Original Link : https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/issues/emptiness

Feelings of emptiness—a lack of meaning or purpose—are experienced by most people at some point in life. However, chronic feelings of emptiness, feelings of emotional numbness or despair, and similar experiences may be symptomatic of other mental health concerns, such as depression, anhedonia, or schizophrenia.

Emptiness can also be experienced as an aspect of bereavement following the death of a loved one. An individual who experiences consistent and severe feelings of emptiness may find it helpful to speak to a therapist, especially when it becomes difficult to focus on other aspects of life.

WHY DO I FEEL EMPTY? EMPTINESS SYMPTOMS AND CAUSES

People confront feelings of emptiness in life for many reasons. For example, the loss of a loved one—whether to death or separation—may leave one feeling empty in the absence of a person who may have provided purpose and structure to life. A sudden change in life circumstances may also produce such feelings.

A common symptom of emptiness is the feeling that life lacks meaning. Viktor Frankl recognized the human need for finding meaning in life, even during hardship, during the years he spent in Nazi concentration camps. As a result, he developed his own form of therapy to help people find meaning in every aspect of life, naming it logotherapy, which comes from the Greek word logos (meaning).

Emptiness can leave a person feeling emotionally numb, despondent, isolated, and anxious. Some describe the experience as an empty feeling in their chest. People attempt to fill that void in a number of ways, often engaging in activities that are ultimately unfulfilling, such as compulsive shopping, eating, or the use of substances. Unfortunately, our consumer culture often capitalizes on feelings like emptiness, promising fulfillment with this or that product.

A person might instead attempt to combat emotional emptiness and give new meaning to life by volunteering, taking up a hobby, adopting a pet, cultivating or maintaining a spiritual practice, or other activities that may prove more emotionally fulfilling.

MENTAL HEALTH DIAGNOSES ASSOCIATED WITH EMPTINESS

A few conditions list emptiness as a symptom, and some conditions in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) list emptiness as a criterion for diagnosis:

  • Depression: A sense of emptiness is related to feelings of hopelessness, loss of pleasure, low self-worth, and low motivation.
  • Borderline personality (BPD): Chronic feelings of emptiness are associated with impulsivity, an unstable sense of self, hopelessness, loneliness, and suicidal ideation. In BPD, feelings of emptiness are less associated with boredom.
  • Schizotypal personality (STPD): Feelings of emptiness, stemming from feeling like life lacks meaning, may cause people with schizotypal personality to compensate by acting impulsively. 
  • Alcohol and drug addiction: People may attempt to alleviate feelings of emptiness and depression by self-medicating. The lack of availability of an addictive substance or attempts to quit using can also produce feelings of emptiness.

Emptiness may also occur on its own and could even trigger a mental health issue. People who feel concerned about overwhelming feelings of emptiness, whether they occur on their own or as a symptom, should consult a licensed mental health professional.

FEELING EMPTY IN RELATIONSHIPS

It’s not uncommon for people to report feeling empty in intimate relationships. This emptiness may stem from different causes and can appear in short or long-term relationships. Experiencing phases of feeling empty or disconnected can also be normal in a long-term relationship or marriage, but if the feelings persist, it may be a sign there are issues that need to be addressed. 

An empty bench at the seaside

A few causes of feeling empty in a relationship include:

  • Over-dependence on partner to meet all emotional needs
  • Emotional needs not getting met in the relationship 
  • Lack of emotional connection, quality time, or physical connection
  • Boredom
  • Stress or pressure from outside circumstances, such as a new job or moving, on the relationship
  • Communication issues
  • Infidelity 
  • Mental health issues that affect one partner

Feeling empty is not always reason to end a relationship, although it can be. When feelings of emptiness are a symptom of incompatibility or abuse, it may be time to consider moving on. However, when emptiness comes from miscommunication or misunderstanding, a couples counselor may help you and your partner learn communication skills and discover more about your partners needs in the relationship.

Individual therapy may also help people whose feelings of emptiness are interfering with their relationship, particularly when those feelings stem from an unresolved mental health issue such as depression or borderline personality.

EMPTINESS, SPIRITUALITY, AND EXISTENTIALISM

The concept of emptiness is also associated with several philosophical and spiritual traditions, though its meaning in each of these contexts differs from the potentially distressing psychological state addressed on this page.

In Buddhism, for example, the concept of emptiness, known as Sunyata, is associated with renouncing ego and desire in order to achieve openness, inner peace, receptivity, and ultimately, enlightenment. This kind of emptiness is a way of perceiving experience without the attachment of ego or self, and it is a goal for practitioners of Buddhism. Similar themes of renouncing worldly desires and greed appear in many forms of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, though the ultimate goals of achieving emptiness can vary among the traditions.

Existentialism, on the other hand, identifies meaninglessness as a reality of life, like death. The theory views people as capable of finding meaning in their own lives, and existential psychotherapy techniques, like Frankl’s logotherapy or humanistic psychotherapy, can help people find their inner wisdom and achieve a sense of meaning.

Overcome Emptiness

The feeling of emptiness may be difficult for some people to identify or describe, as it refers to an absence rather than the presence of feeling or emotion. While most people may feel empty as some point in their life, chronic emptiness can negatively impact mental health and can also be a sign of an underlying mental health issue.

Working with a therapist or counselor can help people explore what is causing feelings of emptiness in their lives and create solutions for reducing or overcoming it.

