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The Process of Leaving

In the metaphor of my teacher, John Whittington, “imagine all the systems in which you have belonged, behind you, like a peacock’s tail”. These systems include your family of origin, all of your schools, your church or religious groups, your relationships and social structures, and all of the organizations where you have worked or volunteered. Each of these belongings forms part of who you are. It’s part of your unique signature in the world. Aside from our families, where you can’t ever un-belong, we eventually leave every system we have joined. And so, our entire lives are made up of a series of joinings and leavings. In this post, I am going to be talking about leavings and the challenges we experience around them. 

Our deepest human need is to belong. And so, from that perspective, it is no wonder that our leavings are so fraught with challenges. Endings are hard for human beings, and we don’t often do them well. There are a lot of endings these days – perhaps more than usual – and so paying attention to this really matters as we collectively move into a new way of being. I’ve written this article for 2 distinct groups – those who are leaving, and those who lead organizations that have people leaving. Let’s attend to our leavings well, so that the joinings ahead of us can flourish.

When you leave a system without acknowledging what’s true, you are likely to stay entangled in that system. What I mean by that is in your future systems, the influence of your experience from the unresolved belonging will be outsized. And, conversely, in the organization you are leaving, the system will work to right the systemic imbalance in hidden ways. Even if you’ve never considered this idea before, I imagine you are starting to recall the instances where no matter how hard you tried, things never seemed to get going properly, or despite your best efforts, you couldn’t seem to step into your full authority in a particular role. It’s likely that you or your organization did not properly attend to the leavings and joinings for that role or department.

When you have properly attended to your leavings, these systems can be a resource to you – even the ones that have been challenging. A ‘good leaving’ is one in which you acknowledge what you have taken and given, and speak the resonant truth of what the relationship has been for you. It is also your opportunity to leave behind the things that aren’t yours to hold, returning responsibility back to the system. If you are lucky, you have an opportunity to speak these things aloud, into the system itself, sharing your gratitude for what you have gained, and what you are taking with you, and thank those that have been part of your journey.

For Those in the Process of Leaving

For the people who are leaving, by choice or not, there are some things you can do to make for a ‘good leaving’. Whether your organization honours your contribution or not, is not (systemically) your concern. This is the part you leave with them, where the responsibility belongs. Your concern is really to resolve your own leaving. As you acknowledge what is true for you, speaking a small resonant sentence of truth is often what moves us towards the shift in our stance that makes it possible for us to move cleanly forward. Here are some questions to consider, and a possible corresponding sentence of truth:

  • What have you received from this organization? 

    • “I’ve learned a lot and will take it with me, with gratitude”

  • What relationships have fostered your growth? 

    • “I honour you for what you have taught me” or “I will remember you”

  • Where have things gone wrong, and not worked out? What was your contribution to that?

    • “I take my responsibility for ...” or "I did my best"

  • What isn’t yours to own? 

    • “I’ll leave that with you” or “That is not mine to own and I respectfully give it back to you.”

  • Were your contributions acknowledged?

    • “You didn’t see my contribution” or "I felt appreciated"

  • Did you take more than was owed, or perhaps, like me, did you give too much?

    • “I gave too much” or “You owe me” or “I took more than you gave” or “I got too much from you”

  • Were you in or out of alignment with the organization?

    • “This work doesn’t belong here anymore” or “It’s time for me to leave” or “I’m sad to go” or “I don’t want to leave”

Notice the settling that occurs in you if it is a true statement. Or notice if you can’t say something, and find what is true (sometimes the opposite!). These sentences won’t necessarily be the right ones for you, but you can use them to get to the ones that do feel right. The move here is to simply acknowledge. It isn’t about balancing the scales, it is about acknowledging what is true for you. It is in the respectful acknowledgement that we disentangle ourselves from the system we are leaving.

So, how do you make that acknowledgement if the organization has made it seemingly impossible? At its core, this is really about an inner shift in you. This inner movement is about putting things back in their rightful place, even if this work is done silently on your own. What you are ultimately trying to do is acknowledge the truth of what your experience has been, without judgment, or wish to change it. Whether it has been a joyful experience, or a painful one, can you let it be just as it is? If you can find that place within yourself, then you are on the useful path. “I have learned a lot, and I will take those learnings with me into my future. What is not mine, I respectfully leave with you.” It is this inner movement that allows us to move more freely, and bring flow back into our system.

Your Role as a Leader

For leaders of organizations in which people are leaving, there are things that you must attend to in order to keep the system in flow. This is particularly true when the leaving was not their choice. We still get into trouble with our leavings when it is by choice, but this challenge is compounded when people are laid off or otherwise terminated without cause. In this world of very large organizations, it’s shockingly possible that someone could leave the organization without any contact from their own leaders. It’s quite sad really, for both sides of that encounter. And, you have the power to do something different.

As a leader, your move is to acknowledge people that have belonged in the system and thank them for their work and their contribution. Even when there is cause for dismissal, it is almost always the case that the employee has made a contribution of some kind. Remember that there is a difference between agreeing to what is, over agreeing with what is. You don’t have to like or agree with something, to acknowledge that it is true. Organizations that don’t facilitate good endings are likely to find themselves stuck and unable to move into their own future, including filling those positions or responsibilities with someone else. The work of ‘good leavings’ creates the space for new people to enter the organizational system without creating hidden loyalties to the person(s) or role not acknowledged.

Whether you are in the midst of change yourself, or leading an organization in the midst of change, attending to leavings properly is important so that we can enter a new system free from entanglements. Acknowledge what is true, take what you have learned and use it well, and leave what is not yours behind. Respectfully return responsibility to the place it belongs. When you have done this, with all the systems in which you have belonged, you will find yourself more resourced in your current and future belongings.

If you’d like to learn more, I invite you to connect with me about Systemic Coaching with Constellations. The intention of this work is to bring greater understanding around the organizing principles of systems in order to restore and maintain flow. 

Katrina is an advanced practitioner of systemic coaching and offers individual and organizational coaching and training in Constellations.

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