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. And then act out of these deep patterns and loyalties in order to ensure their belonging.
If you sensed that something was needed of you in your family – 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 and had to do so from a different relative size.
In most cases we are recruited or seduced into a bigger place and relative size, but when a child is ‘invited’ to occupy a smaller place than is actually theirs they often react in the same way as when invited to become bigger. They choose loyalty to protect belonging, over true place and size. Then find ways to not take up too much space, time or voice 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.
However any difficulty finding our relative place and size as a child always plays out in our adult life. We find ourselves swinging from ‘too big’ to ‘too small’ and wondering how and where to belong.
Anything to belong
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.
It all starts as an unconscious commitment, fuelled by love and the need to belong. We are all wounded children and we would all do anything to belong when we were young, after all our safety and sense of self depended on it.
Leadership and the ‘helping professions’ can be powerfully attractive for someone who became ‘too big’ as a child.
The comfort of the familiar
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 relaxed 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 may sometimes make you feel judged and/or 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.
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 of finding true place and size is dignity for 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 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 the pattern is so unconscious – and being the right size so unfamiliar – it usually proves difficult and then exhausting.
The journey of right-sizing yourself must begin in relationship to the source of your life. Your parents, grandparents and your ancestors.
In our attempt to receive what was not available in an earlier system we over-give in a later one, in the unconscious hope of receiving what was not possible.
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. To understand their apparent arrogance you’d have to look into their family patterns and their relative place and size with their mother and then father. And then how that pattern played out at school and in other social and professional systems.
“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 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 must 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.
“The planet is indifferent as to whether we exist – really we are at war with ourselves.”
Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal
“We are deforesting and causing animals to move into our environments. Our behaviours are facilitating the spread of pathogens from animals to humans.”
Professor Matthew Baylis, University of Liverpool
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.
“Man is the most insane species. He worships an invisible god and destroys visible nature. Unaware that this nature is the god he’s worshipping”
Hubert Reeves, Astrophysicist
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 your parents and their parents and ancestors in this way, when you are able to stand in your true place and relative size, you are able to walk towards freedom.
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 recruited or seduced into a place that wasn’t yours in the first place. Once the journey is begun then your ability to be the ‘right size’ with your siblings and children will emerge with greater ease.
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?
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 connects with others
Becoming bigger or smaller than others has a very significant impact on the flow of life, of love and of leadership.
If adoptive parents make themselves bigger than the birth parents it leads to significant difficulties in the adopted child’s life and work. See here for more on adoption dynamics.
There are many ideas about the apparent benefits of forgiving another, however it is often a cover-up for a covert change in size in which the ‘victim’ becomes the ‘perpetrator’ and ‘bigger in the way we mean it here. See here for more on the hidden dynamics of forgiveness.
This article connects with others
Becoming bigger or smaller than others has a very significant impact on the flow of life, of love and of leadership.
If a founder establishes a system in an attempt to show their parents, siblings or school rivals that they are ‘better than’ them, they make themselves bigger and that in turn leads to a sense of loneliness. See here for an article on founder dynamics.
Your mother is the source of life and it is by accepting that gift from her and seeing her just as the woman through whom your life came, that you can find peace. See here for ‘Men and their mothers‘ and here for ‘Women and their mothers.’