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Where Am I Holding Back?

October 6, 2020

I look out into the world. There’s much to admire. And so much that can be improved.

In an attempt to help, I try to pinpoint the issues, the reasons for their existence, and who or what is the cause.

Despite my good intentions, I am falling into a trap.

I am pointing to the system and its problems over there, as if it was all separate from me.

But what is the ‘system’, if not you and me?

If we were to remove all human beings from the earth, what of the system would remain?

We are the system, and the system is us. I am the system and the system is me.

I wonder: what is my part in the world and the society we live in?

What here is mine to take care of?


That’s a mouthful of a word. Thankfully, it’s easier to grasp than it sounds.

Complexity scientist Gregory Bateson coined the term to refer to how systems fall apart.

There are several forms of schismogenesis. One is when power hierarchies become increasingly entrenched. Another is when competition ceaselessly ratchets up. In both cases, given enough time, such systems will eventually fall apart.

As relevant as these examples may seem, there is another form of schismogenesis that stands out for me.

It’s called systems hold-back.

It refers to when an actor in a system holds back from contributing what it can. Eventually, this too will lead to the system falling apart.

The reason is simple: when one actor holds back, so will the others.

“Why should I give my all if no one else is? What’s the point of contributing fully if I’m the only one doing so?”

Because everyone holds back, no one contributes fully. Everyone has what is needed, but no one gives what they’ve got.

It’s an endless loop, with no happy endings in sight.

Where am I holding back?

Over the course of the spring I launched a new venture called Yellow with my friend Rob Poynton. It’s a (mostly) online space for learning, thinking, and exploring.

In a recent Yellow group gathering, we had a riveting conversation about language and buzz words.

We discussed how common it is to talk about people as ‘bottlenecks’ or ‘stakeholders’. How so much of work revolves around ‘deliverables’ and ‘KPIs’. How notions such as ‘purpose’, ‘authenticity’, ‘resilience’, ‘transformation’, and ‘empowerment’ become stripped of their real meaning and get co-opted as idealized quick-fixes to complex problems.

Understandably, many of us get irritated by such uses of language.

But the question is: what do we do about it?

Despite our misgivings about these buzzwords, our standard response is to get annoyed. We complain to ourselves. Maybe we chuckle about it with friends and like-hearted colleagues. Then we get on with our lives.

Although we would like to see a different world come to be—with more precise, empathetic, and human language, for example—far too often we don’t do anything about it.

Instead we play the game that’s being played.

We put ‘deliverables’ into our proposals, because we think that’s what the client wants. We talk about people as ’bottlenecks’ in meetings, because we assume it makes us sound professional. We give in to our client’s need for measurable ’KPIs’, because we value sealing the deal more than we value the meaning of what we do.

We play along, even though we want to play a different game.

We give in.

We hold back.

In doing so, we are perpetuating the very system we’re desperate to change.

Where am I holding back?

Integrity, although itself a buzzword in many contexts, is a word with solid foundations – quite literally.

In architecture, the structural integrity of a building refers to how much it can hold together under pressure.

The Latin root of integrity is integer, meaning whole, intact, complete. And in mathematics integer is a whole number. No decimals or fractions. Wholeness.

Integrity is oneness, wholeness, intactness. It’s about being all there, especially under pressure.

Like the structural integrity of a building, personal integrity is not proven during a calm day. It is demonstrated in the depths of a hurricane or in the midst of a storm.

We prove our integrity when we stand for what we feel is important – especially when it is difficult to do so.

When we hold back, we are not standing up. We are giving in. In doing so, we are co-conspiring to extend the lifespan of the system we want to change. We’re pouring cement on the structures we don’t want.

“What is needed most in architecture today,” said Frank Lloyd Wright, “is the very thing that is most needed in life – integrity. Just as it is in a human being, so integrity is the deepest quality in a building … If we succeed, we will have done a great service to our moral nature – the psyche – of our democratic society … Stand up for integrity in your building and you stand for integrity not only in the life of those who did the building but socially a reciprocal relationship is inevitable.

We can talk about disrupting systems, global transformation, and other sweeping large-scale changes all we want.

But maybe it’s just as much about the little things too.

The words we choose to use. The concepts we embody. The looks, the glances we give random strangers. The tone and timber of our voice. The length of pregnant moments of silence. The quality and the nature of our own thoughts.

The little things are the big things.

But how often we let the little things slip! In dreaming ourselves away into a better future, we allow the small things to slide … until one day we realize that all of life has become a daily slipping away of possibility and potential.

All so close, yet so far away.

In Jose Saramago’s harrowing novel Blindness, set in a world taken over by a virus (!), humanity quickly descends into a world devoid of any semblance of goodness and virtue.

“Dignity,” Saramago wrote, “has no price … When someone starts making small concessions, in the end life loses all meaning.”

The small things are the big things.

Where am I holding back?

The small concessions we make form an ongoing, ever-present invitation to ourselves to look at our integrity. To examine the structure of ourselves. To revisit the areas where we are holding back.

This is not a call for self-judgement or blame. We are not perfect, nor should we expect ourselves to be.

Nor is this a call to ‘share everything’ or ‘full disclosure’. It’s not about divulging every little thought and feeling in every moment.

Integrity, and not holding back, is instead about noticing the moments when you’re holding back more than what the moment is asking you to — and then bringing forth what you’re called to bring forth.

“Integrity,” says Nora Bateson, “requires a willingness to go forward without someone else’s instructions. … It means staying alert, paying attention, and resisting the itch to rest in the familiar. Integrity has something to do with knowing that I will, with all I can muster, show up.”

To have integrity is to show up, fully.

Philosopher Martin Buber would call this “going out with your whole being” – a process of listening to what’s emerging from yourself “in order to bring it to reality as it desires”.

What is being called of me, here, now? What am I being asked to bring forth?

What is important in this moment?

What is being asked of me right now?

Where am I holding back from that?

What are the ideas that I’m holding back from the world?

Where do I censor myself out of a desire for politeness, belonging, and inclusion?

Where do I submit to the language of the customer or friend, and hold back the truth and power of what I do and why?

Where do I give in, let slide, and speak falsely?

Where and when do I speak in a way which is detached and disconnected from my emotional experience?

Where do I put on a smile, when I’m actually hurting inside?

Where do I hide my interests, my passions, my contributions, out of a fear of what others will think of me?

Where do I look away when crossing paths with a stranger, rather than offering my presence and availability of human connection, daring to face the pain or the shyness or the joy in the corner of the stranger’s eye?

Where do I hide behind the frontier of what life is asking of me?

Where am I holding back?

When we stand up for what’s important, we are allowing the parts that we’ve held back to come into the light. We are connecting our hidden parts with the rest of who we are.

We’re connecting more of ourselves with ourselves.

This is the foundation of health and healing.

“When a living system is suffering from ill health,” said complexity scientist Francisco Varela, “the remedy is found by connecting with more of itself.”

The more we hold back, the more we prevent ourselves from connecting with ourselves and each other.

The more we lose our sense of integrity, the more we are denying access to the remedies we long for, individually and collectively.

Where can we connect more of ourselves with each other?

Where can I connect more of myself with myself?

Where am I holding back?


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