Many things in life can lead to unfinished business, which involves life experiences that have not been adequately processed, integrated, or resolved and are therefore incomplete. Often, these experiences have been suppressed and are outside the person’s awareness. Yet, when something is experienced that is similar to or reminiscent of the experience in the past that is unfinished, the person reacts to it instead of responding to it.

Unfinished Business From Childhood

Unfinished business is sometimes a carryover from problematic childhood experiences. A six-year-old child is molested by her uncle, who comes into her room at night, violates her trust, and intimidates her into silence. She swallows her fear and experiences a loss of power. When she is an adult, she may not even remember the experience because she has repressed it, but she may have difficulty experiencing intimate relationships with men because of the unfinished business related to her molestation as a child.

But childhood experiences that create unfinished business can be far less obviously traumatic than that. For example, a child whose best friend moves away without their having had the opportunity to say good-bye might have unfinished business in adulthood as a result of that experience.

Unfinished Business From Experiences as an Adult

Unfinished business can also result from adult experiences. A man who has survived a car crash that was immediately fatal to his wife and son will have had no opportunity to say good-bye, express his love, or vocalize regrets. This can cause unfinished business for him. Likewise, in today’s corporate world, where layoffs are sometimes handled ungracefully, a loyal twenty-year employee who is let go because of downsizing may be escorted out of the building by security. He has probably had no forewarning and no civil conversation in which the employer has expressed gratitude for his good work over many years. Neither the employer nor the employee has had the opportunity to express how they feel about the situation. That experience becomes unfinished business if it goes unprocessed.

Unfinished Business Has Lasting Effects

People move on in life and mistakenly think that because they survived a traumatic incident and life has moved forward, it does not matter. But it does matter. Unfinished business is common, and almost everyone has pieces of it in their psyche. Some experiences are more traumatic than others, but all have a lasting effect.

Those lasting effects are held in each cell of the physical body, and they may be the result of holding an unexpressed scream, repressing words or gestures, or otherwise suppressing some expression. This may cause illness, and it almost always causes the subconscious to do its work through dreams and other “nonsensical” routes to process the occurrence and make sense of it.   

Eventually, triggers appear to assist the process of release. Almost as if priming the pump, when a person resembles someone who was involved in the original occurrence, a physical surrounding is similar to that in the original experience, or the situation or dynamic is similar, the subconscious begins to cue the body’s emotional field.

The cells begin to regurgitate the experience with emotion and the person often finds themselves in a reactive state, which is frequently misunderstood. All of this is almost always outside of their awareness, as is the reason for their feeling so strongly about the present situation. People may accuse them of overreacting, and the reactive person is left wondering why it bothers them so much.

So How Does a Gestaltist Help?

As a client shows up for a session, they are often nervous and may have been chewing on what they want to discuss in the session. This may occur during their drive to the session or have been going on for hours or even days before the session.

As the time together begins and contact is established, they settle into the session and may begin to tune in and share. Often, they do this with a story or a description of events in their current life. It may be associated to a part of their life that is presently in conflict or feels unsettled. This lies in what we refer to as the foreground. In the foreground, the client may be experiencing being triggered by a current person or situation. They find themselves in a reactive state, and they may have been told they are overreacting.

Reactive states are those in which the client feels they are not in control. Their emotions or even words and actions feel almost out-of-body. This can be contrasted to being in a responsive state. When responsive, the person is aware of their thoughts and emotions and can make choices during the active encounter. This is much preferred for good emotional health.

Unfinished business is created when a person is unable to express or control a situation that is traumatic or damaging for them. This may be due to their young age, when they are preverbal or their childlike way of expressing themselves is not heard. It may be due to a lack of safety or being dominated in a traumatic event. It could happen when a person is overpowered in an office firing. Shame is often a byproduct of this dynamic.

From Reactivity to Responsiveness

When incidents and events are unresolved, a person is often unable to allow the memory to fade into the background of consciousness. This is because the base needs the incident represents have not been met. This unfinished business is most often outside the client’s awareness, even when the situation that resembles that unresolved experience presents itself and they react. In Gestalt work, one goal is to discover these unresolved places in the client’s life, including the people connected with the unfinished issue, and bring them to completeness.

A client may come into the session talking about a situation or person that is triggering reactivity for them. This is what Gestaltists refer to as the foreground or current story. The out of the ordinary reactiveness is often being fueled by the unfinished business in the background. The coaches job is to find and identify the background as the seat of the work needed by the client. It is a process of connecting the dots.  

Once the background reveals itself, the coach may then create an experiment for the client to work with. For instance, the coach might have the client imagine a key person in their unfinished business and then assist them to role play or do empty chair work with that person. The client is given stem sentences or tools in the work to voice and interact in a safe, supported environment. 

Expressing what they were not mature enough or safe enough to express at the time of the real event can free up things felt and thought for decades, creating a sense of completion and peace. When the piece of work is whole and complete, there is resolution for the client. When a similar situation that was formerly a trigger next presents itself, the client is no longer triggered or reactionary. Instead, they can remain responsive and appropriate to the reality of the present moment.