Often, we run an event or conversation over and over in our minds. We think of what we should have said or things that we want to say now. We replay our actions and imagine what we could have done differently. Sometimes we even imagine scenarios that we want to happen. I’ve imagined conversations with people who have done me harm many times. The other person never comes out of that fantasy unscathed!
We obsess over conversations, events, and relationships because we don’t feel that they are complete. This is called the Zeigarnik effect. Understanding it can help us save a lot of emotional pennies.
Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik, a Russian psychiatrist and psychologist, defined this phenomenon back in 1927. She noticed that waiters could remember minute details about what people ordered until the orders were complete. Then, they remembered hardly anything about who ordered what.
She decided to do some research. She asked participants to do a series of tasks. Half were interrupted, and half allowed to complete the tasks. The group that was interrupted recalled details of the tasks 90% better than those that were allowed to complete them.
Now, the results have not been replicated by other researchers regularly, but it does give us something to think about. The Zeigarnik effect intuitively makes sense to me. I do hang on to events and relationships longer if I do not feel they are complete.
Think about an ongoing dispute or a slight you have suffered that you did not say anything about. Do you revisit those in your mind? Think about a dispute that was resolved to your satisfaction. Do you go over and over disputes that you feel are over and done? It can be difficult to come up with one because we tend to forget things that we feel are complete.
Wouldn’t it be great to forget the things that we dwell on? I know that I would like to spend fewer emotional pennies and clear up some space in my head. We can do it by finding ways to create a feeling of completion.
I fantasize about yelling at people, but that is not something that I’m going to do in real life. It’s important to me that I remain civil at all times. So what are my options? What would make me feel complete?
Psychologists suggest writing a letter to the person or people involved. We can send the letter, but we don’t have to. Sometimes just putting our thoughts and feelings on paper can release us from them. We can burn the letter or rip it into a million pieces.
We can also have a civil conversation with the person or people involved. It takes a great deal of skill to have a difficult conversation in a positive way. I’ve written about many of the perspectives and tools that can help, such as creating a conversation container and using the conversation outline.
We can use most any method as long as it makes us feel complete. I’ve punched a bunch of pillows when I’ve been extremely angry, but that hasn’t released me from the hamster wheel of repetitive thoughts about the thing that made me angry. Punching pillows might release some stress, but it doesn’t create a sense of completion for me.
Of course, time can help, but it doesn’t heal all wounds. I have a vivid memory of a group of girls standing between me and the locker room at the gym back in middle school. I did the right thing and did not engage, but it hurt my ego. I wanted to take them all on in one big brawl or throw insults back at them. I still want to.
It was middle school, and I bet that they don’t remember their youthful feistiness, but I do. It’s been more than 45 years since that event happened, and I remember it. I can actually feel a little adrenaline pumping when I relive it. However, now that I know about the Zeigarnik effect, I can figure out a way to release it.
John Gottman, the relationship researcher and expert, talks about the Zeigarnik effect. When couples begin a downward spiral of negativity that includes unresolved conflict and hurt feelings, they begin to dwell on every perceived transgression. Unless they bring the hurt out into the open, empathize with one another, and discuss their feelings until they feel heard and understood, the relationship is doomed.
Which brings us to the basic goal of feeling complete: our personal needs are to be listened to, understood, and respected. If we feel those things, we are generally able to release the event or relationship and move on – without the hamster wheel of repetitive thoughts.
Getting and giving what we need from others requires – ta-da! – psychological safety. We must create an environment where we and others feel free to share our thoughts and feelings. In order to do that, we must be trusting and trustworthy.
There’s a lot to be gained at both work and home by maintaining an atmosphere of openness and trust so that we avoid creating memories that require closure.
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