Describing the experience of emptiness to individuals who have never experienced it is difficult. How is it that some emotionally sensitive people, who feel so many emotions so intensely, also struggle with emptiness? I asked for wisdom from those who have experienced emptiness*.
Kendra said emptiness feels like a cold shell. Imagine feeling like a shell of a person with no insides, nothing there.
Lynn said, “[experiencing emptiness makes me feel like] I cannot breathe. And I have no where to go for refuge. Suffocating.”
Emptiness doesn’t seem to be about loneliness, though it is an alone feeling. Emptiness seems to be the absence of you. Not knowing who you are, what you feel, or what you want. It’s a hollow, nothingness feeling. Like a puppet just responding to what is expected or what string is pulled. And then not responding at all in any real sense. Feeling blank and then hiding the blankness until you can’t.
Sue said, “I think it’s linked to the criteria of identity disturbance, self-image and sense of self. Not knowing how you’re feeling , or feeling nothing or not knowing what you want in life, leaves you with a dark empty pit, especially for me in my stomach and in my mind…That lovely description of the space between stimulus and response as a positive moment; when there’s a sense of ongoing beingness…without ongoing-ness though, emptiness is a statue space, frozen and yet painful, alive and unmoving, unreachable and yet present. Clear and foggy. Safe and unsafe.”
Chantal said, ” I wouldn’t know where to begin…hallow, empty, dark…I can now control it pretty well, but it can still sometimes creep out of nowhere.”
Kate described emptiness as “I’m drowning, under water looking up… while someone reaches their hand out to me and I simply just smile up at them, without reaching back. Loneliness is when something or even someone you want in your life is missing… or absent. Emptiness is a void. Nothing matters and you wouldn’t know what to feel… if you could even feel anything in the first place. It consumes you and nothing nor no one can fill that void… ”
Feeling empty is more about the self than about others. It doesn’t seem to matter how many people are in your life. A lack of identity, a lack of self-acceptance and shame about who you are seem to contribute to emptiness. It’s also a lack of feeling connected to the world and to other people. Being connected is different from caring about them. You can care about others from a distance. Being connected to the world requires a full involvement, jumping in mindfully, without self consciousness.
Feeling empty partially comes from living in your head, judging every experience and yourself so that you keep a barrier between you and life. Feeling empty is about not being able to take in the love that is given to you, perhaps because you block it with judgments such as believing that you don’t deserve it. Or there’s not a sense of self to hold onto that love. You might feel it in the moment and then it’s gone, almost as if it never existed.
Emptiness can be a form of dissociating, of leaving yourself. It’s like going to the corner of your life and watching without interest.
For some, emptiness is the absence of excitement. Short-term gratification and the chemical rush that comes from new activities, new ways of feeling pleasure can be viewed as happiness. But happiness and excitement are not the same. Happiness is calmer, more peaceful. Creating that contentment is different than participating in an exciting event.
Emptiness is seeing no meaning. It’s a lack of connectedness to the world and to others. Being connected is different from caring. You can care about others from a distance. Being connected requires a full involvement, jumping in mindfully, without self-consciousness.
There is a discomfort in emptiness. Just wanting to feel leads some to seek pain. Others try to fill the emptiness with drugs, alcohol, work, food, or other compulsive behavior. Some become overly dependent on another person.
If you have a sense of emptiness at times, what is that like for you? Each individual may experience it in a different way.
Filling the emptiness means building your identity, finding meaning, contributing and connecting deeply with life and with others. We’ll discuss that in a future post.
* Some of the names have been changed and the first names of others are used with permission.
Karyn Hall, Ph.D. is the owner/director of the Dialectical Behavior Therapy Center in Houston, Texas and a trainer/consultant with Treatment Implementation Collaborative (Ticllc.org).
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