Size Matters

Finding your place and relative size.

The journey of life in systems. The roots of burnout. Belonging.

When you were a defenceless little baby you tuned in, deeply, to the nervous systems of your parents. It is here that you picked up the unspoken signals that told you about the balance of exchange between them and between you and them.

Were they resourced to take care of your needs, or did they need something from you?

Your mother and father – and the relative size and inner distance between them – created the first perceptual pattern you intuited, and later embodied. You were tuning into the deep unspoken patterns within your family system, including the balance of give and take, the balance of exchange in this, your first constellation.

We tune deeply into the balance of needs between us and our parents and that stays with us, expressed through our life and our work.

If you sensed that something was needed of you – and by the time you could walk and talk this would be more conscious – then you would have been pulled, like a fragment of metal towards a magnet, into a place in that system that wasn’t yours. As a result you’ll have soon learnt how to act as if you were occupying a different place in the system and had to do so from a different relative size.

And size, as we shall see, matters.

When a child feels drawn into a place that isn’t theirs and so is put artificially ‘above’ one or both of their parents (and/or siblings), they are caught up in one of the most common patterns in family systems. [When a child is ‘invited’ to occupy a smaller place and size than is actually theirs they are also likely to choose loyalty to protect belonging, over true place and size. Then find ways to not take up too much space or time in the family, and later, in their educational and professional systems.]

Every child will walk willingly into these unspoken invitations. They are acts of love after all, the blind love of a child who wants to be seen, feel safe and belong, above all else.

The blind love of a child creates a bond of belonging but can also lead to resentment, exhaustion and confusion later in life.

The blind love of a child creates a bond of belonging but can also lead to resentment, exhaustion and confusion later in life.

A child who has unconsciously agreed to become larger in the system, carries more responsibility than is theirs and so they feel clever, useful and special – at first. Later when they become an adult, they may feel resentful and then increasingly entangled and burdened by their ‘special’ place in the system. This manifests in several ways, most commonly through difficult relationships with authority (their own and others) and through taking on responsibilities that belong with others and so over-extend or over-help.

This is, after all, one of the most common unconscious patterns in those that work in leadership and leadership coaching. As in the wider ‘helping professions’ the unconscious appeal of working through your relationship with relative place, size and responsibility is strongly attractive.

And it all started as an unconscious commitment, fuelled by love and the need to belong.

Leadership and the ‘helping professions’ can be powerfully attractive for someone who became ‘too big’ as a child.

Leadership roles are very attractive to those who got caught in this pattern as children. Primarily because they recognise the loneliness of being ‘above’ others. Secretly wishing they could belong ‘within’ they find themselves ‘without’ and isolated. Then struggle to find their true authority in role. This is perhaps where you often meet many leaders who have come into coaching.

If you work with someone – a teacher, a consultant, a coach, a doctor, a leader who has become – and remained – ‘too big’ in this particular way you can feel it. Unconsciously they are in their familiar place, ‘above’ you. They are trying to support or lead but in a way that can make you feel judged and weaker.

To explore all this with a compassionate systemic lens we need to include previous generations in our view. In other words it’s useful to remember where the ‘size’ dynamic most commonly comes from: if our parents hadn’t received what they really needed from their parents they will unconsciously recruit us as their helpers, their resource or protector. Their dynamic creates ours and we lose our foothold on our true place – as small – and get drawn into occupying another space – as big.

Alternatively they experienced that very dynamic themselves as children and so became too big as parents, making you their children, feel eternally small. And so it goes on, as Philip Larkin famously pointed out.

In both cases you may see people who became too big or too small, being suddenly – and often inappropriately – playful in words and/or action as adults as they unconsciously try and reclaim their true place as a child.

Another common way of occupying the wrong place and size in your family system is when one of your parents does something significant to the other, or to you, that you experience as painful and judge as ‘wrong’. Perhaps you take sides with one parent against the other or in some other way, maybe as a result of a shock, loss or separation, judge one parent. This puts you above them and can trigger a loss of place and size. Not only does this catalyse the kind of dynamics described here but also results in your behaving and becoming just like them.

“Remember all the systems in which you have belonged behind you, like a peacocks tail…”

What you judge you become.

