Why Do I Feel Like Something Is Missing in Me?

Sad Memories“It’s taken me a long time to get here,” Jessica lamented in her first session. “I don’t know what my problem is. I just feel unhappy. Something is missing in my life, but I don’t know what I want or what it could be. I’m a 46-year-old married woman. My marriage to Peter is fine and I like my job as a speech therapist well enough. I feel boring and bored and maybe have more anxiety than I should. What do you think is wrong?”

Jessica’s statement at the start of therapy began our quest to understand Jessica’s sense of emptiness. In our sessions, her talk was tinged with melancholy. Jessica said that when she looked in the mirror she saw “a not very attractive, aging, unsatisfied woman who feels empty.” Apart from Jessica’s sad demeanor, she brought urgency to the sessions with her intense desire to find out “what is wrong with me?”

Jessica grew up in a suburb of a large city as the younger of two daughters. Her parents divorced when she was 9 years old. Her father quickly remarried and had a child with his new wife. Jessica had vivid memories: “I was crying and my father was hugging me. He said he was moving out because he and my mother had too many problems to stay together.” A tearful Jessica continued: “I remember thinking, ‘How can he leave me?’ I couldn’t stop crying and ran to my room.”

Jessica and her sister saw her father weekly for a little more than a year, but when he became involved with his wife to be, their visits became less frequent. She recalled, “It was never the same after he left. I never saw him alone and I couldn’t hold onto the feeling that I was special to him. I lost that when I lost him.”

Jessica tried in our sessions to recapture what growing up was like. She wondered if she had been sad even before her father left: “I think I’ve always been sad. Maybe our whole household was sad. My mother was not an energetic or happy person. She often seemed far away. I think she was depressed after my father left and she definitely became more anxious. I was always anxious, too. My sister, who is five years older than me, always did her own thing. But I was very attached to my mother. I felt a strong need for her, and it must have gotten more intense after my father left. She wasn’t very affectionate, and I was very clingy. I remember we used to play cards a lot and we’d go shopping together. I wanted to be around her. I didn’t have a lot of friends. When I went to high school, I started to make friends, but I was always nervous around them. I felt different and not part of the group, so I didn’t do as much at school or with them as I now wish I had.”

When Jessica left home for college, she became somewhat more engaged with the world. She had her first date at the end of her freshman year and dated occasionally throughout college. For the most part, she focused on her education. The college and graduate school Jessica chose was two hours away from home. She spent most weekends and school vacations home alone with her mother (her sister had married and moved to California).

Jessica recalled her conflicted feelings about going home: “I missed my mother when I was away at school, but I don’t know what I missed, exactly. Going home was pretty boring. My mother wasn’t very interested in what I was doing. Whenever I was excited to tell her about my classes or my patients when I was in grad school, she seemed to change the subject. I don’t know what it was, but being around her made me anxious about school and dating and I guess about most everything. Still, after grad school I moved back near my mother and got a job as a speech therapist. When I think about it now, I don’t get why I went home. I think I felt my mother wanted something from me, but I don’t know what.”

I asked Jessica to talk more about her experience with her mother.

“It’s hard to describe,” she said. “I felt so ambivalent about her. I loved her desperately but always felt something was missing in our connection. I wanted her to tell me I was terrific, to give me the feeling she was interested in me and my life. I wanted to feel like she took pleasure in what I did and who I was, but she never did. If anything, I made her feel good. I felt she needed me, but I didn’t know what she needed me for. She was very sensitive, and I was very anxious around her. It didn’t take much for me to feel I had hurt her. She seemed like a pretty lonely person. I think I felt I was supposed to do something to make her life better. She seemed to like it when I was around, but she never seemed to want me very close to her. It was confusing because I also needed to be with her, but it never made sense to me that I felt that way.”

Jessica was beginning to recognize that her mother was limited and couldn’t provide her with feelings of being special that she desperately needed and longed for. Jessica also began to appreciate the consequences of her strong feelings that she would hurt her mother by being special or fulfilled.

Tears started to flow: “You know, she died too young. She developed heart problems and became very sick when I was 32. After that, I spoke to her every day and visited as much as I could, even if I didn’t want to. All my energy was focused on her. She was very depressed, and I was very careful not to make her feel worse by telling her anything that was good in my life.”

Jessica’s mother was ill for four years and died when Jessica was 36, 10 years before she came to see me. During her illness, Jessica’s mother was a constant companion in Jessica’s mind.

