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Adieu to All That

Whether you're contemplating a 20-minute phone call or a 20-year career, few moments are more anticipated, rehearsed, agonized over, and cherished than the "end." How to know when it's time to check out, and choreograph an exit you'll never regret.

Eleven years ago, Pamela Slim lay in bed with pneumonia and contemplated her dread over work. She'd been a training director at a bank in San Francisco, but a recent merger had pushed out her beloved boss and other respected colleagues. "I hadn't been aware of how much my job happiness was connected to the people I worked with," Slim, now 41, says. Slim prided herself on her reputation as a collaborator, but she'd been accused by the new regime of being "uncooperative" for not answering routine questions. "I was just being conscientious—I thought someone else could answer them better," she says today. In the end, she had to slink away like a criminal from a place she'd once loved.

The pain of that ending pushed Slim to think about what she really desired in her work life. She took on a freelance consulting assignment and had a "lightning-bolt revelation" that she wanted to be her own boss; she's now a successful coach to entrepreneurs and cubicle workers contemplating striking out on their own. A year after leaving the bank, Slim staged another getaway—this time from a miserable long-term romance. "It was all connected," she now says.

Why Endings Matter

Departures are loaded with emotion—disappointment in a relationship or job that didn't work out, wistfulness for what is being left behind, joy and anticipation at the prospect of a fresh start.

We remember only a small percentage of life's events, yet beginnings and endings (two sides of the same coin) are far easier to recall than muddled middles. Because they are among the relatively few crystal memories we sustain, final impressions are enormously influential in shaping our life story.

And the story flows better when it is capped by closure—the subjective state that denotes a memory that is no longer emotionally charged. Memories are "open" when recollected with great feeling and "closed" when they don't conjure up much passion, however dramatic the original event may have been. Open memories are the ones we still struggle to understand. We think about them often, and see them as relevant to our current lives. Closed memories, on the other hand, don't haunt us. They are truly past. University of Arkansas psychologist Denise Beike finds that it's not how you end something but rather how you remember it that ultimately counts. Her research shows that dwelling on open memories decreases self-esteem while increasing self-awareness.

"It was really terrible," says Lauren Stapp (name changed) of the way she broke up with someone 20-odd years ago—a memory that haunts her today. "I was going out with this wonderful man whom I really liked. But I decided he was just too old for me. Because I was so fond of him, I wanted my best friend to meet him before I broke it off, so I arranged for us all to have lunch, and then immediately broke up with him. It still bothers me."

Closed memories, on the other hand, free people to pursue other goals, because they aren't bogged down in the past. Closing more of your memories is even good for physical health, Beike says.

We dread good-byes because of the dangers that accompanied change and disruption for most of human history. "Part of our evolutionary development is to be fearful of endings," says Barry Lubetkin, a clinical psychologist and author of Bailing Out: The Healthy Way to Get Out of a Bad Relationship and Survive. "The ultimate ending is, of course, death, but even ending a meal can be blanketed with some anxiety."

Each ending, however nerve-racking, presents a learning opportunity, says psychologist Steven Hayes. "The challenge is to face what you are losing. We have a tendency to rush through endings and avoid the pain instead of experiencing the rich soup of emotions that come up."

Lingerers and Quitters

Some people plod away in dreary jobs and dead relationships, while others are forever cutting people off and finding new careers. If you fall into one of these two extreme categories, your tendency could be a default.

At one end of the emotional spectrum are those with high need for closure. People with this mindset want definite answers. They would rather be fired or broken up with than linger on in ambiguity. These types prefer order and predictability in the world and tend to be decisive. If you suspect you fit the bill, you may be cutting yourself off from the rewards that come from waiting to see how situations unfold. Your anxiety is driving you to force resolutions—but though you may feel better temporarily, you may also miss out on better opportunities in the long run.

But those with a habit of avoiding denouements altogether are also cutting themselves off from potentially fulfilling alternatives. "Sometimes people don't end things because they are lazy or have a low tolerance for frustration," says Lubetkin. "They can't stand the hassle of ending a boring conversation, say, so they go on being miserable rather than risking a short period of intense discomfort."

Opposed though they are, the inclinations to quit prematurely or to prolong the inevitable share a core feature, says Hayes: "Each distracts you from confronting deeper motivations, such as fear of failure or of intimacy. Either way, you are not being mindful of your true feelings."

In her coaching work, Pamela Slim has found that many people dread the uncertain period between phases of life, where they must exist independently of their old job or partner, more than they dread the departure itself. "I call it 'wandering in the desert,' " she says. "We don't like ambiguity as a culture. But it's a rich time where you can reconnect with who you are instead of jumping into a new relationship or job."

Ready for Takeoff?

So how can you know when the decision to move on is an objectively good one and not just a product of your own bias to quit... or to linger interminably? Lubetkin advises that you pay attention to feelings of anxiety, depression, or panic that arise when you contemplate a transition, such as fleeing a boring job. How often do they occur? Then consider signs coming from other people—such as changes in your boss's or family's attitude or behavior. Do they validate or mirror the feelings you have?

