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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 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. 

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 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.

Mental Health Diagnoses Associated with Emptiness

There are three conditions in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) that list emptiness as a criterion for diagnosis:

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    Depression: A sense of emptiness is related to feelings of hopelessness, loss of pleasure, low self-worth, and low motivation. 
  • Borderline personality: Chronic feelings of emptiness are associated with impulsivity, an unstable sense of self, and suicidal ideation or self-harm.
  • 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 and attempts to quit using can also produce feelings of emptiness. 

An empty bench at the seaside

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 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.

Case Examples of Emptiness

  • 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.

References:

  1. Bauman, S., & Waldo, M. (1998). Existential theory and mental health counseling: If it were a snake, it would have bitten! Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 20(1), 13-27. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/198779999?accountid=1229
  2. Peteet, J. R. (2011). Approaching emptiness: Subjective, objective and existential dimensions. Journal of Religion and Health, 50(3), 558-63. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10943-010-9443-7

 

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Last updated: 09-10-2014

     

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