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 other mental health concerns, such as depression, anhedonia, or schizophrenia.
Emptiness can also be experienced as an aspect of bereavement following the death of a loved one. An individual who experiences consistent and severe feelings of emptiness may find it helpful to speak to a therapist, especially when it becomes difficult to focus on other aspects of life.
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 one feeling empty in the absence of a person who may have provided purpose and structure to 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, during the years he spent in Nazi concentration camps. As a result, he developed his own form of therapy to help people find meaning in every aspect of life, naming it logotherapy, which comes from the Greek word logos (meaning).
Emptiness can leave a person feeling emotionally numb, despondent, isolated, and anxious. Some describe the experience as an empty feeling in their chest. 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 the use of substances. Unfortunately, our consumer culture often capitalizes on feelings like emptiness, promising fulfillment with this or that product.
A person might instead attempt to combat emotional emptiness and give new meaning to life by volunteering, taking up a hobby, adopting a pet, cultivating or maintaining a spiritual practice, or other activities that may prove more emotionally fulfilling.
A few conditions list emptiness as a symptom, and some conditions in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) list emptiness as a criterion for diagnosis:
- Depression: A sense of emptiness is related to feelings of hopelessness, loss of pleasure, low self-worth, and low motivation.
- Borderline personality (BPD): Chronic feelings of emptiness are associated with impulsivity, an unstable sense of self, hopelessness, loneliness, and suicidal ideation. In BPD, feelings of emptiness are less associated with boredom.
- Schizotypal personality (STPD): Feelings of emptiness, stemming from feeling like life lacks meaning, may cause people with schizotypal personality to compensate by acting impulsively.
- 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 or attempts to quit using can also produce feelings of emptiness.
Emptiness may also occur on its own and could even trigger a mental health issue. People who feel concerned about overwhelming feelings of emptiness, whether they occur on their own or as a symptom, should consult a licensed mental health professional.
It’s not uncommon for people to report feeling empty in intimate relationships. This emptiness may stem from different causes and can appear in short or long-term relationships. Experiencing phases of feeling empty or disconnected can also be normal in a long-term relationship or marriage, but if the feelings persist, it may be a sign there are issues that need to be addressed.
A few causes of feeling empty in a relationship include:
- Over-dependence on partner to meet all emotional needs
- Emotional needs not getting met in the relationship
- Lack of emotional connection, quality time, or physical connection
- Stress or pressure from outside circumstances, such as a new job or moving, on the relationship
- Communication issues
- Mental health issues that affect one partner
Feeling empty is not always reason to end a relationship, although it can be. When feelings of emptiness are a symptom of incompatibility or abuse, it may be time to consider moving on. However, when emptiness comes from miscommunication or misunderstanding, a couples counselor may help you and your partner learn communication skills and discover more about your partners needs in the relationship.
Individual therapy may also help people whose feelings of emptiness are interfering with their relationship, particularly when those feelings stem from an unresolved mental health issue such as depression or borderline personality.
The concept of emptiness is also associated with several philosophical and spiritual traditions, though its meaning in each of these contexts differs from the potentially 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 it is 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, can help people find their inner wisdom and achieve a sense of meaning.
- Feelings of emptiness. (n.d.). Out of the FOG. Retrieved from http://outofthefog.net/CommonBehaviors/FeelingsOfEmptiness.html
- Klonsky, E. D. (2008). What is emptiness? Clarifying the 7th criterion for borderline personality disorder. Journal of Personality Disorders, 22(4), 418-426. doi: 10.1521/pedi.2008.22.4.418
- Peteet, J. R. (2011). Approaching emptiness: Subjective, objective and existential dimensions. Journal of Religion and Health, 50(3), 558-63. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10943-010-9443-7
- Schizotypal personality disorder: DSM criteria for schizotypal personality disorder (STPD). (n.d.). Out of the FOG. Retrieved from https://outofthefog.website/personality-disorders-1/2015/12/6/schizotypal-personality-disorder-stpd
- Zandersen, M., & Parnas, J. (2019). Identity disturbance, feelings of emptiness, and the boundaries of the schizophrenia spectrum. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 45(1), 106-113. doi: 10.1093/schbul/sbx183