When You Feel Empty: What It Means & What to Do
If you’re feeling empty, you’re not alone. Many of us feel empty in different ways. For instance, you might feel empty because something is missing in your life, said Kaitlyn Slight, a marriage and family therapist in Raleigh, N.C. This might be emptiness from a loved one moving or passing away, she said.
Or the emptiness might stem from “slowly abandon[ing] ourselves, not listening to our own hopes and desires.” You might abandon yourself unintentionally or unknowingly because you’re striving for perfection or others’ approval, she said. You might stop caring for yourself while focusing on your career. For instance, you might stop moving your body or getting enough sleep. Abandoning ourselves can spark anxiety, depression, guilt and shame, she said.
Slight’s clients also mention feeling numb or alone. They mention that work is unsatisfying, they feel unsuccessful, their relationships are unfulfilling or nothing is exciting.
Many of Ashley Eder’s clients who struggle with depression report feeling empty (instead of sad). “This kind of empty feeling comes with not caring about much, not being interested in things, not feeling fueled by anything in particular.”
If you’re feeling empty, seeing a therapist can help. In particular, it’s important to get screened for depression. How you handle your emptiness depends on what’s causing it. Here are several suggestions from Eder and Slight.
1. Gently acknowledge the emptiness.
If you’re experiencing emptiness that’s more like a gaping hole, acknowledge it, and be gentle with yourself, said Eder, LPC, a psychotherapist in Boulder, Colo. Don’t beat yourself up for feeling this way. Don’t try to dismiss or change your feelings.
If this emptiness is because of a loved one’s passing, don’t get angry with yourself for grieving years later. “Because it is agonizing to lose a loved one, and though the loss changes shape over time, it never becomes ‘OK’ that the person died… In that case you learn to live life alongside that hole of missing that person.”
Sometimes, the hole forms because you missed out on love while you were growing up, Eder said. This doesn’t mean you didn’t have a loving family. “[T]here are just certain kinds of love or caring that can be missed, and then feel somewhat impossible to catch up on.”
Eder suggested speaking to yourself with compassion. For instance, you might say: “It’s hard to feel so lonely” or “You’re right; you did need more love.”
2. Spend time with yourself every day.
“[F]ight the urge to turn to the outside world for fulfillment,” Slight said. Instead of trying to fill the void with drugs, alcohol, TV, computer games or anything else, look within and spend time with yourself, she said.
Slight suggested carving out time to explore your own desires, fears, hopes and dreams. This helps you create “more meaning in your daily life and your future.”
Because different activities work for different people, you might find that meditation, writing or exercise helps you refocus on yourself.
“It may feel uncomfortable at first, but the more you practice devoting time and energy to yourself and caring for yourself, the less present those empty feelings will be.”
3. Explore your current feelings.
Eder suggested setting a timer for five minutes and noticing what you’re feeling right now. “It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering.” You might write “bored” or “distracted” or “curious,” she said. If you’re having a hard time naming your feelings, Google “feelings list,” she said.
It also can help to pick one part of your body, such as your hand or head, and “scan for various categories of sensation like temperature, tension or movement.”
“As you practice short intervals of allowing feelings, you will gradually broaden your window of tolerance to include bigger feelings for longer times.”
4. Explore your feelings of emptiness.
Slight suggested exploring the below questions. We can do this while journaling, taking a walk or drinking a cup of tea, she said.
- Have I been judging myself or comparing myself to others?
- Do I tell myself positive things?
- Or do I tend to notice failures or call myself ugly or stupid?
- Are my feelings being considered in my relationships, or am I minimizing what I am feeling?
- Am I actively tending to my physical and health needs?
- Have I turned toward behaviors or addictions to avoid my feelings?
- Am I focusing solely on the needs of another person or people?
- What am I trying to prove or win?
- Am I blaming myself or feeling guilt about things that are out of my control?
- Am I showing myself compassion like I would with a close friend or family member?
- Am I asserting myself in my decisions and respecting my personal opinions?
5. Commend yourself.
As kids, some of us used our lack of feelings to protect ourselves from being overwhelmed, Eder said. “In that case, give yourself credit for coming up with a solution that worked when you were small and powerless.”
Today, take your time letting in your feelings, she said. “You have some catching up to do. And you don’t need to rush to override your old way of survival.”
Feelings of emptiness can lead to distressing thoughts, such as “life is not worth living,” or “there is no hope,” Slight said. Again, therapy can help. It can help you explore the underlying causes of your feelings and “empower you to make your own decisions about how to implement positive changes.”
It’s important to acknowledge and accept your feelings of emptiness. It’s important to be self-compassionate. “Whether you are experiencing difficult relationships, losses or feeling a lack of purpose or meaning, you are worthy of living a fulfilling and meaningful life,” Slight said.
Lonely man photo available from Shutterstock
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Tartakovsky, M. (2015). When You Feel Empty: What It Means & What to Do. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 20, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/when-you-feel-empty-what-it-means-what-to-do-2/