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.
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.
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.
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.
What you judge you become.
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.
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.
Burnout naturally emerges from these deep patterns connected to place and size.
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 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.
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.
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.”
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.
“Remember all the systems in which you have belonged behind you, like a peacocks tail…”
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
“The planet is indifferent as to whether we exist – really we are at war with ourselves.”
Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal
“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
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.
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:
- 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?
- As a manager, leader or influencer of others now, what place do you occupy and at what relative size?
- 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?
- 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.