“I got more anxious and very depressed,” Jessica recalled. “My mother was dying, and I felt totally helpless. I was so worried that I would say or do something that would upset her. I was preoccupied with thoughts about what I should be doing for her and what she would think about my life. Sometimes I still catch myself wondering what she would think about me. I’m very sad that she never got to meet Peter or know that I married. But sometimes I think marrying Peter was a betrayal of my mother. She never felt very good about herself. How would she feel if my life went well? I think it would hurt her. She might think I was arrogant if I said I had a good life or expressed excitement about my accomplishments. I’d feel like I was being mean to her.”

Even now, after the death of her mother, Jessica still expresses a strong need for her mother: “Since my mother died, she is in my head more than ever. I find myself wondering what she would think about everything: would she like something I bought or would she be OK with my coming here?”

“What kind of response would you want from your mother now?” I asked.

Jessica began to sob: “I wish she would give me a big smile and look really delighted with me. I don’t think I ever got that from her.”

As we continued to explore Jessica’s relationship with her mother, it became clearer that her mother had been unable to provide Jessica with the basics for developing positive self-feelings and a sense of being valued, admired, and recognized. Jessica’s mother couldn’t mirror Jessica’s excitement, enthusiasm, and good self-feelings back to her. Consequently, Jessica infrequently experienced these feelings as part of herself. This left a space inside Jessica, which I believed was what Jessica described as “something missing.” Growing up, Jessica did not know that her need and longing for her mother was her effort to find her missing good and valuable self in her mother’s experience of her.

Jessica was beginning to recognize that her mother was limited and couldn’t provide her with feelings of being special that she desperately needed and longed for. Jessica also began to appreciate the consequences of her strong feelings that she would hurt her mother by being special or fulfilled. We spent many sessions talking about all the ways Jessica had held herself back in her life. She became aware of how her relationship to her mother governed her choices and kept her trapped in patterns of behavior, thought, and feeling that interfered with her ability to enjoy life, engage with people, and ultimately feel self-confident and pleased with herself and her life. She began to understand how, unconsciously, she had lived her life to assure that if her mother contrasted her life to Jessica’s, she wouldn’t feel threatened by finding too much “good stuff” in Jessica’s life. Jessica wondered if she was only able to find a partner and marry after her mother’s death.

Jessica and I worked hard exploring her attachment to her mother. Now she has emotional knowledge (knowledge with feelings attached, not just thoughts) about that connection. She knows she connected to her mother by becoming like her: she internalized her mother’s sadness and duplicated the absence of her mother’s good internalized self-feelings. She knows that her sadness about her missing good self-parts was a kind of mourning for the absence of a nurturing mother and the good feelings she was never able to obtain from her.

Now Jessica is freeing herself from protecting her mother. Now she can be there for herself. She can nurture her missing parts and change her internal world. She will be able to own a new sense of self-confidence and self-esteem and follow her own wishes, get her needs met, and feel special.

Note: To protect privacy, names in the preceding article have been changed and the dialogues described are a composite.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Beverly Amsel, PhD, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 18 comments
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  • Alexa

    Alexa

    June 2nd, 2015 at 10:31 AM

    I am so happy to read this story about your patient, but I am sad that she has lived her life for this long and only now understands that there is something out there that is better than how she has always lived. I have often wondered what it must feel like to grow up always feeling like you don’t measure up to another’s expectations and I think that this story highlights that perfectly. Even when the two did become closer it was because of an illness so there was always something that was there between them. I wish her all the best- she has had a difficult life and deserves to feel the sunshine on her face!

  • Paulette

    Paulette

    June 2nd, 2015 at 1:25 PM

    I can only speak for myself but the biggest mistake I ever made was to look for someone to fill me with what I needed instead of figuring out on my own what I needed to provide myself.

  • Honey fawn

    Honey fawn

    June 3rd, 2015 at 10:57 AM

    This is exactly what i am working on …but my mother abused me badly and was mentally ill. This has put some pieces together for me. My father ignored me. But this is a great read and insightful.

  • Tess

    Tess

    June 3rd, 2015 at 2:19 PM

    How do you know that there is something that is missing? And what if there is? How can you find a way to be fine with that and understand that this is just who you are, nothing more and nothing less, and that this is fine too.

