An article by Anke Sommer
What weakens people, the system or their lack of willpower?
Success, health, the path you take as a person: is that all a matter of willpower? Is our willpower sufficient to ‘move mountains’, to escape from the brink of bankruptcy and to establish a stable career? Can we succeed in getting rid of unhealthy long-term habits to improve our health? Are we capable of escaping imminent death if our will is absolutely set on it? Is it possible to avoid a depressed state of mind or put a stop to an impending burnout, despite being subject to continuing, multiple sources of stress?
We can confidently answer “YES” to all these questions, but it’s not an unconditional yes. Our willpower gives us the key to success. We can achieve ‘miracles’ through our willpower, make the impossible possible, and shape our lives in the sense of our deepest calling, overcoming all obstacles. A person with a calling in the mythological sense follows his deepest talent, the talent that everyone possesses from childhood onwards. If this person discovers and develops it, he/she automatically follows his/her calling. The calling is based on an ability that is ultimately the talent itself. This single ability is deeply familiar to the bearer, and it often appears unremarkable, because the person who possesses it is so familiar with it. The more controlled… read more
We could do all this! But why do so many people not do so? Why do so many people not succeed in drawing the willpower card and turning their backs on negative situations? Why doesn’t the good defeat the bad, always and everywhere?
Willpower and the system
The answer is because it needs more than ‘just’ willpower, and on the other hand it ‘only’ needs willpower to turn a situation in a positive direction. That’s because it requires a firm, irrevocable decision to make us leave our well-trodden paths; in other words, it requires our willpower in the form of a decision that makes us capable of accepting help when we reach our limits and can’t overcome them by ourselves. Why? Because all too often we’re incapable of identifying the system that has to be dismantled in order to make it possible to effect a long-term change for the good; to ensure that after taking a decision, we do not fall back into the old patterns that continue to keep us trapped in the problem.
In terms of family, the system I mentioned has grown up over generations; in the business context, it came into existence with the first step in the foundation of a company. It is the sum of the system members’ many systems. It is the sum of all actions. A system like this never forgets: I can confirm that fact many times over from my daily professional experience. It doesn’t forget a single instance of injustice, attempted deception, bullying, oppression or a boss suffering from burnout. Even if the boss who introduced the negative features has long since left the system, the information in his actions remains in the system until it is removed. It doesn’t just grow out; it stays.
All this in itself makes it very difficult for people within the system to act, because they can’t identify the origin of the negative situation they’re currently experiencing, such as their increasing susceptibility to illness. They can’t apply measures at the right point in order to end increasing weakness. Perhaps they even think that they’re physically weak, although that’s not actually the case. The symptoms they display are simply a reaction to the existing dysfunction in the system: a self-preservation mechanism that all too often goes unrecognised.
A practical example
As shown above, people grapple with a company culture that emerged due to a colleague’s burnout, for example. All the staff had to put up with umpteen fits of rage, countless hours of overtime, and harsh orders until the overworked boss’s partner also started to become harsh, bad-tempered, overbearing and unhealthy. The employees have suffered a great deal, but put up with it out of ‘love’ for their jobs, i.e. the fear of losing them. But that also leads to them all increasingly undermining the system that supports them instead of strengthening it: for example, by the disappearance of the ‘outings fund’, or by inefficient work as soon as the boss is away, and above all by the negative climate in the company. These are things that a system doesn’t ‘like’ at all. It becomes increasingly restrictive, that is, limiting and confining. That is a sign that the system itself is being adversely affected.
