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  • Writer's pictureJon Sommers

Highly Functioning Dysfunction

How many times have I heard the phrase “highly functioning”? Like highly functioning alcoholic, highly functioning personality disorder and more. What does “highly functioning dysfunction” even mean? Simple: it’s what happens when the external controls of our life keep the internal dysfunction from leaking out. Does that mean we are fine? Of course not. We’re just better at keeping it in and hiding it than others are.


So there was this guy Webster that wrote a long book called a dictionary. It’s one of my favorite books. Let’s dig into these words and figure out what highly functioning dysfunction means.

Function: “the action for which a person or thing is specially fitted or used or for which a thing exists : purpose.” Interesting here is the use of the word “purpose”. Our function denotes a purpose to our being. A reason to be here; our contribution to humanity. What is our “function”? What truly matters in this definition? To me it’s the word “purpose” (we’ll come back to that).

Dysfunction: “impaired or abnormal functioning; abnormal or unhealthy interpersonal behavior or interaction within a group.” Here is where we see the “group” aspect come in. Dysfunction is an external issue. It affects outside ourselves. It is a social disorder. This is a loss of purpose where we lose the healthy contribution to humanity. We’ll come back to the word “impaired” in a minute.

In order to really nail down this “highly functioning dysfunction” concept, let’s marry it to a more common term that’s used in mental health and substance use: disorder.

What is a Disorder

Disorder: “an abnormal physical or mental condition”. What does “disorder” mean to what we’re talking about here for “highly functioning dysfunction”? Well, disorder has two aspects to it: an internal aspect and an external aspect. It really comes from two things: distress and impairment.

Distress: “pain or suffering affecting the body, a bodily part, or the mind”

Impairment: “the act of impairing something or the state or condition of being impaired : diminishment or loss of function or ability”

See, we can be distressed without being impaired. We could actually be impaired without recognizing our distress. But in the theme of “highly functioning dysfunction” what we’re really talking about here is our extreme distress that is buried under our external controls to a point that we’re not externally “impaired”. But are we really not “impaired”? When we have to drink or use in order to socialize; when we destroy other’s lives in order to build ourselves up or feel better; when we use others without thought to their damage; when we are so internal and narcissistic that the only thing we care about is ourselves…

That is the definition of disorder: we have an abnormal mental condition that impairs our interpersonal behavior and group interactions causing pain and suffering affecting the mind (both ours and others). See, all of these definitions are wrapped up here: function, dysfunction, and disorder.

What is the Antidote

To say you’re “highly functioning” is to boost your own ego. Really all that means is that you are good enough (for now) – that your external controls can keep your s*** together for little while. It’s prideful and arrogant. And it’s sad – because eventually it will all come out – and most often times the hard way. It did for me.

The fundamental thing that I do twice a week now is when I start a self-help group, I start with my own check in. I start with evening the playing field – I am a broken individual and humble myself before the group. See, humility is not groveling and it’s certainly not weakness. It isn’t falsifying your greatness to say you’re not. Humility is acknowledgement of equality. It’s understanding that you are just another human along for the ride and you are no better than anyone else.

I had purpose, and that purpose held me together in my “highly functioning dysfunction”. But when that purpose eroded – I was just left with the dysfunction. What I’m saying is you don’t have to get to that point. You can fix the dysfunction and keep the “highly functioning” aspect of life. Purpose for many building their external lives to a certain point – monetarily, socially, physically, etc. But what about your internal?


Without function there is dysfunction – without purpose there is disorder. “Highly functioning dysfunction” is really not “highly functioning” – it’s a disorder.

“Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.” – Viktor Frankl

Purpose is the antidote to disorder. Having or finding a purpose – a meaning – is what gets us through anything we will face in life. It’s what gets us out of bed in the morning (or whatever time of day you fancy). Frankl also said that “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” Purpose doesn’t have to be grandiose. We don’t have to save the world. Purpose can just be to choose our own attitude every day and for every situation.

Simple. But not easy.


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