A feeling of emptiness is something many people experience at some time in our lives. However, chronic feelings of emptiness – a lack of meaning or purpose, a lack of sense of self, emotional numbness or despair, and similar experiences – can be a sign of profound emotional pain and challenges. Since every emotional challenge is also an opportunity for growth and transformation, a persistent feeling of emptiness is a good indication that therapy can be helpful. Emptiness can be a very disturbing experience. It can also be an indication that we are ready to look past more superficial matters and begin to investigate our experiences, thoughts, and needs in a deeper way.
Emptiness is associated mainly with three diagnoses in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Health Disorders:
It should be noted that emptiness is often cited as a part of spiritual or mystical experiences and paths. In Buddhism, the true nature of the self and of the universe is sometimes identified as “emptiness” or “nothingness.” The German existential philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche wrote that if we “stare into the abyss long enough, it stares back.” The fear of death, the essential aloneness of the individual, and uncertainty about God, truth, or life generally can all present a feeling or experience of emptiness, even in the absence of an identified mental disorder. A sudden loss or change in life circumstances may also produce such feelings.
Katrina, 23, presents with a sudden onset of depression, with feelings of emptiness most prominent. She has just graduated college and is not working. She also recently split up with her boyfriend, whom she had dated for several years through college. The therapist inquires about her life goals and plans; she has none. The therapist helps Katrina uncover feelings of terror about being alone and beginning her adult life. With the support of the therapist, 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 good and cope with the uncertainties of life.
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 but now just irritate him. 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 because of the recognition and sense of accomplishment it afforded, but also how much he resented having to work so hard when he would have liked to be engaged in more leisure activities. This resentment built up and caused him to numb himself to feelings of love available from his family. The therapist helps Brett identify the source of some guilty feelings, and find ways to give and receive forgive in these areas. The therapist also normalizes Brett’s ambivalence about retirement, and assists Brett in identifying some activities that will offer pleasure and meaning.
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Last updated: 12-15-2013