The concept of unfinished business

Unfinished Business




The concept of unfinished business is also known as the Zeigarnik effect. Unfinished business is described as the unexpressed feelings that are mostly associated with distinct memories and fantasies (Baumeister & Bushman, 2008). These feelings include anger, resentment, hatred, rage, anxiety, pain, grief, abandonment and guilt. The feelings are not entirely expressed in the awareness, linger in the background, and they are carried to the present life. They cause compulsive behaviors, preoccupations, wariness and other self-defeating behaviors (Baumeister & Bushman, 2008). Unfinished business persists until the affected person deals with these alienated and denied feelings.

Unfinished business is an important concept in the gestalt therapy. Bluma Zeigarnik was a great gestalt psychologist who observed that incomplete tasks are easy to remember than complete tasks (Greenberg & Malcolm, 2002). This observation is caused by the fact that human needs to invest more energy in holding details of incomplete tasks in the short-term memory. In contrast, complete tasks require less energy as they are stored in the long-term memory, thus, can be easily forgotten. Imagine someone spinning plates on sticks; each of them is an incomplete task that requires a lot of energy to keep the plates spinning (Greenberg & Malcolm, 2002). Psychologist Buffington explained the Zeigarnik effect by stating that people tend to recall negative experiences and feelings better than positive ones ( Baumeister & Bushman, 2008).

Psychological research about incomplete business dates back from the late 1920s. Zeigarnik did a study where he gave 138 children easy tasks to do like puzzles and arithmetic. She interrupted one-half in the mid-task and allowed the other half to complete the tasks. An hour later, only one out of ten (12%) recalled the completed tasks while 8% remembered the same number of each. However, 80% recalled the interrupted tasks. Repeated experiments continue to confirm that people remember uncompleted tasks far better than the completed ones (Greenberg & Malcolm, 2002). The founders of gestalt therapy applied this concept in clinical practice. Suppose someone grows up with parents who are hostile and uncaring; the need for the warmth of parental love will be an important unfinished situation for that person (Baumeister & Bushman, 2008). An important aspect of focusing on the here and now is that it helps us actively seek to complete our unfinished business.

One of the pitfalls of unfinished business in counseling is that the client may not pay enough attention to the counselor’s advice because of the constant disturbance by the unexpressed feelings. These unexpressed feelings keep on lingering at the back of the mind of the client, and unless they are addressed, the client may not benefit from the therapy (Greenberg & Malcolm, 2002). The therapist must also possess a high level of personal development if the therapy is to be effective. He must be in a position to recognize the uncompleted tasks in each client so that he can apply the right intervention to help the client complete those tasks. In this case, the rapist should engage in regular in-service training so as to keep themselves abreast with the current changes in their field of experience (Baumeister & Bushman, 2008).

This therapy also tends to concentrate much on here and now or else with the present (Baumeister & Bushman, 2008). Lack of emphasis on the past experiences presents a major pitfall of this therapy during the counseling process. Another disadvantage of this treatment is that it lacks a strong theoretical base to support its application. There is no enough literature in this field to support evidence-based health care provision. The therapists can also harm the client when they displace their unfinished business to them. The harm to the client is especially high in therapist who lacks self-awareness (Greenberg & Malcolm, 2002).

Most people have unfinished business in their life, and the difference is brought by the coping mechanisms an individual employs (Greenberg & Malcolm, 2002). Incomplete tasks therapist face challenges when some of these suppressed feelings are brought into awareness by the behaviors of the clients. A client who expresses anger and hatred may remind the therapist of the suppressed feeling of hatred towards some people in the past who wronged them (Baumeister & Bushman, 2008). Many of the therapist’s repressed feelings of rage, abandonment, hatred or betrayal may be brought into awareness. The therapist can become a victim of these feelings. When this happens, his ability to help the client is hampered.

We were abandoned by our dad

when I was young. I grew up in a single-parent family, and this has created a significant challenge in my life. The hatred for my father is one of my major unfinished businesses. With time I have always tried to suppress this feeling of abandonment, but to no avail. It keeps on lingering in my mind. The more I attempt to suppress it the more it expresses itself. I have tried to consult many of my colleagues over the same, but the result is just the same. This feeling has affected my work with the client in a major way. I displace this feeling to most of my male clients which destroy a good therapeutic relationship. The quality of the healthcare am supposed to offer to my client is affected adversely.

Individuals c

an control their surrounding when they are self-aware (Baumeister & Bushman, 2008). Counselor’s self-awareness is also a primary ethical consideration because it prevents him from inflicting harm to his clients. This moral consideration can prevent counselors from displacing their unfinished business to their clients that destroy a therapeutic environment. It also helps the therapist to understand their personal history. Thus, the past has less control over them, and they don’t look for other people to satisfy its deficits (Greenberg & Malcolm, 2002). Understanding yourself is the best way to begin learning about the development of others. Self-awareness assists counselors to offer high-quality services to their clients.


Baumeister, R.F., & Bushman, B.J., (2008). Social Psychology and Human Nature. Thompson Wadsworth: United States.

Greenberg, L. S., & Malcolm, W. (2002). Resolving unfinished business: Relating process to outcome. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 70(2), 406.

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