Expressing the unexpressed

On my way to a Stitch ‘n Bitch the other day, I was meditating on the distinction I learnt in Landmark Education called “completion,” and not half an hour later found myself sitting next to a woman who vividly illustrated what it is to be “incomplete” and the violence it does to our peace of mind and our relationships.

M was a woman in her 60s, originally from Fiji, now living in Australia.  Being at a Stitch ‘n Bitch encourages not bitching, but unburdening.  M told me the story of how her brother had died in his early 60s in a New Zealand hospital as a result of what she thought was the negligence of his doctor and the nurses.  The doctor had decreed for some reason that her brother not be given food and M believed this led directly to his death a week or two later.  She told me she had consulted a lawyer about the issue, but was reluctant to launch a court action for fear she would have to pay costs if she lost the action.  She’d also recently thought of approaching her nephew, a lawyer, to take up the case.

As she was sharing her story with me, all the indignation, shock and sadness of her brother’s death was palpable to her, as well perhaps as some secret guilt – something maybe she could have done but didn’t, something not said – and possibly too, being of a similar age, apprehension at her own fate.

M’s brother had died in 2005, and here she was, an otherwise cheerful and gentle woman with a twinkle in her eye, reliving and suffering it again, still wondering what to do, in 2010.


What Landmark Education calls “completion,” other people might call “closure” or “moving on,” but these labels are only a crude caricature of this simple, enormously powerful mechanism, and give the recipient no access to doing what they urge.  As M said, bewildered and disappointed,

People keep telling me to “move on”.

We all have things about which we’re incomplete.  It could be something someone said to you last week, or last month, or something that happened 20 or 30 years ago.  It could be a stray remark someone made in a casual conversation, something that seems so minor and insignificant that even to admit you’re thinking about it would make you feel foolish and embarrassed.  It could be something that someone did to you when you were a teenager – a boy who stood you up on a date, a girl who laughed at you – or in your marriage – a husband who cheated, a wife who said one thing and did another.

It could be something like one of the things about which I was incomplete.  A close friend had told me what I thought was a lie over 10 years before, and instead of clearing it up right then and there, I made a decision that I couldn’t trust her and promptly embarked on the next 10 years of our relationship living through that decision and wondering why we weren’t close anymore.

Or it could be something as big and all-embracing as failure itself.  In the Leadership program I recently finished with Landmark Education, one of our tasks was to complete on “failure,” and to write down all the areas and events of our lives in which we’d failed.  One participant, in particular, a man who’d been very hard on himself throughout the course, knowing his moment had come leapt on to the stage with a screed of failures that rolled down and out across the stage into the front row.

You’ll know you’re incomplete about something when there’s a charge, a prick, a sting when you think about it.  You may not acknowledge the charge; nevertheless, it’s there.  There is no faking or approximating being complete about a matter, except to ourselves.

And get this.  Not only is the prick of the incomplete a reality, it’s running your life.  It’s running your life by making parts of your life and your relationships “no-go” areas.  It’s lopping off great swathes of experience, of potential joy and satisfaction and intimacy, until all you’re left with is a tiny, well-trod corner, proved and exhausted of all uncertainty.

Getting complete

So how do you get complete about a matter?  Well, it’s ludicrously simple, and takes only minute or two.  In all cases, there are two steps; in some cases, there’s a third.  The first step is to look square on at the matter, to get what Landmark calls the “what’s so” of the situation, ie, what actually happened in the situation, as distinct from what we made the situation mean, about ourselves and others.

Though it’s simple, the challenge in this first step is to see the distinctness of the two things: what happened, and the story or meaning we made about what happened.  It can also be painful or threatening to take this first step because it usually means giving up something: an opinion, a decision, a long-held superiority.

The second step, which often occurs in the same moment as the first, is to acknowledge or “own” what happened.  In some cases, there will be a third step: to say something out loud to another human being.

Whether or not you do this third step will mostly depend on whether the matter is incomplete for others, as well as you.  If the matter’s incomplete with you only, then you may not need or want to share it with the person who was also involved.  Or, it may be that you want to write it down in a letter which you don’t post, or that you say the matter out loud to a third person.  In the Landmark Self-Expression and Leadership Program I did last year there was a man called L who announced “there was something he wanted to say out loud” and shared with us his background as a cocaine user and his concern for who he’d been being for his young daughter during that period of his life.

Neither recriminations nor sympathy

There are two important things to understand about these completion conversations.  The person getting complete is not engaged in accusations and recriminations, but in finally acknowledging what actually happened in a particular situation.  And that the person listening for the completion is not sympathising or commenting, but simply getting what the person is telling them.

One of our classroom leaders in my recent course gave a perfect example.  It was during the exercise on completing on failure, and K, a virtual child prodigy of 23 amongst us 30, 40, 50 and 60-somethings weighed down with container loads of failures, cheered us all by sharing a tender failure from her own life.  She told us that a former girlfriend had had an affair and broken K’s heart, and that she’d shared the heartbreak with a Landmark Forum leader,

I think I didn’t satisfy her or make her happy and that’s why she went off and had an affair.

