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 a kind of emptiness 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. 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 capitalizes on feelings like emptiness, promising fulfillment with this or that product. A person might instead attempt to combat feelings of 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.
There are three conditions in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) that list emptiness as a criterion for diagnosis:
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- 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 or attempts to quit using can also produce feelings of emptiness.
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 can be intolerable, and they can have the unfortunate effect of leading people to believe that there is nothing in their life to hope for, that nothing will ever make the emptiness go away. But therapy can help with feelings of emptiness, whether the feelings are caused by a diagnosable condition or not. A therapist can do several things to help a person move past these feelings, such as:
- Determine if the feelings are caused by a treatable disorder such as depression and if they are not, help an individual discover the reason for these feelings.
- Empower an individual to find and implement strategies to cope with emptiness.
- Help an individual master the skills needed to move past behaviors that contribute to emptiness and find ways to stop negative thought processes.
- Help an individual find ways to navigate interpersonal conflicts leading to feelings of emptiness.
- Act as a supportive conversational partner who can help an individual better understand personal needs.
- 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.
- 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
- Feelings of emptiness. (n.d.). Out of the FOG. Retrieved from http://outofthefog.net/CommonBehaviors/FeelingsOfEmptiness.html.
- 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