After a tragic loss or traumatic breakup, we'd all like to believe there's a way to turn off the pain switch and get back to normal life. So when well-meaning friends and family say "you just to find some closure," we think that's the answer. Once we achieve this mythical state of closure, we hope, the pain will disappear and the bad memories will be wiped clean.
The problem, psychologists say, is that closure — at least as we understand it in popular culture — doesn't really exist. In fact, by searching for permanent closure to emotional pain, they say, we are closing ourselves off to healthier ways of processing difficult experiences.
The concept of closure comes from Gestalt psychology. Gestalt began as a way of understanding how the mind perceives and processes images, and one of the principles of Gestalt perception is that the mind seeks closure. Even if an image of a circle is incomplete, the mind still perceives it as a circle.
Over time, this principle crossed over to the processing of life experiences. If you suffered an unresolved trauma in the past, Gestalt taught, then you were unable to fully move on until the issue was "closed" in some way. This led to therapeutic techniques like "the empty chair," in which participants would imagine the source of their "unfinished business" — an abusive parent or deceased lover — sitting in the chair and speaking to them. While empty chair therapy often provided a short-term emotional release, it didn't free the subjects from long-term pain.
Despite the questionable efficacy of Gestalt therapy, the belief that closure is a panacea for emotional pain became deeply embedded in American pop psychology. It's a favorite of the news media where the families of murder victims or people affected by terrorist attacks are always looking for "closure." And it's a cliché of daytime talk shows, when a jilted lover is brought on stage to confront her lousy ex so she can finally get some closure.
The truth, says psychotherapist Ashley Davis Bush, is that the kind of closure peddled by pop psychology isn't really achievable. Nor should it be.