Codependency, Addiction, and Emptiness
Emptiness is a common feeling. There are distinct types of emptiness, but it’s psychological emptiness that underlies codependency and addiction.
Whereas existential emptiness is concerned with your relationship to life, psychological emptiness deals with your relationship to yourself. It’s correlated with depression (Hazell, 1984) and deeply related to shame. Depression may be accompanied by a variety of symptoms, including sadness and crying, anxiety or restlessness, shame or guilt, apathy, fatigue, change in appetite or sleep habits, poor concentration, suicidal thoughts, and feeling empty.
Existential emptiness is a universal response to the human condition – how we find personal meaning in the face of a finite existence. It’s associated with “existentialism,” named by philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, and grew out of the nihilism and alienation of post-World War II society. Sartre described the nothingness and emptiness of living in a lonely, God-less and meaningless universe. It’s primarily concerned with social alienation, spiritual bankruptcy, and our relationship to our life, society, and the world around us. This isn’t viewed as a mental health problem and doesn’t lead to depression.
The Buddhists teach extensively about emptiness, originating with Gautama Shakyamuni Buddha in the sixth century B.C.E. Their concept is quite different from the ordinary understanding of the word. Rather being a painful emotional state, its full realization provides a method to end pain and suffering and reach enlightenment. Fundamental is the idea that there is no intrinsic, permanent self. The Mahayana and Vajrayana schools believe that the contents of consciousness and objects are also empty, meaning that phenomena lack a substantial, inherent existence, and have only relative existence.
The Cause of Psychological Emptiness
For codependents, including addicts, their emptiness comes from growing up in a dysfunctional family devoid of sufficient nurturing and empathy, referred to by psychiatrist James Masterson (1988) as abandonment depression. Codependents experience this to varying degrees. They suffer from self-alienation, isolation, and shame, which can be masked by the behaviors that accompany addiction, including denial, dependency, people-pleasing, control, caretaking, obsessive thoughts, compulsive behavior and feelings such as anger and anxiety.