And the Landmark Forum leader said something like,

Yes, that’s probably what happened; at that time, she wasn’t happy and so she had an affair.

When the Landmark Forum leader said these words, K was “instantly complete.”  The simple recreation of her anguish caused it to vanish.  It sank back into her being, becoming, as it were, one with its surrounds again.

You too

Consider there are things in life that you too need to express either to yourself or another human being. Getting complete about the things in your life that are incomplete, the things that are unexpressed, will change your life.  It will open up again areas of your life that have been closed down for years, and make you available to others once again.  All it takes is a minute or two, and the courage to be real.


Images: From the series, Something More, by Tracey Moffatt (top); Umbrella in tea fields by Steven Vidler/Eurasia Press/Corbis (middle)


5 thoughts on “Expressing the unexpressed

  1. OK, I could have made it clearer, the issue for M was not so much grief or sadness, but the complaint, the grievance she had about her brother’s death. Instead of looking at what actually is, she was caught up in the game of what should or shouldn’t have been. There was no acceptance of his death. That’s where the incompletion lies.

    To get complete, M would follow the same 2-3 steps I wrote about.


  2. haha, very cute story. And perfect. That’s spot-on what you say about people often being ready to lay down their burdens but just not seeing how. I think M was at exactly that point; she knew what was required, she was just looking for something like a nudge, something like permission or a blessing, to finally do it. And that’s the thing; the person who’s incomplete already knows the answer, it’s just that they haven’t yet chosen it. Just like the zen student who hadn’t yet chosen to give up making the woman wrong.

    What actually happened in M’s case is that her brother died. All the rest, including even “I will never know if it was due to negligence on the doctor’s part,” is part of the story she/we have invented about what happened. Getting complete is about seeing the “what happened,” shorn of its story, its drama.

    A completion conversation is simply one person (A) sharing what happened with B, and B simply getting what they said (not sympathising or enlightening or instructing). Because A already knows (just like K in my original post). Right, now I’m off to write a spy novel … ciao, sgc


  3. no, no, no, it was a poor wee joke … v poor v wee I see … just with all the initials I was using I thought I should take up writing spy novels. Like Graham Greene. What’s “November”? Don’t know it.


  4. Hi solidgoldcreativity,

    As I understand it “completion” as you call it is pretty much the same thing as closure to non-Landmark participants. At least the way you describe the process it closely resembles the process I use to come to terms with ghosts in my past. In other words; 1. Separating fact from feelings about the facts, 2. Being responsible for your part in the events, and 3. Apologize or atone or talk it out with a third party if necessary.

    The problem I have with your process is the time frame for all completions. “Well, it’s ludicrously simple, and takes only minute or two.” It seems to me that by intellectualizing the process you have forgotten to adequately address the emotional aspect of very serious problems. Grieving can take months to complete and it is healthy to do so.

    I have known several individuals both in and out of Landmark that have “completed” a serious situation only to have the emotional aspect resurface later, sometimes years later to disastrous results. These were people who were certain that they hade dealt with their problem.

    If you could clarify your position on this I would appreciate it. Thanks
    Type 2 WD


    • Hi Type 2 WD,

      Great to have someone interact with the post so closely. Thank you.

      Yes, getting “complete” in Landmark’s terms is pretty similar to your own process. At least that’s how it looks from the outside, and boiled down to steps. In Landmark terms, however, the real shift occurs not at the level of “doing” (eg, steps) but at the level of “being”. So attempting to describe in a blog post what happens is pretty ambitious and sort of doomed, if you know what I mean : ) Still, I love sharing about it.

      The thing that happens at the level of “being” is a “giving up” of something and that’s what makes the difference. For me and many others I know it has literally taken minutes. In my case, I’ve got complete about a whole lot of stuff. By far, the most significant is the relationship with my Mum. We had been at war for almost 30 years (my Mum’s OK about me using our relationship as an example in public). We just couldn’t be with each other in any way, not in person, not even on the phone. We had many years of estrangement, and many more years of hurt and suffering. I lived most of my days in rage, carefully covered up.

      Then I did the Landmark Forum in September 2008 and on the afternoon of the second day the penny finally dropped. I saw who I’d been being in relation to my mother and in relation to myself.

      I rang her on the very next break (the first time I’d called her in months) and in a five minute phone call both of us completed 30 years of torment. I never would have believed it possible. It was the most profound experience of my life.

      Since then our relationship has been completely transformed.

      You could say the phone call took 5 minutes or 30 years, depending on your view.

      I’ve also seen people feel they had “completed” something only to have it resurface. I’ve experienced that too in relation to some things. For me, it’s meant there was something I still hadn’t given up. I think sometimes it takes more than one shift. The main thing is that if it doesn’t “work” the first time, nothing is lost in the process; ie, partial completions, let’s say, don’t “queer the pitch” or damage the situation. They just indicate there’s a little way to go.

      I wish you all the best with whatever you’re dealing with. Feel free to let me know whether this has answered your question. Best wishes, Narelle x


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