Have you ever sought “closure” on something? Have you ever thought to yourself, “if only xyz would happen, then I could have closure.” ? Perhaps you’ve watched the news, and seen someone interviewed outside a courthouse asked something like, “Does the verdict today give you closure?”.
‘Closure’ is a word from psychological theory that most of us have probably heard, and know what it means. Many of us have used it at one point or another. As a buzzword it relates to a desirable state – the end of something that, if not actively traumatic, has perhaps not been easy. In psychology theory, it implies a neat understanding can be gained from a situation that is perhaps confusing, ambiguous, hurtful. In either case, we draw a metaphorical line in the sand, and ‘closure’ seemingly gives us permission to ‘move on’.
But is that really possible, in all situations? And is it even desirable? For some people, it is. But for others, it isn’t a helpful concept.
As we develop in our emotional lives, we are informed by our past. What has happened to us helps us make sense of the world. It is in our nature – our biology – to use the past to predict the future. This is what we’re wired for, and when we do so mindfully it can aid us in our growth and development as human beings.
But still, there’s stuff that’s happened in our past that may have been awful; it may have been traumatic. It may have been wildly unfair, or devastating. It may have started out beautifully, and ended gracelessly. And we hurt from that.
Masochists aside, most of us don’t want to carry our painful past with us as though it were a sharp object in our pocket forever pricking us in our side. We’d rather it were not there, constantly reminding us of the pain of the past. It’s perfectly reasonable to want to ‘close off’ an experience…
…But what happened, happened. And maybe we can’t just move on from it. Even if we wanted to, we cannot avoid the effects of emotionally-charged experiences. This is how we learn.
And then there’s this: for many people, the idea that it might be helpful to experience ‘closure’ from an upsetting or traumatic experience is insulting, and invalidating. For some people, the idea of ‘closure’ feels like they must deny their hurt. For some, seeking closure equates to having the worst experience of their life and being told to “get over it”.
Perhaps a better word to consider might be ‘integration’.
Relationship therapist Esther Perel works with couples who are dealing with infidelity. When clients come to her to “save” their marriage, she will often help them to see that the marriage they had is now over, and from that a new marriage can arise (Perel, 2017). She has discussed that this is a much more effective approach for couples than if they try to ‘move on’ or pretend that the infidelity never happened. Instead, they integrate that experience into their lives, and through therapeutic work attempt to grow from it, and to create a new dynamic in their relationship, learning from their past.
Integrating our past (traumatic or otherwise) in to our current experience can help us take better care of ourselves because we know ourselves better. Integration can mean that we may choose how we respond to our circumstances, rather than simply reacting to them.
There is an area of psychological practice known as ‘positive psychology’. Positive psychology emphasises “positive human development”, and has a focus on individual wellbeing and happiness (Seligman, 1990). Working with people in this way does not negate their past, nor deny how affected people are by what has happened for them, but positive psychology accepts the premise that we may be able to experience trauma and difficulty and become better for the experience.
Wouldn’t that be wonderful.
Life is beautiful, but a life of love and happiness will of necessity also involve some pain and loss: as countless poets, philosophers and sages have expressed, life is lived in the contrast.
Next time you go to use the word “closure”, consider it well. Laurence Olivier, who lived his professional life playing out other people’s stories, once offered this critique of the endings of plays he had acted in: “You don’t reach points in life at which everything is sorted out for us. I believe in endings that should suggest our stories always continue.” (Olivier, 1982).
Unless we’re at ‘Act One, Scene One’ in our life, the scenery isn’t going to look brand new. Making sense of the world – the other humans, their decisions and actions, as well as our own internal landscape – is going to require some prior knowledge. So long as we can learn from that prior knowledge in such a way that it promotes expansion and not prejudice (or positivism and not pessimism), we may find that our future can be better than we expected – not despite our past, but because of it.
Olivier, Laurence (1982). Confessions of an Actor. Simon & Schuster
Perel, Esther (2017). The State of Affairs. Hodder & Stoughton General Division.
Seligman, Martin (1990). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Free Press