A wider, systemic perspective and understanding of where all these patterns and entanglements come from, is the source of compassion for the individuals and dynamics at play in relational systems of all kinds.
This is why the idea of imagining all the systems in which you have belonged, behind you, like a peacock’s tail, can be useful. Think of all the unconscious loyalties, dynamics, resources and entanglements in them. In particular think about your primary system, your family-of-origin.

To return a system to flow we need to surrender the place that is not ours, find our true size and allow everybody else to return to their true place and relative size. This takes time and requires humility, resource and support.

The result is dignity for the individuals, coherence and flow for the system.

Going viral

This image shows the size of the Coronavirus, relative to a red blood cell.

This inconceivably small microbe, half a trillion of which you could fit on the head of a pin, brought the human world to a near standstill. It has, as we say in the world of systemic constellations, ‘right-sized’ us.

We have been reduced, ‘right-sized’, to our true place and size in relationship to nature and the balancing forces of natural systems.

Being in the right place, at the right size, is important whether it is in a political system, a family system, a business system or the wider ecosystem. Finding and maintaining the right relative place and size is absolutely central to systemic health. This is a truth we are repeatedly shown but seem to struggle to learn from.

Other possible impacts of becoming ‘too big’ or ‘too small’

  • At work: Imposter syndrome, difficulty with teamwork, challenging the authority figures, over-working that may lead to exhaustion or burnout (see below)
  • At work or home: Bullying; Hubris; Forgiveness (see article on the dynamics that can emerge around this kind of forgiveness here)
  • In personal relationship: Difficulty occupying true place/size and with boundaries, equality, compulsion control and compromise. Too much or too little voice.
  • As a parent: An uncertainty around finding place, size and appropriate authority with your own children.
  • As an adoptive parent: Becoming bigger and more important than the birth parents (see article on this and other dynamics in adoption here)
  • At the social and political level: Fundamentalism; piety, colonialism, racism, autocracy and political hubris.
  • At the level of the ecosystem: Ignoring our impact on the climate – and other disrespectful actions that damage the larger natural systems we are all held within.

Burning out to belong

If you were a child who became inflated in relative size in order to belong and feel safe then you are likely to be drawn into over-extension and exhaustion in later life. A common way of doing this is at work, in an organisational context.

In a junior role you may be seen as someone who is always over-delivering and so get rewarded for this. As you grow and get more and more senior roles you make yourself a little larger than the role really requires. Or you take on additional responsibilities which inflate the role and then expand yourself to fill the gap you’ve created.

A child who has been recruited into a false place in their family and grows to become a manager or leader may ‘re-place’ others in systems because that is what they learnt to do as child. This makes them feel powerful, but fearful and lonely at the same time.

The loneliness of leadership’ is often connected to this deeply unconscious pattern.

You may take on more responsibility in the system than is actually required of you, or find yourself drawn to tasks which are almost impossible to deliver on, or roles that are not at all well supported or resourced. These roles are particularly attractive and you willingly volunteer to occupy them.

Burnout naturally emerges from these deep patterns connected to place and size.

Organisations with this inflated size pattern in their origins (founders, founding purpose) attract others with the same pattern and you see whole organisations that are characterised by frequent fighting for place and relative size. These are also often in the pharmaceutical and health, education and care sectors where lots of people unconsciously trying to save, re-place, heal or judge someone in the family-of-origin may unknowingly gather.

This pattern is also seen in the voluntary sector where there is a lot of ‘helping’ and ‘rescuing’ energy in the unconscious of the individuals and the system they create and work in.

Being ‘right-sized’ is one of the features, functions and hidden benefits of burnout. You are forced back into your true place and size in the system and from there can recover.

The issue with relative size and place can also be seen in politics where it is more explicit and visible, part of the way things are done. Burnout – in politics and organisational life – may be an accepted part of the culture and an unspoken way of showing you belong. However, the people and the system often get weaker and weaker, their powers and authority diminished.

The pattern begins with being drawn into the wrong place and becoming the wrong size in a previous system, most often the family system. There is an imbalance in the give and take, in the exchange.

The one who was supposed to receive had to give and so lost their place and relative size. This makes them lonely and so, in future systems, they give and give in the hope of belonging. Of belonging in the right way and at the right size. However, because all the dynamic is so unconscious – and being the right size so unfamiliar – it usually proves difficult and then exhausting.

In our attempt to receive what was not available in an earlier system we over-give in our current one, in the unconscious hope of receiving what was not possible.

