires, where demands are limited to the most essential or at least where there is no imbalance between the two. To view the possibility of a life where one is not always rushing, where you can extract valuable moments from the most simple and daily encounters and situations. Ultimately, it is just as that song we all know says: “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.”
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