The Importance of Intentional Endings
As a culture, we resist endings. We love beginnings with their potential and possibility. But endings? We would rather bury hurt, breakups, and bad blood between partners and end things quickly, anxious to move onto the next mountain. And so we cut and run.
Have you ever watched yourself leave before something is really over? Sure, you're still there in body, but your mind, your emotions and your heart are a million miles away. We exit emotionally to avoid acknowledging failure, rejection or simply to avoid feeling the full and sometimes contradictory bittersweet emotions of saying goodbye.
In coaching, we practice a skill called "completion" - bringing things to a purposeful, intentional close. The idea that intentional endings - completions - can allow us to honor whatever the experience has brought us, thank it for what we've gotten from it, and move on, cleanly, clearly with a whole and open heart - this is revelatory.
When I first learned about this concept, it blew my mind, and I started to realize how many lose ends and dangling threads I had been leaving in everything from client relationships to unfinished tasks because of my desire to avoid the hard work of closing them. When completion becomes a practice and is approached through a lens of personal growth, with strong and purposeful intention, it can bring a whole new level of freedom to your life and leadership.
How you do anything is how you do everything
According to research, how you end something may actually matter more than the experience itself. In his Peak-End Theory, psychologist Daniel Kahneman found that judgement of an experience was determined not by the average feelings during it, but by the memory of how they felt at the best moment, and the last moment of the experience.
For example, participants remembered the final note on which a presentation was delivered proportionally more than they remembered the beginning and middle sections. In corporate culture, this is often the opposite of how we focus our resources. When we spend the bulk of our time and money in the planning and early delivery phases, the ending can often be rushed, under rehearsed or treated as an after-thought.
Think of the last thing you ended - be it a relationship, or a project, or a phase of your life. Did you end it with presence, intention and purpose? Or were you rushed and unconscious? Did you resist the ending or did you embrace it? Did you even know it was ending or did it catch you by surprise? Did you take time and space to fully complete it, or did you let the unfinished ends, actions and intentions trail on and on?
Intentional endings - ending something the way you want to end it instead of feeling like a victim of circumstance - requires that we feel the full force of our feelings.
This can be especially difficult when we are not the initiator of the end (we rarely are). To do this fully requires allowing for paradox inside of ourselves - for example, being ready and being not ready for our child to go off to college. It requries that we slow down and stop running onto the next thing long enough to witness, honor, appreciate and release what is in front of us.
Intentional endings does not mean that you have run into resistance and you are opting to call it quits prematurely. In his book The Dip, Seth Godin explains how to tell the difference between when resistance pops up that should be overcome (what he calls 'The Dip') and when it's time to quit:
"Quitting when you hit the Dip is a bad idea. If the journey you started was worth doing, then quitting when you hit the Dip just wastes the time you’ve already invested"... ”strategic quitting is a conscious decision you make based on the choices that are available to you. If you realize you’re at a dead end compared with what you could be investing in, quitting is not only a reasonable choice, it’s a smart one.”
The process I use for intentional ending is below - you can start applying it in your life today.
Step 1 - Audit your life
What in your life is ready to complete?
The first step to completion is to take an audit of the things in your life that are ready to end: practices, habits, relationships, ways of being, chapters. What is ready to be ended in service of clearing space for the new?
This process can bring up different emotions, including shame, if there are parts that need to end even if you are not quite ready for. A relationship that seemed promising but has been feeling over for months. A new business partnership that went south but you don't want to tell anyone so you keep trying to make it work. A staff member you know you need to fire, but convince yourself to wait three more months to see if they improve. We hang on way to long, past natural point of conclusion, sometimes to avoid hurting others' feelings, sometimes to avoid accepting the new reality, and sometimes to defer taking full responsibility for our feelings and needs. Get clear inside yourself by making a list of the items that intuitively you know have reached the natural end or extended past their expiration point in your life and work.
Step 2 - Touch in with gratitude
After you have made a list of the things that are ready to complete, find something to be grateful for about each one.
Letter writing can be helpful here: In my world, when I'm getting ready to end something I always write a letter of gratitude to the person or even about the experience, thanking them for the gift of the experience, hard lessons and all. Sometimes I send the letters, sometimes I don't, but I always get connected to the bigger picture of the impact of them on my life. This practice helps you connect to a perspective of the gifts of each scenario, underlining the ways in which you grew and benefited from it. You may add your own ritual to celebrate, mark and honor the transition, anything that helps you appreciate and acknowledge what has happened, and move into letting it go.
Step 3 - Have the hard conversation
In some cases, writing a letter or silently thanking something for it's service is enough to clear your slate and mark the ending.
However, when you need to have the courageous conversation to let the other know it's ending, start by checking inside yourself for your place of gratitude. What is the positive impact this person or situation has had on your life? Set an intention for the conversation. Lead with clear, kind, direct language. Acknowledge their impact and be clear that this chapter has come to an end. Be open to listening and ask what they would like to say to be complete. Own next steps by being clear about what the completion means for the future - ie. "From here on out, we won't be in regular contact, but I will reach out in 3 months to check in" - design boundaries and naming the new agreement.
The Boomerang Effect
What do you do when it's not really over?
In the practice of completion, bringing something to a close is in service of clearing out space for the new. In some cases, this may be a different version of the same relationship; a new chapter of your professional life; or a new way of relating to your world. This means that the relationship does not have to die and all contact does not have to cease for it to be complete. For example, with each client at the end of our coaching engagement, I facilitate a completion session with a completion questionnaire, honoring the work, acknowledging each other and formally ending this chapter. In many cases, we go on to have a new and different relationship after this process completes! The act of completion allows us to mark the end of one experience, reinforcing that we got where we intended.
Beginnings without intentional ends leave our subconscious littered with unfulfilled promises, mortgaging energy that can compete for space for years.
Instead of resisting or sleep-walking through an ending, I invite you to have the courage to have a final conversation, to say what needs to be said and express thanks (as much as you can) for the experience, allowing for a clean state of possibility for creating your future world.
What is ready to be intentionally completed in your life? Are you brave enough to work the process for yourself, say goodbye and bring it to a close? Can you bring sacred, loving, respectful closure to this process, to feel your feelings and hold space for the closing of a chapter in service of what's next?