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.