Closure for Head Bangers

Ever feel like you’re banging your head against a wall? There’s something you’d give anything to get over – some problematic relationship, unfinished business or self- damaging behaviour – and you just can’t get where you want to be? Consider the following:

 “I can imagine my life as a corridor lined with doors on either side. Some doors open to good things; others I need to close and move on”.

Closing a door is a simple skill most of us practice daily; easy to identify with and clear in its result. Familiar and effective. Imagine using this metaphor in a typical conversation with a 17th century Inuit grandmother – how far could you reasonably expect to get?

Ubiquity: Take the next fifteen minutes and call everyone you know to see if anyone doesn’t get it: “What do you mean; you want to close that door on that part of your life? Want door?” This metaphor is so ingrained that it, in turn, spawns other metaphors. Consider the “closing the door” inference in the following from a woman who lost a relative in the Oklahoma City bombing: “There is no such thing as closure for people who lost family in the bombing. The only closure is when they close the lid on my casket.”

Beliefs: We confabulate close bonds between words according to how they sound. Brett Pelham’s paper, Why Susie Sells Sea Shells by the Seashore, suggests our inordinately high tendency to forge associations of this type in key areas of our lives: the work we do, partners we seek, and places we live. The number of dentists named Dennis, couples named John and Jane, and men named Louis living in St. Louis are disproportionately high. “Closure” and “closing a door”: it’s hard not to believe they are one.

Viscosity: Metaphors, like stereotypes and characterizations, draw power from their ambiguity and malleability of meaning. When we talk of closing the door on an episode, what exactly is the door? Our emotions? Another person’s actions? A sequence of events? The slippery nature of metaphor can give us the impression of meaningful engagement at the very moment we don blinders and stumble out into the night.

It’s inevitable that we’ll use some sort of metaphor to describe closure – that’s the nature of language. Question is, does the metaphor deliver? Going by the grief, stress, and sense of futility witnessed daily, the most optimistic answer appears to be “maybe”. Another way to judge the value of the “closing door” metaphor is to consider it in the light of other alternatives. What if we were to remodel the metaphor? Let’s say the door still works, but the “corridor” concept has to go. Each door opened leads into a new space – perhaps a room or stairway; maybe even another corridor. This space too is lined with doors. Let’s add a few archways and vestibules for good measure. The point is you keep moving forward; your starting place receding in relevance. M.C. Escher’ s Relativity (1953) depicts the idea perfectly:


Another alternative would be to make comparisons with entirely different metaphors for life. Consider Life as a Book, in which adversities may be overcome by turning a new page and starting a new chapter. Contemporary variants might include Life as Mario (go down a new warp pipe; win a new level) and Life as a Blog (conceive a new thought; publish a new post). These may all be variations on Life as a Story; an approach explored by Dan McAdams in his paper The Psychology of Life Stories. On the further reaches of this approach, we might consider including Gestalt Therapy’s Law of Closure, whereby our minds fill in the blanks (i.e.: complete the narratives) of patterns we perceive as regular figures (i.e.: simple visual stories). How easy is it not to see a circle and a square in the image below?


Here’s another one: Life as a Circle. Presented in the guise of the seasons, aging, biorhythms, or just straight out two-dimensional geometry, the circle may well be the mother of all life metaphors. Adversities are simply part of the deal, with renewal offering redemption through new beginnings tempered by anything from changing circumstances and songs of experience to just plain old good luck. The real power of the circle as metaphor resides in linking the final moment to the first. “How did I get here?” “What do I do this time round?” Popular variations on the circle are the coil and the spiral, with their mathematical sibling the Fibonacci number sequence.

Or consider Life as Flora. The most familiar metaphor of this type is used to illustrate families – either ancestral or evolutionary: the tree. Try revamping this metaphor into a more personally relevant form. What, in your own life experience, are your branches? Who, of the people around you, comprise your wind, gravity, rain and sunshine? What kind of a tree are you? Why do you have leaves? Do they fall? Why? Where is your ideal growing environment? When do your buds flower? What adversities do you weather? How?

Or you might want to take the metaphor in an entirely different direction, as did Charles Darwin with this sketch for the evolutionary tree of life:

Let’s switch gears completely and consider Life as an Axis of Polarities. Think of a teeter-totter with Dick Cheney sitting on one end and the Dalai Lama on the other. As Dick goes up, so too does our need for certainty. As the Dalai Lama ascends, so does our ability to embrace ambiguity. According to the Need for Closure Scale, each of us has our own variation on this scenario playing within. Fear and stress cause Dick to rise up, while compassion and curiosity buoy the Dalai Lama. Ironically, studies indicate that Dick is least likely to be bothered by the need for closure. The first rationale he encounters – some variant of “Pure Evil” usually does the trick – is enough to get the ball rolling. The Dalai Lama, in contrast, is more concerned with looking at his dilemmas from as many sides as possible, lessening his chances for a quick fix and raising the likelihood that he will be – according to Barry Schwartz – less satisfied with his eventual conclusion:

An alternative to searching for viable life metaphors may be found in the countless traditions and practices fostering greater self awareness. Drop the notion of “closure” completely and delve into approaches promoting a positive, forward-moving frame of mind. Here are a couple of needles that I’ve found particularly productive from three of the many self- knowledge haystacks:

Meditation: Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche was one of many Buddhist ambassadors to make a profound impact on the western perception of the goals and implications of meditation. You can preview one of his introductions to the practice on- line in the first chapter of his book The Myth of Freedom.

Neuroscience: How does the physical structure and functioning of our bodies affect our perceptions, feelings and thoughts? Which parts of ourselves we can change; which are written in stone? The revelations and implications coming out of the labs and studies of neuroscience for questions like this are – if you haven’t yet heard – astounding. Daniel Goleman’s writings on emotional intelligence – particularly Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ – remain essential reading in this area. Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself, opens startling vistas on developments in one area of applied neuroscience: neuroplasticity.

Psychology:. David Burns’ Feeling Good is one of the most informative and practical books using cognitive psychology, and transactional analysis – beginning with Eric Berne’s work (try Games People Play) – is well worth investigating. Theramin Trees has posted a great series on transactional analysis, beginning with Transactional Analysis 1: ego states & basic transactions. Connections between the many routes to self-awareness are spelled out in Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis, reframing some of the more perplexing challenges we face through adversity. Haidt’s highly informative web site for the book includes free .pdf versions of full chapters along with other great resources. Please do check it out.

One of the greatest appreciations to be gained through both metaphor and self-awareness is that of the interconnectivity between people, perspectives, actions, and all those other things we all to often label off into isolated silos. “Ending things”, our pigeonholing habit insists, “and beginning things are two completely different things.” But is this necessarily so? Rather than focusing on the product of a particular set of actions – “this is the end; this, the beginning” – see if you can keep your eye on the processes of which they are a part and with which they intersect. Beginnings have roots; endings seed. Which offers the better opportunity for growth?

This article was inspired by the University of the Street Café event Living in Transition: When closure is all we need, why is it so hard to just “let go”? on February 16, 2010 in Montreal. Much thanks to all who participated in the stimulating conversation.