  • Emptiness

    Emptiness

    June 3rd, 2015 at 3:16 PM

    I can relate somewhat. My mom was there for me in girl guides ect but I felt a disconnect emotionally. I hated when my parents went away but couldn’t wait to get away from them at the same time. I always hear their voices in my head as I live my life the way I want and not the way they want. In therapy but haven’t been able to have a good cry yet. Was on the verge once but haven’t been able to get back there. I have been talking a lot on 7 cups of tea so by the time I go back to therapy I don’t feel as bad as I do when I’m alone sometimes. I want to belong to someone but still focused on myself since I have lived on my own for so long with a 12 yr old son. Not sure whether therapy is working anymore. But I’ve been told not to give up as it takes time. So hoping I can share my recent journal entry next week. I’m ashamed of some of the things I’ve done and by not talking about it, it helps to keep the pain covered

  • rita

    rita

    June 5th, 2015 at 1:54 PM

    MY mom and I had such a wonderful and close relationship, and still do, and while I am so sympathetic to the issues that other people have with their parents it is hard for me to even imagine having those same problems because we have always been able to be so close.
    I can’t imagine the pain that a parent must feel to know that the feelings that they withheld from their own kids could cause them to have so much pain later on.

  • bets

    bets

    June 9th, 2015 at 1:23 PM

    There could be something missing
    and that’s okay
    as long as you are ready and willing to do the soul searching and find what that missing element is
    no one can discover that for you
    that is going to be through hard work on your own, maybe with the help of a friend or therapist

  • Micky S.

    Micky S.

    February 20th, 2016 at 11:16 AM

    I can surely relate this story with mine….i have always been a good child and have always been respected by mates and colleagues but the respect and appreciation that us expected from the family has been missing since childhood….I think I know what I am missing but I don’t know how to move over it…it is a task but I would surely get over it

  • jcoria

    jcoria

    July 12th, 2016 at 10:57 PM

    I just turnd 20 July 8 2016 suffering from Bad Anxiety/sweating/slight Depression/coming from domestic relationship I have a 2yr old I feel all I need is to talk to god sometimes but wat about after ,I swear I just need a therapist and I’m seeking one Thank god for my son I don’t no where id b The main reason I’m here to comment as I speak.Pray for me.as I pray bac

  • Alex

    Alex

    July 22nd, 2016 at 3:59 PM

    Yes but where do you start to start loving yourself and “freeing” yourself.

  • Andrew B

    Andrew B

    August 15th, 2016 at 8:40 AM

    I had a bit of a cry reading this. I just want to unite Jessica and her mother and for both to be at peace and happy with one another.

  • Notsure

    Notsure

    August 26th, 2016 at 11:14 PM

    I’m 17 years old, I have emotional disregulation and things are hard for me with family. I’ve always been shy socailly and also really low in self-esteem after being bullied in primary school. I have many more friends now but I dont feel that Im very close with any of them. I have an older sister who is very tough and insesitive so she often hurts my feelings, and my mum blames my reactions on my mental health. Though when things are good when we get along, my mum and sister are my best friends, when I’m upset like I am now I just want to leave and never see them again. I know I couldnt do it though because I love them. My mum tries so hard to support me but all the problems I have with my sister which she gets involved in make it hard to trust and confide in her. I also feel like there’s something I need in mylife that I don’t have. I really want a pet, but I’m not allowed one. I always feel so ugly and untalented, and I get jealous of all my friends who are sosocial beautiful and good at things. Idon’t really consider math a talent.
    I feel so lost right now and I don’t know what to do. My psychiatrist helps with the emotional disregulation but I feel like the other things that I feel when I’m upset have to be hidden. And when I feel okay those things are forgotten.
    Even on good days I notice symptoms that appear when things aren’t so good, so I wonder if I will ever be happy and content in my life. And I don’t think anyone can help me except me, but I can’t while I’m living with my mum and sister because I feel like they think I can’t know what’s best for me.

  • Amy

    Amy

    March 1st, 2017 at 7:49 AM

    Me and Jess should have been best mates

  • Ann

    Ann

    March 21st, 2017 at 7:12 PM

    I’m glad I’m not along I didn’t have a relationship with my mom I was always told I was a bastard . I’m 55 now and empty I know my life can be better but im in a strange stuck mood. Thanks for all this .

  • Sue

    Sue

    March 28th, 2017 at 10:48 PM

    I read a book recently and it answered so many questions. It may not be about you so read
    The book is “it didnt start with you, inherited family trauma” Mark Wolynn

  • Ann

    Ann

    March 29th, 2017 at 5:57 PM

    Good description on getting to the root issue. What is the descriptive path to healing?

  • benz

    benz

    February 19th, 2018 at 2:29 PM

    Excellent post. I used to be checking continuously this blog and
    I am impressed! Very useful info specially the final part :) I deal
    with such information a lot. I was seeking this certain information for a long time.
    Thank you and best of luck.

  • Alma

    Alma

    May 22nd, 2018 at 12:43 AM

    Thank you for this article! It makes a lot of sense and it’s very helpful! Saved me from lots of confusion!

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