The Art of Endings

The Employees, Businesses, and Relationships that all of us have to give up in order to move forward

What It Takes to Walk Away

Recognizing necessary endings is a crucial life skill.

In my work as a clinician, a leadership consultant, and a fellow sojourner, I have found this to be true: In both our personal and professional lives, it is often the exact same issues that can hold us back, or even derail us.

Find a control freak at home, and chances are that their their co-workers have the same complaints that the spouse has. Or if someone is an enabler in their love life, they are also a boss who doesn't confront poor performance. In short, we usually don't have personal issues vs. work issues...what we really have are "me issues." And they show up wherever we are.

Which brings me to our topic: Necessary Endings.

In both our personal and professional lives, there are times when reality dictates that we must stand up and "end" something. Either its time has passed, its season is over, or worse, continuing it would be destructive in some way.

Such a situation requires us to:

  • End a dating relationship that is not going to go where it needs to go.
  • Fire an employee who should be fired.
  • Get out of social ties or activity commitments whose season has passed.
  • Let go of a dream that is not going to materialize and move on.
  • Leave a job or a career that you know is not right, or is even toxic for you.
  • End a marriage damaged by repeated unfaithfulness that is not changing.
  • Admit that something is failing and wave the white flag.
  • Unplug from toxic friendships or family ties.
  • Give up on an addict who does not want to change.

But too many times, with clear evidence staring us in the face, we find it difficult to pull the trigger. Why is that?

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The reasons are varied, but understandable, especially in light of developmental psychology, our understanding of trauma, and cognitive mapping. Some people's developmental path has not equipped them to stand up and let go of something. For example, if they did not develop what psychologists refer to as secure attachment or emotional object constancy, the separation and loss that ending a relationship triggers for them is too much, so they avoid it. In addition, in their development they may not have been taught the skills to confront situations like these. 

Or, if they have had traumatic losses in life, another ending represents a replay of those, and they shy away or frantically try to mend whatever is wrong, way past reason. Or they have internal maps that tell them that ending something is "mean" or will cause someone harm. In any case, fears dominate their functioning, and they find themselves unable to do a necessary ending.

See if you can relate to any of these fears or inabilities that can cause people to hang on or stay somewhere too long:

  • You can't tell if an ending is actually necessary, or if "it" or "he" is fixable.
  • You're afraid of the loss and the sadness it will bring.
  • You fear the confrontation.
  • You fear the unknown.
  • You lack the skills to execute the ending.
  • You lack the right words to use.
  • You fear hurting the person.
  • You have had too many painful endings in your personal history and don't want another one.
  • You've blown endings before, and don't want to repeat it again.

Probably all of us can relate to something on that list. But even so, here is the issue: Endings are necessary. They are an essential part of life. Everything has seasons, and we have to be able to recognize when something's time has passed and be able to move into the next season. Everything that is alive requires pruning as well, which is a great metaphor for endings. Gardeners prune a rose bush for three reasons:

  1. The bush produces more buds than it can sustain, and some good ones have to go so the best can have the resources of the bush.
  2. There are some branches and buds that are sick and not going to get well.
  3. There are some that are already dead and are taking up space.

Let's apply that to life:

  1. Over time, you gather more activities, relationships, work, interests, etc., than you can really feed with the best of your time and energy. You have to realize that you cannot go deep with everything, and figure out which ones you are going to invest in.
  2. Face it: There are people who you have tried everything with to get them to "get it," or work issues toward which where you have also tried everything, and there is no reason to keep throwing good money after bad.
  3. There are people, places, and things around which have been dead to us for a long time, and it is past time to let go.

So, we have a dilemma: Life and success require "necessary endings," but we are afraid to execute them. What to do?

In future blogs I will share more about this topic, from my new book, Necessary Endings, but for now, lets start with a few thoughts:

  • Consider how you look at endings in general: Do you perceive them as natural? Do you have a world view that everything has its season and life cycle, or do you think that if something comes to an end it means that "something must be wrong?"
  • When you see that you need to let go of something, or a person, what happens inside you? What fears emerge? Are they paralyzing? How can you address them?
  • Have you really thought about the fact that if you don't do the needed pruning in the area where it's needed, you won't get what you ultimately want? For example, if you keep that employee then that department will never perform well?—or if you stay in that relationship you will not find the one that really fulfills you? Play the movie of your life forward a year or two and see if you like the results of not making the decision.
  • If you are holding on to hope, what is the basis for that? Is it rational and objective, or just a defense against facing the problem?

Endings are a part of life, and we are actually wired to execute them. But because of trauma, developmental failures, and other reasons, we shy away from the steps that could open up whole new worlds of development and growth. Take an inventory of the areas of your life that may need some pruning, and begin to take the steps you need to face the fears that are getting in your way.

If you do, you might find yourself getting unstuck and entering into a whole new season of life.

Henry Cloud, Ph.D., is a psychologist and bestselling author whose new book Necessary Endings will be published by HarperBusiness in January 2011.

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