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The secret systems within you

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.

A few “shoulds” I’ve heard

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

Possibly meaning: they should just be able to suck it up and get ‘er done, it’s their problem to solve. If they 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 a more supportive physical surrounding? 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. I am failing.

Possibly meaning: being harsh or degrading with yourself in difficult situations is a sign of honesty about something that can’t be changed.

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?

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

Possibly meaning: if the problem is so simple, why hire anyone?

But…why aren’t you carving out that hour everyday? What’s stopping you? What told you in the first place that you needed to carve out an hour everyday to do this thing? What’s lurking underneath all this that is daunting or scary or mean or chained to cultural notions of productivity and success? What’s a supportive way to get going on your important work?

Burdens of the system

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

No, no, no. No.

Wide-angle moment

Did I just say late-stage capitalism?

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. I know, it’s weird to hear because that’s the system we know, that we inherited and grew up in, that shaped us. And those systems are vast and abstract and no one here today “caused” them, so how could this have anything at all to do with you desire to write more poetry or to finally start your memoir?

The systems we live in shape us. And this capitalistic/colonial mode of operation, at scale for the last 500 or 600 years, has had a lot of 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

In short, it’s complicated. It’s big.

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?

I am not advocating for the release of personal responsibility because we live in a difficult situation. I am not saying that we give up hope because the problem is so large. That would be terrible, and that would pretty much be the opposite of what I’m saying.

Personal responsibility 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 our 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. But they do not whither away because you’ve sought counsel or collaboration.

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 that compassion and hopeful curiosity, help you craft a plan for real growth.

The thigh bone’s connected to the knee bone

Small things connect to big things. Your sense of “lack of focus” is likely connected to something bigger, but sometimes it’s hard to see those connections on your own, especially when the culture we live in doesn’t prioritize looking at how interconnected we all are, and how deeply individuals are affected by the systems within which they exist.

You have intimate connection to the world you live in, but sometimes that world wants you to forget this fact. Times passes and you get used to yourself and the things around you, for better or worse.

Big scope, small investigations

Coaching is about lifting up the covers of what’s going on, looking at how systems and expectations in your world play out in your life, and how that all helps or hinders you. Will coaching save the world, repair all the damage caused by capitalism and colonialism? Not by itself, no. But on a 1:1 scale, I firmly believe it’s a step in the right direction.

Coaches can help you question some assumptions you make—and you may not even realize you’re making—and help you start to look at your choices, desires and frustrations a bit more deeply. Coaching wants you to connect to that inner well of integrity, love, joy and wisdom that you have always at your disposal.

It helps you out of an old echo chamber, or out of “shoulds” that are keeping you stuck.

It takes time to deeply look and listen to just you. But there’s more.

We are one, we are many

Coaching is a 1:1 scale, and it focuses on the individual. However, individuals do not exist without their communities and supportive environments. Every human on this planet owes their life to the network of other humans who create and cultivate a hospitable world. Every human on this planet also owes their life to the unfathomably vast network of non-human life and environments that support and sustain this hospitable world.

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 system 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.