Of course, we all experience problems and difficulties in life.

Ideally, we will have the experience, deal with it as best we can, including seeking any additional support we need, and over time, move through it. We learn from it. There is progression and movement, and even though we may find it difficult, things are changing. There’s no dysfunction present. It feels purposeful.

Sometimes this doesn’t occur. Sometimes we can get stuck.

What might this look like?

  • Having the exact same reason for not moving forwards in your life for years on end
  • Repeating the same conversations about problems or issues again and again
  • Continually trying to help someone you care about to get control of their life (to the detriment of your own life)
  • Always stepping in to help fix someone else’s problems
  • Worrying endlessly about one or more people or issues in your life
  • Continuing to try to make an obviously dysfunctional relationship work (for example, continuing to try and work with a relationship that includes substance or alcohol abuse, emotional or verbal abuse, financial abuse, infidelity, lies, manipultion etc, when the other person has no commitment to real and immediate change)
  • Working for a long period of time in a company with a culture that rewards completely unsustainable and unhealthy working patterns
  • Repeating the same patterns again and again without learning from them (such as with relationships or money)
  • Trying to sustain a relationship with someone who doesn’t take responsibility for their behaviour and who lacks empathy (at the extreme, these may be signs of narcissistic personality disorder and relationships with such people almost inevitably become dysfunctional)
  • Continually justifying, explaining away or covering up poor behaviour from people in your life, particularly a partner

Flow is lost. The problem solving process is no longer purposeful.

More than likely, you’re now living with dysfunction.

Four signs you may be living with dysfunction

Rachel Finn wrote a great article for Huffington Post: Four signs you may be living with dysfunction. So useful!

Here they are:

  • You’re always having to give up something
  • You, or others, keep talking about the same problems over and over again
  • Somebody in your life refuses to take responsibility
  • Somebody is overstepping your boundaries and you’re not doing anything to stop it

Let’s look at each in more detail.

1) You’re always having to give up something.

The vast majority of my clients are already self-aware. When it comes to relationships, you are probably already aware that compromise is necessary, and you’re happy to compromise. But what is a reasonable level of compromise? When does it tip over into dysfunction?

In the Huffington Post article, Finn says:

Most people will tell you having to compromise is a sign of a functional and beneficial relationship — and they’re right.

But are you really compromising, or are you just always having to give something up?

Do you give up your values, your beliefs, your power or your passions because you have someone in your life you’re either trying to manage, appease or keep around?

This is not compromise — this is dysfunction.

2) You, or others, keep talking about the same problems over and over again.

We all know what this is like. It can be frustrating to listen to a friend talk about the exact same issue over a long period of time when nothing is really changing. Suggestions may be disregarded, new actions aren’t attempted and the person might resist making the real changes necessary, or avoid booking sessions with a Counsellor, Psychologist, Kinesiologist, or anyone who might be able to provide professional assistance.

Or maybe you’ve been this person – stuck in a rut, cycling around with the same fears, doubts or worries, and knowingly repeating and talking about the same patterns and not knowing how to create change.

If you find yourself often listening to these conversations and have reached the point of frustration, maybe it’s time to try some different tactics. For example, change the topic to a more positive area, reiterate that you feel confident they can/will make changes when they’re ready, or ask which professional they’re going to see for some extra support. You might even point out that you’re not sure it’s actually helping to keep going over the same issues.

(As an aside, of course it is totally appropriate to support friends through difficult times. We’re talking about conversations that repeat and repeat and repeat). 

If you’re the person who’s repeating these stories, there’s a good chance you are living with dysfunction in one or more areas of your life. Are you ready to take action on this? Affirm that you are a powerful person and have the ability to take control of your life.

3) Somebody in your life refuses to take responsibility.

This can occur or evolve when the person involved is a close family member, partner or other loved one. In this instance we’re talking about someone who does have the capacity to take responsibility for their life and choices, but isn’t.

If you find yourself in continual discussions with someone about their need to take responsibility, this can be a sign of dysfunction. If your desire for that person to take responsibility extends to taking responsibility for them, including fixing the messes they create, smoothing over problems, and desperately trying to prevent them creating issues – that’s dysfunction.

You are responsible for your life and choices. Others are responsible for theirs. If you step in to take responsibility for someone else, this can be very disempowering and negative for them (they never learn whatever it is that they haven’t yet learnt and continue to make the same mistakes), and detrimental to your own life. It is a sign of co-dependency.