THERAPY FOR EMPTINESS

Feelings of emptiness can be hard to tolerate. They can have the effect of leading people to believe there is nothing in their life to hope for and that nothing will ever make the emptiness go away. Therapy can help with feelings of emptiness, whether the feelings are caused by a diagnosable condition or not. A therapist can do several things to help a person move past these feelings, such as:

  • Determine if the feelings are caused by a treatable disorder such as depression and if they are not, help an individual discover the reason for these feelings.
  • Empower people to find and implement strategies to cope with emptiness.
  • Help an individual master the skills needed to move past behaviors that contribute to emptiness and find ways to stop negative thought processes.
  • Help people find ways to navigate interpersonal conflicts leading to feelings of emptiness.
  • Act as a supportive conversational partner who can help an individual better understand personal needs.

TYPES OF THERAPY FOR EMPTINESS

While individual therapy can be a beneficial option for people who experience chronic feelings of emptiness, there are also certain types of therapy that can help. The goal of many of these types of therapy is to allow people to explore or find meaning in their lives, helping the individual replace emptiness with a sense of purpose:

  • Logotherapy: Based on the idea that humans seek meaning and purpose in life, logotherapy helps people gain new perspectives through dereflection and uses Socratic dialogue to gain insight into the meaning behind the language they use. It may often help people discover meaning and resolve feelings of emptiness. 
  • Existential psychotherapy: The theory behind existential psychotherapy is that when people experience responsibility, death, isolation, or meaninglessness, they may develop existential anxiety. This type of therapy may combat emptiness by helping people understand the power they hold in their own life and how they might craft their own purpose.
  • Humanistic therapy: Counselors who use humanistic psychology in therapy typically support people in developing healthy behaviors in a nonpathologizing way. As the belief that each person has unique capabilities and needs underlies humanistic psychology, therapists who can help people tune in to these needs may help them reduce feelings of emptiness.
  • Person-centered therapy: In person-centered therapy, people may learn more about themselves and gain a greater sense of self-trust and acceptance over time. Supported by a strong therapeutic relationship, the person in therapy may become more aware of what will lead to fulfillment in their life.

In some cases, empty feelings may also occur in romantic relationships. While individual therapies may still be helpful for people with chronic feelings of emptiness that bleed into their relationship, couples counseling may be helpful when the relationship dynamic is contributing to the emptiness.

COUPLES COUNSELING FOR EMPTINESS IN RELATIONSHIPS

If one partner’s feelings of emptiness are causing difficulties in a relationship, they may choose to attend couples counseling with their partner. Some signs it may be time to see a couples counselor for feelings of emptiness in a relationship include:

  • Lack of sex or physical intimacy in the relationship.
  • Feeling emotionally disconnected or that you or your partner aren’t “present” even when physically close.
  • Long periods of uncomfortable silence.
  • Lack of disagreement. While constant arguing isn’t necessarily indicative of a healthy relationship, a total lack of disagreement can mean one or both partners don’t feel invested in the relationship.

A counselor may help the couple determine which issues are at the root of the numbness or emotional distance in the relationship and help them bridge the gap. By exploring why they are in the relationship and what emotional needs the relationship is capable of meeting, couples therapy may help both partners overcome feelings of emptiness.

HOW TO STOP FEELING EMPTY

People can also overcome empty feelings by adjusting their lifestyle so they can focus more on what’s meaningful to them. In addition to therapy, research backs a few strategies for combating feelings of emptiness in daily life:

  • Prioritize relationships. A 75 year study revealed that people who invested in deep, connected relationships experience more meaning and fulfillment in their life.
  • Values clarification. Take some time to think about your top five or ten values. Gaining insight into what is important to you may help you start moving toward meaning and away from emptiness.
  • Nurture your spiritual side. Taking care of your spiritual side may mean seeking out experiences in which you feel awe or transcendence. Spending time in nature, meditating, or attending a religious service or ceremony are a few ways people do this.

When chronic feelings of emptiness persist, it may be time to talk to a mental health professional. Over time, empty feelings may lead to serious mental health issues such as depression, but uncovering what is causing these feelings in therapy may be an effective way of preventing them from taking over.

ADDRESSING EMPTINESS IN THERAPY: CASE EXAMPLES

  • Depression after college: Katrina, 23, enters therapy with a sudden onset of depression with prominent feelings of emptiness. She has just graduated college, is not working, and recently split up with her boyfriend, whom she had dated for several years throughout college. The therapist inquires about her life goals and plans; she has none. Together, they uncover Katrina’s feelings of terror about being alone and beginning her adult life. Through therapy, Katrina begins to explore what her life means to her, her fear of death, her ambivalence about her sexuality, and the resources available to her—both external and internal—that can help her feel content and cope with the uncertainties of life.
  • Transitioning into retirement: Brett, 69, recently retired and has found he no longer enjoys any of his previously enjoyable activities. He even avoids spending time with his grandchildren, who used to always bring a smile to his face. He feels that his life has been “a waste,” and he is full of regrets, but mainly he reports just feeling “empty.” In therapy, Brett discovers how important work was to him for the recognition and sense of accomplishment it afforded, but he also acknowledges his resentment at having to work so hard when he would have liked to enjoy more leisure activities. Over the years, Brett became numb to feelings of love from his family. The therapist helps Brett identify the source of his regrets and find ways to offer forgiveness in these areas. The therapist helps Brett identify the source of his regrets and accept them, normalizes Brett’s ambivalence about retirement, and assists him in identifying some activities that will offer pleasure and meaning.