I recently wrote a brief article on “unfinished business” for the website at Psychology Associates of Grand Rapids, where I work part-time as a therapist. According to psychologist Fritz Perls, our unfinished business consists of all the emotionally significant events in our lives with which we haven’t come to terms. Here’s part of my article:
“Perls felt that, as unfinished business stacks up, it comes to block our way forward. We may become habitually depressed, anxious, angry, or hopeless without awareness of the unfinished business that’s responsible. Not realizing what is going on, we may try to escape our discomfort using strategies ranging from the relatively benign (social media, overwork, excessive exercise, sports) to the pernicious (drugs, alcohol, porn, gambling). All the time we are becoming more estranged from ourselves.”
How about unfinished business in midlife and beyond? Unfortunately, the longer we live, the more opportunities we have to collect unfinished business. This is partly just a matter of time: as decades accumulate, so, too, do disappointments, losses, failures, and frustrations. It’s like the snow in Michigan during this unending winter—a few inches a day, and after a while the ground is buried under a yard or so of the stuff. Besides this gradual accumulation, being older presents an increased risk for emotional blizzards that dump huge piles of distress on us all at once. As 93-year-old essayist Roger Angell put it recently, “I can testify that the downside of great age is the room it provides for rotten news.” Health vanishes, friends and family die, hoped-for selves evaporate, the mind becomes unreliable. After a while too much has accumulated to ever process fully.
What to do, then? Do we really need to deal with every sorrow, every hurt? People who never process past hurts often end up having to avoid so many emotional landmines that they are immobilized. On the other hand, those who are what psychologists used to call “sensitizers,” constantly thinking of their disquiet or distress, can spend their later years trying vainly to dig out from under the accumulated mounds of distress, never making their way to joy or contentment. The answer, then, may be selectivity. Process that which regularly intrudes via memory, thought, dreams, or the like, but leave the rest alone.
My article describes ways to identify and resolve our unfinished business. The article and several other useful articles pertaining to mental health can be found here.