However the longer the situation persists, the more difficult it becomes for the partner to identify the flaw in the system that needs to be removed. Eventually there are two bosses and lots of colleagues working in a system that is putting them at risk of burnout. This fact in itself leads to further problems. Projects go wrong because no additional member of staff is employed, as a money-saving measure, so staff are forced to work overtime, making them careless. The overworked bosses react with fits of rage to everything that goes wrong. The rate of illness increases, but by now the system is so rigid that illness is unofficially no longer accepted, so people come to work even when they’re ill. The company loses major clients because projects have gone wrong. The pressure increases, as do the deficits. The company increasingly loses its focus on its clients. The number of mistakes continues to increase. Who can put the brake on in this situation? How can an individual’s willpower move this mountain? Who gets help for the system and books an able, experienced consultant who can analyse the system in order to bring the negative situation to an immediate end and to prevent more problems from occurring? One of the bosses?
But what has willpower got to do with the system?
The better a system functions, the healthier its members. This applies to companies as well as to families and long-term partner relationships.
Unhealthy systems soon emerge wherever pressure continually increases and stress cycles are produced. The example above shows how, once it emerges, the system makes individuals into small cogs in the mechanism. A blow of fate is often behind it, such as a failing relationship, a serious illness threatening to put a sudden end to a relatively young life, or the sudden death of a colleague, etc. These blows of fate can move a person to do something, to develop the will to make a decision, to say “stop” to the previously destructive game. The affected person is so ‘down’ that they are ready to accept help and support. That is the first step to getting out of the cycle. Unfortunately, however, this mechanism doesn’t always work.
The will is part of the system wherever the system has hollowed out the people in it to the extent that they can no longer generate the willpower to take a decision, even in the face of an imminent blow of fate. They can no longer manage to put a stop to the situation in order to maintain their own health. As a consultant, I have witnessed the consequences that can occur when a person lacks the willpower to enable them to step away from a system that’s making them ill.
A decision between pressure and health
A doctor and a successful career woman both died as a result of certified exhaustion. Both women were under 50 and both of them were fully aware of the physical consequences if they didn’t pay attention to their bodies but instead worked against them by yielding to the system’s pressure and remaining inside the negative situation; if they didn’t start applying positive strategies rather than harvesting negativity. Neither of these two women managed to take a decision in favour of their health and against the pressure. Nothing helped: neither sick leave certificates, nor the doctor’s warnings, nor concerned family members, nor a confrontation with the possible consequences if they didn’t initiate change at once. Both women’s willpower was focused on keeping going and enduring the situation, in other words in maintaining the old system. They continued to fight their battle and to ignore their own signals that showed very clearly that their bodies were no longer in a state to continue working beyond their limits. They were on the defensive and had given up.
Something inside these people had thrown in the towel and hollowed out their will to live. Their willpower had turned around and was now working against itself. In this way, willpower can turn to obstinacy that in the end is directed against itself.
The conclusion we can draw here is that, for one thing, we should all be aware of the power that we have in our will. Our will possesses a power with which we can resolve negative situations at a stroke, for example by the decision to get help and support when we’ve reached the limits of our conscious competence; when we can no longer manage it all alone, however clever, skilled and intelligent we may be. That is our power. It’s not even necessary to leave the system to achieve this; what’s needed is a change of attitude within ourselves towards self-preservation and positive action. If someone begins to introduce this information into the system, the input continuously changes to the positive side. That is what a system ‘likes’.
Equally, we should recognise that, in the end, we are the only ones who can extract ourselves from deep holes. If we no longer believe that, the sick system can grind us down. The older we become, the less we can withstand this gruelling power. A young body is more easily able to cope with deficits at the physical level than someone older. In other words, the fact that we used to be able to cope with something doesn’t necessarily mean that this is still the case. We can also conclude that systems consist of actions and if the negative input outweighs the positive then the system becomes dangerous because it is imperceptibly poisoned. The atmosphere suffers first of all; next, relationships are affected and after that the focus is no longer on company goals but on destruction. It is a slow, continuous process. Suddenly the boss loses sight of the customers’ or clients’ wishes and is trapped in his/her own system. The power that now develops shouldn’t be overlooked. The clients’ reactions will come, though perhaps not immediately.
So it’s best if we use our willpower for positive things – the creation and maintenance of healthy systems.