All of this is a familiar path for many managers and leaders who come into coaching, and later become coaches themselves. Coaching looks so very attractive because it offers an opportunity to be useful from just the right place and size. And yet it’s also easy to miss that the thrill of becoming a coach may be masking and triggering our deepest hungers that were not fully met as a child. To belong in our true place at the true relative size.

If this is not conscious leadership coaching can invite us to accidentally take up an inappropriate place and size. After all if you are a leadership coach you are ‘helping’ the organisational ‘parent figure’. The comfort of that relational pattern is attractive, inviting, familiar.

Unless you are aware of this pattern and are working on yourself as a life-long project of personal and professional expansion it’s possible to slip into a less useful place and size as a coach.

The journey includes right-sizing yourself in relationship to the source of your life. Your parents and grandparents in particular. To find and occupy your true relative place and size.

Question time (a)

So how can we reflect on these big questions about size? As leaders and as leadership coaches and consultants? As human beings. Here are some questions to catalyse your own reflections:

  1. In the constellation of my family-of-origin did I occupy my place at my true relative size or did I become bigger or smaller in order to be loyal and belong – or serve a larger unspoken purpose or pattern in my family system?
  2. When I was young, at what age did I first feel drawn to occupy the role of ‘coach’ or ‘leader’?
  3. As I travelled through my school/educational systems did I change my relative size in order to belong or survive?
  4. In my most resonant professional role so far, did I become too big or too small in relationship to the role I occupied and its purpose?
  5. How does my current relative size strengthen, or weaken, those around me?

A couple more questions to reflect on follow, later.

Politics. This time it’s personal.

You could see the deep pattern of occupying an inappropriate place and size throughout the 2020 viral pandemic when presidents and other world leaders said things that showed that they thought themselves bigger than the tiny virus. It soon became clear that the virus had much more power, authority and influence than them.

For many men – they are all men – it seems that they could not bear to be small, even in relation to a life-threatening viral pandemic, scientific evidence or the deep and repeating patterns in the larger arc of human history.

“Nations have been brought down by this itty-bitty virus. And we have nothing!”

Harold Smith. Molecular Biologist

“The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.”

Gregory Bateson

They put themselves, their politics and their focus on economic growth, above the lives of the people they are leading. Perhaps they believe that their ego-system is larger and more powerful than the eco-system of the world they temporarily inhabit. As if by sheer willpower and rhetoric the virus will simply go away and give up on its own search for life.

They treat it as a fight not a respectful dance with nature. In each case they do all this at the cost of many thousands of human lives and in some cases, nearly their own.

Once again we have to look behind them, into their traumatic family and educational system experiences and deep patterns to look with insight and compassion at the source of their challenging, confusing ‘big’ behaviour.

In place of proactive preventative investment of millions they are now having to spend many billions trying to recover the situation. In doing so they will leave generations of our descendants in great debt. How will they – our children’s children – respond to being made such a low priority, by us making them so very small?

You can also see the dynamics emerging from becoming too big in the roots and branches of colonialism and racism and the deeply damaging effects of that ‘bigger/better than you’ energy.

Hidden symmetry

An extraordinary dynamic in the balance of Exchange plays out right in front of us, in a mirror. As we try and fight the virus, to stop it destroying the lungs of its host, we continue to destroy the lungs of ours; the planet we inhabit. Without any sense of irony we chop and burn the lungs of this planet to the ground as if there will be no price to pay.

This is done as if it is our right, and as if the economy must always take priority over nature. It’s done without any reference to the larger systems we are all held in, without any systemic awareness or with the past and future generations of humans and other living things in mind.

“Remember all the systems in which you have belonged behind you, like a peacocks tail…”

The system known as ‘the universe’ is estimated to be 13.7 billion years old. The solar system, of which we are a very very small part, is estimated to be 4.6 billion years old. Human beings have been on the planet we call ‘ours’ for only a couple of hundred thousand years.

However, we only started moving from hunting and gathering to basic agriculture around 10,000 years ago.

In that short period we have been reminded of our relative size and place in relationship to the larger system we are held in and call ‘nature’ on multiple occasions. Because we consistently violate the natural boundaries between systems and bring pathogens which co-exist without harm in other living systems into ours.

“We are deforesting and causing animals to move into our environments. Our behaviour on a global scale are facilitating the spread of pathogens from animals to humans.”