Finn says:

Anybody who has had, or has, someone in their life who refuses to take responsibility will very likely relate to the experience of having their life put on hold due to that person’s problems or, at the very least, having their life extremely affected because of them…

If somebody else’s life disturbs the normal functioning of YOUR life, then you’re living with dysfunction.


Instead of wasting further time trying to convince another person to take responsibility, you need to get clear on what you really want, and follow through on that. You are responsible for your own happiness and wellbeing and only you can ultimately ensure your needs are met.

4) Somebody is overstepping your boundaries and you’re not doing anything to stop it.

Boundaries are important, and are one way we teach others how to treat us.

As I’ve written previously on the topic of boundaries:

Our boundaries can be a reflection of our self-worth. If you value and respect yourself, you will find it much easier to clearly communicate your boundaries, follow up when required, and remove yourself from situations where you feel your boundaries are being compromised, even when clearly communicated.

It won’t feel like a drama or a stress, in fact you’ll hardy notice it happening. It will feel clean and clear.

If you are not setting or maintaining healthy boundaries, that’s dysfunction. You can usually feel in your body if your boundaries are being over-stepped. It will feel uncomfortable. Being able to say yes OR no freely depending on what is right for you is a sign of healthy boundaries.

Can you see any areas of your life where dysfunction may exist?

Resist the temptation to immediately think of examples of dysfunction in the lives of other people you know! Stay focused on you. If you can see some examples of dysfunction have developed, journal your answers to the following questions.

  • What is my responsibility here?
  • What could I start doing or stop doing to begin to create a more functional situation?
  • What boundaries might I need to set or reinforce?
  • What new ACTIONS can I take here?
  • Am I willing to do what is required to release this dysfunctional element in my life?

And take steps to get your life back into a more free, flowing and purposeful state. You deserve it!

Let’s break this down.

Got a dysfunctional situation to deal with? This is what a functional approach to dealing with it might look like in the context of a relationship. You can modify this for other situations too.

Get honest: If you’re in a dysfunctional situation, be honest with yourself about it. Constantly complaining to other people, or staying stuck feeling frustrated that your needs aren’t being heard or met? That’s dysfunction. Seeking “support” to cope or manage so you can stay in a situation where the person who is creating the issues carries on creating more issues? That’s dysfunction. Explaining your dysfunctional situation to someone else and then, when they express concern, justifying why it’s not that bad? That’s dysfunction.

Clarify: Get clear on your own worth and value. Do you really want to spend your life living in dysfunction? Yes it’s challenging when there’s financial entanglement, kids, property, marriage vows or any of the many things that tie us to relationships that have become dysfunctional. Yes it might feel all too hard. Activate your self-worth and recognise your happiness and wellbeing is worth it. Saying you have self-worth and yet not taking a stand for yourself and your own happiness? That’s dysfunction.

Declare: If you want to end dysfunction, first get clear on what you really want, for example, “I want a healthy, growing, loving relationship with my partner. I am not going to enable dysfunctional behaviour.”

Define: What would that look like? What is non-negotiable? Have you communicated what is necessary for this relationship to be healthy and functional? Start there. If you need help with getting clear, go see a counsellor, Psychologist, Kinesiologist or someone else. If you stay stuck at this phase – articulating what you want but with no follow through? That’s dysfunction.

Ask: Once you’ve defined the problem and what you believe is required for the relationship to be healthy, ask the other person if they also feel there is an issue. Find out what they would like to do it about it. What is their plan? How long do they need to come up with a plan or to seek external support? If they don’t believe there is an issue and don’t want to come up with a plan to move forwards? Believe them. Use that information and plan your next steps. Continuing to try to convince someone else there is a problem which is causing you pain when they’re saying things are fine? That’s dysfunction.

Next steps: What is going to happen if the other person is unable or unwilling to behave in ways that are functional? At what point will you leave the relationship? What is your timeline for necessary change? What is your plan for moving forwards in your own life? If you are not willing to leave a dysfunctional relationship where the other person has no willingness or capacity to change? That’s dysfunction. Blaming someone else for acting in dysfunctional ways but not following through with action of your own? That’s dysfunction.

Follow through: Take action in line with what you ultimately want and need. Get support. Stay strong, and focus on creating stable foundations for the next phase of your life.

Further reading

Let’s talk about boundaries

When boundary problems collide

Why do we defend dysfunction?

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