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The secret systems within you

12 May 2021 | systems

You’re having a hard time getting your writing work done.

It seems like an obvious thing to do and yet you’re struggling to actually do it. You want to write. It burns you that you aren’t writing, but here you are, not writing. It hurts.

It hurts because it feels like a simple problem: just write more, that’s it. Okay?


Sometimes we feel like seeking help with a seemingly-obvious problem is a sign that we can’t do things on our own. We think we should be able to do this on our own. That we’re bad at something we should be good at.

The “shoulds” that people have about themselves often obscure a bigger story.

Some stories

I should have better time management. If I would just stop procrastinating, then I could write more.

Possibly meaning: I should just be able to suck it up and get it done. It’s me. If I would just stop procrastinating, all would be well.

But wait. It might not be that simple. Let’s consider a few things: why are you putting it off? What do you really want to do? How much is fear at play? How could you have more supportive physical or social surroundings? A calmer emotional state? A more purposeful, focused, aligned mental state? Are you doing too much? What expectations drive your behavior?

There’s a lot here we could consider. It might not be such a simple problem.

I just can’t get focused on my artwork. It’s not working.

Possibly meaning: my brutality about myself is a sign of how honest I am. I’m just being real.

What if there was another way to talk to yourself? Why do you think this belief about yourself is true? Who told you that being hard on yourself was a sustainable way to function? How does it help you, or anyone, to be hard on yourself? What if something you’re not seeing is in your way? Do you have a clear vision for yourself?

I should sit down and just write, that’s all! I need to find an hour every day to prioritize it—obviously that’s all that needs to be done.

Possibly meaning: The problem is obviously a simple one. Why would I hire a coach?

But…why aren’t you carving out that hour everyday? What’s stopping you? Life can be really demanding and unfair for many: how are you supported? What’s lurking underneath all this that is daunting or scary or mean or chained to cultural notions of productivity and success?

Burdens of the system

Here are some lies our late-stage capitalism tells you:

No, no, no. No.

Wide-angle moment

We exist in nearly impossible systems. Non-sustainable systems. Energy- and life-depleting systems that take as many resources/hours/ideas/data as possible at the lowest cost so they can extract the most benefit/profit for the smallest number of people. Systems that know how to divide people to conquer them.

This is how capitalism (and it’s right hand, colonialism) works. That’s the system we know, that we inherited and grew up in, that shaped us. Those systems are vast and abstract and no one here today “caused” them, but we’re all forced to participate in them, at least to some extent.

How could this have anything at all to do with you desire to write more poetry or to finally start your own business?

Systems shape us

Our capitalistic/colonial mode of operation, at scale for the last 500 or 600 years, has had ample time to create some pretty unhealthy expectations for ourselves and how we interact with the world. Take, take, take from the environment, from people of color who are slaves (or nearly-slave migrants), from women, from non-human creatures. Commodify everything possible, dissolve the notions of the commons—the common lands, the shared responsibilities of groups. Stress achievement and accumulation of material wealth as the Highest Good, create systems that reward and reinforce the compliant behaviors, shame or eliminate those who don’t fit in.

In short, it’s really, really big. A lot.

You don’t need to keep all of this in mind all the time, but it’s important to know that it trickles down and shapes how we think about ourselves on a very detailed level.

The commons carry us

How much are we distracted and downtrodden by unrealistic societal pressures? Are we all trying to win at a rat race that we don’t understand and maybe didn’t even know we had signed up for?

Or are we doing our best work, in service of the dignity of all life?

How you show up in your life is broader than our culture makes it out to be, and it’s large load of work to figure out what all of that entails. It takes digging—into one’s soul, really—to see the scope of what this personal responsibility may look like. Coaches help you dig, and they do it with compassion and hope. Let’s work on your writing, and let look at some of the factors at play: what’s really going on here for you?

There is both the individual and the partnership

Doing things for yourself is great. Being resilient, resourceful, hard-working: these are great qualities. What’s also great is that they do not whither away because you’ve sought counsel or collaboration. Instead, these qualities thrive.

There are many things you can do own your own, and so you do. There are other things that are just not working as well as you’d like, and likely you will still do these things on your own. However, working with a coach can help get you over or out of a spot of stuck. Working with a coach helps you see the systems that you’re enmeshed within and how to untangle that mess to free yourself.

It’s hard to battle a toxic system on your own, and a lot of times we struggle because we are stuck somewhere in that system. It helps to have someone committed to your wellbeing, who can look with you at those hard topics and, with compassion, relative objectivity and hopeful curiosity, help you craft a plan for real growth.

Big scope, small investigations

We start with ourselves, but it does not end there.

We are created, grown, sustained by the systems we live in. There are physical systems and abstract systems. We must look to these systems—there are many and they go deep, deep, deep, as far as you care to go—as sources of renewal or sources of depletion.

For the people thinking they just need to fix themselves and it will all be ok, there is a kernel of truth in there: yes, you alone may have some good work to do to feel better in your life. But you also need to look at how your systems shape you without your knowing it. Give gratitude and reciprocity when that is appropriate, and keep the good systems thriving, and look to subvert and change the system when it cultivates harm in you or others.

Women working at a Bell System telephone switchboard, circa 1945.

Women working at a Bell System telephone switchboard, circa 1945. U.S. National Archives.