Professor Matthew Baylis, University of Liverpool

It seems we are very slow learners and we rail and battle with each other and the natural organising forces of systems as if we can be so big we will somehow ‘win.’

“The planet is indifferent as to whether we exist – really we are at war with ourselves.”

Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal

Some people have found entertaining ways to articulate these deep truths about relative size.

“If life is going to exist in a universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.”

Douglas Adams. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

Our biggest fear

The unimaginably small microbe has bought us into direct contact with our true relative size as well as our biggest fear. Death.

Death is natural and yet, for thousands of years mankind have dreamed up larger and more complex concepts and constructs that are, in our imagination at least, bigger than it. We convince ourselves that if we believe in one of these constructs, a belief in a superhuman controlling power (there are estimated to be between 5 and 10 thousand on offer) that our life may be eternal and that we will have become bigger than our own ending. We don’t even allow death to have its natural, inevitable place in life.

In trying to make ourselves bigger than death we make ourselves larger than life.

Acting as if we are ‘larger than life’ is both unnatural and ridiculous, as the tiny virus has shown us. Something so small, something that is innately programmed, just like us, to search for life and reproduction, can quickly end ours and wash away all our rational ideas about our relative size, our power and authority.

Our collective refusal to just see our life as it is – a part of nature – leaves us searching high and low for something else to make sense of it all. However, we are simply a small part of life on this small planet, part of nature. One interdependent system, one world.

When we stand in our true place and relative size in the systems we live and work with we can make a difference, a big difference.

The journey of life, of love, of leadership

The journey of life really begins when you can find a place in your heart for both your parents and all that they come from. To give them an equal place, side by side, just as they were before they became aware they would become your parents.

To be able to say to them “My life came through yours and from far beyond. Thank you.”

When you have truly included them in this way you are free.

Becoming the right relative size in relation to your parents and ancestral field is one of the deepest inner movements we can make as human beings. It often takes half a lifetime to make that journey if you got drawn into a place that wasn’t yours in the first place.

The final chapter

For many people one of the most difficult journeys of life is the one you take when you accompany your own parents through old age. When you are wordlessly invited once again, to take care of their needs – often just as they appear to become rather like children themselves.

But this time they know, you know, what’s coming next.

This journey is hard for everyone, but for those who are trying to help from a place and size that isn’t truly theirs, it can be overwhelming and emotionally exhausting. For this most delicate and poignant journey must be made whilst we are deeply connected to our relative place and size as their child. To stay ‘little’ whilst also facing into the practical responsibilities of being an adult resolving big practical problems.

To ensure your help strengthens them and respectfully returns their fate and their dignity to them. To simultaneously be small in the face of the end of your own parents’ life and yet be able to stand in your own authority as an adult and support without judging or patronising.

Do all this without becoming bigger than them and you will be able to say goodbye from just the right place in your heart.

And your children will learn how to do the same for you.

That’s life coaching.

Question time (b)

So how can we reflect on these big questions about size? As leaders and as leadership coaches and consultants? As human beings.

Here are four more questions for your own reflections:

  1. As you scan through the various roles you have occupied in life and work what do you notice about your relative size and place in each? What patterns emerge?
  2. As a manager, leader or influencer of others now, what place do you occupy and at what relative size?
  3. As a coach, leadership coach or consultant how big, or small, do you feel in the constellation of your clients and how does that strengthen or weaken each of them?
  4. How could you resource yourself to be the most appropriate and useful size in the systems in which you live and work?

Stance, Principles, Practices

One of the many benefits of the application of the stance, the principles and the practices of the ‘applied philosophy’ known as systemic constellations – whether in the context of professional, social or family systems – is that they are designed to support us find our true relative place and size in the systems in which we live and work.

They do this while returning dignity, responsibility and authority to the individual and coherence and balance to the system.

This article was authored by John Whittington.
The articles in this series do not offer specific advice but stimulus for your own reflections. They provide only an introduction into what’s possible in a systemic coaching or workshop constellations process. This way of looking and working can be combined with others to give an understanding of the human condition. The writing is always a work in progress as the author continues to observe and articulate the dynamics in human relationship systems.


This article was informed and enriched in conversations with my colleagues in the international teaching team, in particular Oana Tanase and Corinne Devery as well as Elaine Grix, Becky Hall, and Ewelina Berniack. My thanks to each for their wisdom and insights.