Recall a time where a relationship ended suddenly, or a career opportunity disappeared into thin air, or a loved one unexpectedly passed away. How did you feel during this time? Did you feel settled, content, and accepting, or did you feel like the rug had been slipped out from under you? Did you feel a strong desire to seek closure?
It turns out, our need for closure after something like a breakup or a death varies person to person—some folks have a high need for closure, and others have less. But before we get into that, let’s take a look at exactly what closure is.
The American Psychological Association defines closure as “an individual's desire for a firm answer to a question and an aversion toward ambiguity.” In other words, having a firm answer about why something happened, especially when it was unexpected.
When we begin to take a peek at how we each react to closure differently, we are able to point to certain personality traits and resilience characteristics. Psychologists have found that people who are more rigid, regimented, and structured yield a high need for closure, while those who are more “go with the flow” have lower needs for closure. This makes sense when you think about it: those who are more “in control” have a higher need for certainty and completion, but more carefree individuals are able to accept uncertainty and ambiguity.
Interestingly, there’s a third category of people in this mix: those who avoid closure. Perhaps they’re afraid of the answers they’ll learn if they do receive closure, or avoiding closure speaks to their broader avoidance tendencies. It’s likely that you’ve felt this way in a situation or two; sometimes it’s easier to just not know.
When we consider closure in the context of our work here, we think of it in terms of resilience and empowerment: how we can cultivate resilience in situations where we are unable to receive closure, and how we advocate for ourselves to receive closure in situations where it’s available. While these are complex concepts that may take a lifetime of work to process, we can start with one tool for navigating a lack of closure: accepting what is.
Acceptance can be considered a “hack” for closure, of sorts. When someone leaves us hanging, when there are loose ends that haven’t tied themselves up, we may be left feeling untethered; lacking closure. The truth is that we may never get that closure we seek, but we can get the next best thing: acceptance of what is.
When considering a situation that feels incomplete, where closure hasn’t been achieved, we can step towards acceptance by delineating two categories:
Things about the situation that we can control: our reaction, our next steps, how we move forward, our environment, our wellness, etc.
Things about the situation that we cannot control: someone else’s actions, someone else’s feelings, definitive reality (like a death)
Grounding in this idea of things we can control and cannot control can help us take the next right step and remove ourselves from the really triggering feelings that can arise from lack of closure. This also helps us build resilience for future events where we might similarly be unable to achieve actual closure around a situation.
American Psychological Association. (n.d.). APA Dictionary of Psychology. American Psychological Association. https://dictionary.apa.org/closure.
Kruglanski, A. W.; Webster, D. M. (April 1996). "Motivated closing of the mind: 'Seizing' and 'freezing'". Psychological Review. 103 (2): 263–83. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.103.2.263. PMID 8637961.