He also recommends visualizing life once you do make a move. Imagine your last moments in your job—do you see yourself crying or agitated? What will your first week of unemployment be like?

If you are contemplating a breakup, Hayes says it's helpful to look at your quandary from as many perspectives as possible. "Ask yourself questions like, 'If this relationship were a movie, what would it be?' The point is to think about it as broadly and richly as possible, instead of listing reasons to stay or go."

We all have a story that we tell ourselves about our relationships, but Hayes warns that clinging too strongly to your narrative can mislead you, because you pick and choose the small things that fit the story, immediately pushing away what does not fit.

When it comes to a bad job or a bad habit, people tend to reach a readiness to quit that predicts whether they will actually do so. "We each have a personal incentive system and respond to different triggers accordingly," Lubetkin points out. "A patient was struggling to give up smoking, and nothing was working," he recalls. "One day his granddaughter refused to sit on his lap because he smelled so strongly of smoke, and that did it, whereas all of the other techniques did not." If you're unable to bid your habit farewell, hang on—the right motivator may be on its way.

Choreographing the Finale

The variety of possible endings, of course, is infinite. There's no unified rationale for when you should stand on your desk for a farewell speech and when it would be better to slink out the back door. But it's always wise to think strategically about the departure.

"You generally don't want to burn bridges. You want to be mindful of others' interests, and you want to be in control,"says Lubetkin. Take your time when wrapping something up. If you've been passed over by a boss or cheated on by a spouse, your initial evacuation plan will be drawn up in fear, anger, or a wish for revenge—not out of a desire to protect your own interests.

"People don't consider the future when they are in bad situations; they think of ending the pain now," says Lubetkin. So contemplate how quitting without notice might affect your underlings or coworkers. Perhaps you really should tell your boss what a tyrant he's been, but if he's the most powerful person in the industry, and you want to stay in the field, better to think twice.

Paul Furstenberg (name changed) was fired from his job as an administrator by a corrupt school district. A victim of politics, he found that taking the high road can help when an ending has been forced on you. "I accepted the situation, instead of brooding over the injustice of it. Part of my termination agreement was that the superintendent wouldn't recommend me for other jobs. I could have gone to the local paper or gotten very angry. Instead, I went back to him later and asked if he could recommend me for an out-of-state position, and he agreed."

Review how you staged your past exits. Were they messy or hurtful? Did you connect sufficiently with people you would no longer see? How proud of yourself did you feel? What would you like to do differently this time around? "Make sure the way you choose to end aligns with your values,"Hayes advises. "If you value respect for others and being a good parent, then initiate a divorce in the most loving way possible," even if you've been hurt royally.

We don't want to deal with fallout, no matter how radical the change—we want our boss to still like us, our boyfriend to be our friend. "The fantasy is that we will be viewed the way we want to be viewed, that everyone will find our reasons for ending legitimate. But you have to accept that other people may be hurt," says psychologist Judith Sills.

If you must end something against someone else's will, of course some thought and sensitivity toward their feelings will smooth the way. But if the situation is toxic or damaging, then finessing the ending is less important than just making the break. You don't owe a formal good-bye to someone who is really mistreating you, so protect yourself from further harm and just get out.

When Pamela Slim (who's now happily married to someone else) was contemplating leaving her dysfunctional 10-year relationship, she felt a huge amount of anxiety. "There were some real signs that it could be dangerous for me to confront him. So I waited until he was out of the country. I packed up, left the house, and ran for cover. Talk about liberating. I thought, 'My god, I should have done this years ago.' What gave me the power to get out was having stepped out on my own professionally. I felt much more in control. That's why I'll never regret that bad ending to my job."

Accepting the Imperfect Past

You can't rework an ending, but you can lessen the hold it has on you today. If you find yourself dwelling on a botched finale, Sills recommends contemplating what it is that you lost back there and are now longing for. If you're convinced you wrongly closed a chapter, imagine what it would have meant to leave it open instead.

Sills worked with a client who was having an affair but couldn't bring herself to leave her marriage. Instead, she let herself get caught with her lover, which made everything worse for all involved. Now the woman thinks back on the events and shivers with regret, yet it was all she could do at the time. In retrospect, she's still happy to be out of her marriage. In years to come, says Sills, she needs to have self-compassion and learn from her mistake.

We are hung up on closure, says Sills, because of our fantasy that if only we had tied things up with a bow, we would not be left with pain, regret, and longing. But the truth is that your investment in a person, a job, or a school doesn't simply drain away in the moment you leave. "The emotional pieces detach in their own time and place."

The best way to soothe the memory of a painful final chapter, says Beike, is to think about the ways in which you have gained closure on the event. Maybe it's not as bad as it was last month, for instance. Concentrate on the facts of your situation in order to quell the emotional tone of the memory. Remember that over time people come to regret inaction more than action—so take comfort in the fact that you were able to act. And finally, though it's not a given, keep in mind that many memories close with the passing of time.

When an ending is closed, you can pull it up disinterestedly and use it to boost your autobiographical intelligence—your ability to learn from your own experiences, without getting swayed by strong emotions. Then even your worst exit can help you plan the swan songs to come.