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 another mental health concern, such as depression, anhedonia, or schizophrenia. Emptiness can also be experienced as an aspect of bereavement, following the death of a loved one.
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 a person feeling a kind of emptiness in the absence of that person who provided purpose and structure to his or her 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, throughout the years he spent in Nazi concentration camps. As a result, he developed his own form of therapy and named it logotherapy, based on the Greek word logos (meaning), to help people find meaning in every aspect of life.
Emptiness can leave a person feeling emotionally numb, despondent, isolated, and anxious. 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 use of substances. Unfortunately, our consumer culture capitalizes on feelings like emptiness, promising fulfillment with this or that product. Successfully combating feelings of emptiness and finding meaning are sometimes achieved through volunteering, taking up a hobby, adopting a pet, cultivating or maintaining a spiritual practice, or similar endeavors.
There are three conditions in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) that list emptiness as a criterion for diagnosis:
The concept of emptiness is also associated with several philosophical and spiritual traditions, though its meaning in each of these contexts is very different from the 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 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 helps people find their inner wisdom and achieve a sense of meaning.
Last updated: 06-02-2014