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The idea of finding ‘closure’ on our problems may be more than psychobabble

Posted Oct 13 2010 2:42am

Do you find yourself bristling when people talk about ‘getting closure’?

That word ‘closure.’ It’s become a cliche, an example of the way that our language is now peppered with terms from pop psychology.

When I worked in training in a City corporation, we had a ‘bingo’ game designed around similar jargon from management psychologese. The idea was to guess in advance the main terms and phrases that would be used in any one meeting (‘blue sky thinking,’ ‘going forward,’ ‘out of the box,’  ‘brainstorm,’ and so on), then cross them off a grid each time they were mentioned until you had full house.

Well, the word ‘closure’ is one of those words, really, isn’t it? Except that, as Oliver Burkeman, a man I admire for his down-to-earth, common-sense approach to personal development, writes this week in his column here , it’s also much more than that.

A new study by Xuping Li at the National University of Singapore puts the idea of closure to the test by exploring whether people really do gain a sense of emotional closure by physically ’sealing off’ a representation of their troubling thoughts in some sort of container.

Participants in the study were asked to write down a recollection of a decision they regretted or an unsatisfied strong desire and then seal it in an envelope. A control group wrote down their regrets or desires but didn’t seal them in an envelope (therefore distinguishing the benefits of sealing from those of writing). Afterwards, the participants who had literally sealed their worries away experienced a significantly greater reduction in negative emotions.

Follow-up experiments checked for any emotional benefits from sealing away something unrelated to the emotional experience or simply doing something extra with the words. These experiments further supoorted the idea that physically enclosing our worries seems to reduce our unhelpful feelings about them. In fact, when participants sealed away disturbing newspaper clippings in the envelopes, their details too appeared to fade from memory.

Discussing possible mechanisms for this effect, Li speculates that we are metaphorically putting our troubles ‘out of reach.’  Burkeman suggests that ‘they’re being metaphorically “kept safe”, for future reference, since part of worry’s relentless force seems to come from the fear of forgetting the subject of the worry. That’s surely why making lists feels uplifting even before you’ve started the tasks concerned.’

Metaphors do seem fundamental to the way that we experience the world and ourselves. According to philosopher Mark Turner, we all think and feel in metaphors.

Conceptual metaphor theory examines the ways that our bodily experience organises and shapes the structure of our conceptual experience, the values we place on the objects around us and their relationships with us. The now classic work that began research into conceptual metaphor theory is Lakoff & Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By (1980) in which the authors make a number of proposals about the ways in which what they call ‘orientational’ and ‘spatialisation’ metaphors might have arisen ‘from our physical and cultural experience.’

For example, we experience happy as up (‘That boosted my mood’) and sad as down (‘I feel so low’).

Crucial to this theory of conceptual metaphor is the idea of ‘image schemas,’ the ‘skeletal patterns that recur in our sensory and motor experience’ (Turner 1996:16) such as: bounded interior, or motion along a path. These image schematic concepts also seem to arise from the shape and structure of our  empathic, perceptive but also highly interactive relationships with the world around us. When we project one concept onto another, it is image schemas that appear to do most of the work for us.

How do you experience the concept of time? Do you sense a timeline or a turning wheel, a globe or a fathomless mass of dark matter? When you think of the unit one week, what does that look or feel like to you? Chances are that you are projecting spatiality onto temporality so that time – which of itself has no actual spatial shape – becomes linear or circular, acquiring depth and resonance for you.

The linguist, Kovesces, looked at the language of emotion in over seventy different languages around the world and concluded that the image schema container is a ‘near-universal’ conceptualisation of the body by different cultures around the world. We mostly seem to experience  ‘an “inside-outside” perspective for the human body’ (Kovesces 2000:37) made up of an interior, an exterior and a boundary that separates them.

As we project this container image schema onto the objects around us, we
experience bottles, bags, cups, rooms, buildings, cupboards, drawers, a valley as potential containers, as psychic and symbolic equivalents to our body’s own ability to contain things .

In fact, Kovesces found that this image schema container is crucial for our understanding of emotions. We talk about love, happiness and sadness in terms of a kind of fluid inside the container of our bodies: ‘She was overflowing with love,’ ’she was filled with pride,’ ‘he was brimming with happiness.’

Sometimes we experience our feelings as pressure or heat inside this container: ‘He exploded with passion,’ or ’she was boiling with anger.’

Kovesces’ analysis of the conceptual language of friendship (2000:87-113) finds that our idea of our ‘real self’ is made up of a combination of our experience of ourselves as containers for the objects of our innermost experience. We can open up the container, look inside and see ‘the truth, the real self.’ Our idea of friendship or of a therapeutic relationship seems to be universally based on this idea of sharing our innermost experience objects.

Kovesces concludes that the language of emotion is ‘a large metaphorical force system’ in which our feelings are experienced as dynamic forces – fluid, heat, pressure – and our relationships are structured through a more rational handling of the internal and external objects of our experience. At the centre of this metaphorical system, we find ourselves facing a possible loss or gain of control.

Seen in these terms, an envelope has enormous metaphorical power as a container.  The act of sealing away our worries becomes the way that we exert control over the force of emotions that threaten to overwhelm us. We can safely enclose the innermost objects of our ‘real self’ from the force of our feelings.

As Burkeman points out, it seems that the folk psychology of the ‘worry jar’ or ‘worry dolls’ in which you safely deposit your troubles may be more than mere ‘placebo.’ It has a basis in the essentially metaphoric way in which we think and the benefits of utilising this may be measurable, as in the Li study, and more significant  than we could have imagined.

It would be interesting to run an experiment comparing the physical act of sealing off worries with an imaginary act, using a visualisation or guided imagery protocol from hypnotherapy. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that guiding people through an imaginary act of physical enclosure provides similar benefits. Wouldn’t it be helpful now to measure it empirically?

Reference Xuping Li et al (2010) ‘Sealing the Emotions Genie: The Effects of Physical Enclosure on Psychological Closure,’ Psychological Science. Vol 21 No. 8. pp. 1047-1050.

Kovecses, Zoltan. (2000). Metaphor and Emotion: Language, Culture and Body in Human Feeling. Cambridge University Press.

Turner, Mark. (1996). The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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