The first thing that pops into my head when I hear unfinished business is a movie from childhood called Casper. It was about this friendly ghost who was stuck living in an abandoned house with his obnoxious prankster uncles. Casper was unable to move on to the afterlife because of unfinished business. Although the theme of the movie is about grief, the concept of unfinished business can cause a strain to those of us in real life. A common way some people deal with unfinished business is to sweep it under the rug and “get over it.” Those who are conflict avoidant and people-pleasers tend to be guilty of this way of coping. Although this can lead to a decrease in anxiety in the short term, in the long-term it can create damage to self-worth and superficial connection with others. When we have unfinished business we can hold onto anger and resentment for long periods of time that can be detrimental to our health.
John Gottmann mentions the Zeigarnik effect and how it relates to connection in relationships in his book What Makes Love Last. Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik studied waiters in a Viennese café handling large orders without writing them down. Later, once the sale was completed, she interviewed them about what was ordered. Each waiter could not recall any orders they filled. She found that “we have a better recall for events that we have not completed than when we have.” Gottmann used this research to show when we have not dealt with a problem directly we can ruminate on unfinished business and it affects the connection we have with ourselves and others. When we do not deal with a problem directly in fear of confrontation and uncomfortable feelings we may start to rely on assumptions. Assumptions are the thief of peace. According to Harriet Lerner “the problem is that when we are low in facts, and when important issues stay underground, we are high on fantasy and emotionality, anger included. For many of us we may jump to conclusions, often thinking of the worst case scenario. Greek philosopher Epictetus once said, “it’s the act of the ill-instructed man to blame others for his own bad condition; it is the act of one who has begun to be instructed, to lay blame on himself; and of one whose instruction is completed, neither to blame another, nor himself”. He believed that external events are beyond our control and individuals are responsible for their own actions. So what’s the feeling behind unfinished business? Well, it’s good old Anger. If you feel angry often times in different situations at the same person can mean you have unfinished business.
Anger is such an important feeling to work with. It is invaluable, although it gets a bad rap. Because it has a negative implication most of us are afraid to express it. Many of us will feel angry, and then rationalize to ourselves how it was wrong to feel angry. By doing this you are stuffing your feelings only for it to come back resurface in a different scenario. Understanding what anger is trying to tell you will help you look at anger in a positive way that can help empower you to take the risk of completing unfinished business. Anger signals that a boundary is violated. In order to empower ourselves we need to have strong boundaries and when they are violated that violation needs to get addressed or it will fester. Does this mean we attack it head on when our emotions are heightened? Many of us have discovered through trial and error that most times we don’t accomplish anything during these moments. When we get angry our heart rates increase. When our heart rate is increased we no longer can think with a clear head. During those times we are wanting to be right, and wanting to change another person. This isn’t realistic and you leave finding fault in others, losing sleep, or complaining just to name a few. And the result of those actions is lack of joy and disconnection with others and yourself. A coping skill I teach in therapy is to take a time out during these moments, and revisit the anger when your heart rate has stabilized.
When boundaries are violated your needs are not being met. In my practice I like to share the angry iceberg with my clients. In an iceberg you only see the tip as it floats above the water. Underneath could be a huge piece we don’t see. That’s how it is with anger. Underneath all that anger you could be feeling embarrassed, offended, insecure, disrespected, uncomfortable, or dismissed. All of those feelings are legitimate if you feel them. Those are buttons that other people can push that need to be addressed. However many of us, including myself are guilty for sometimes just letting people see the anger instead of using “I” messages to express our button that was pushed. If you use an angry tone, raising your voice, it isn’t as effective getting your message across. If you can begin to practice expressing the primary emotion to your anger you can begin to feel connection with others. If we embrace the discomfort anger causes we can begin to complete expressing what we need so we can move on and let go of resentments. There are many versions of the angry iceberg online and it can be helpful to look through it during conflict resolution with your significant other, children, family of origin members, friends, and co-workers.
Using anger as a road map to help us navigate through our unfinished business makes it more productive than ruminating on angry thoughts. Either way can get ugly, but the latter helps us become better problem solvers and create dialogue. Anger helps us begin to understand what our boundaries are so we can feel anchored in knowing what we are okay, and not okay with. The next time you feel anger see if you can understand the reason behind your anger and take the first step to creating stronger boundaries for yourself.
Lerner, H. (2005). The Dance of Anger. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.
Gottmann, J., Silver, N. (2012). What Makes Love Last. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.