By Christine Barker – LCPC, Amy Beth Acker – LCSW, CCTP, Emmily Weldon – LPCC, LMHC, Lori Russell-Siemer – LCSW, Laura Miller – LCSW, Regula Badertscher – MSW, LGSW, Kelly Fern – MA, LMFT, Amy Ziegenhorn – LMHC
“The heart of human excellence often begins to beat when you discover a pursuit that absorbs you, frees you, challenges you, or gives you a sense of meaning, joy, or passion.”
~ Terry Orlick
Have you ever felt empty?
Have you ever found yourself “spacing out,” not thinking about anything, not feeling anything, or having a sense of loss resulting in a void? I think most things are assessed on a spectrum, and most of us have felt a void of some sort, in some capacity, at times in our lives.
When I was asked to write about emptiness, I totally blanked, and came up EMPTY (pun intended)!
Without a trace of any thoughts or feelings, I was unable to connect, stuck in my own version of nothingness, as if I had nothing to offer on the subject.
What would help me get out of this emptiness?
I needed inspiration, motivation, something I could feel.
How could this be?
I am a therapist, who speaks about emptiness in my clients ALL THE TIME. (In a moment of “stuckness,” I decided to reach out to a fellow therapist and dive further into the many experiences of emptiness.
We were able to identify a range of experiences from a lack of feeling or empathy to a general numbness about life.
We recognized factors that might lead to emptiness, such as burnout, trauma, lack of self-care or self-nurturing, lack of purpose, or feelings of depression. This discussion helped me connect with my OWN emptiness in writing this article and recognize the potential range in causes of the feeling of emptiness.).
I couldn’t connect to the feeling of emptiness until I was asked to write about it.
This, I’m assuming, is because I have not thought about my own feelings in quite some time and am experiencing burnout. I am a group practice owner managing 12 people, looking to expand the business, and a constant stream of things happening. I work A LOT, to say the least, and haven’t made time to self-assess.
So when I was asked to stop and give something more, outside the scope of my normal work, I had nothing.
I felt the exact feeling that I was asked to write about! (How’s that for irony?). In order for me to write, I need to feel something, and have my words come from a real place.
All of these reflections got me thinking, maybe I should take a break, take a breath, take a bath, nurture myself, and see what comes.
So, I did just that, and the next morning, I noticed a presence of both thoughts and feelings. It made me realize that some people, like me, keep themselves so busy, that when they have down time, it feels completely empty.
When there is a lack of nurturance or care for ourselves, it is likely to result in emptiness.
In addition, not feeling connected to people or the world, a sense of having no purpose or no strong feelings about things, and more I’m sure, can all lead to a feeling of emptiness.
Have you ever felt emptiness? How do you feel it? What does that look like for you?
While discussing and reflecting on emptiness, a common theme appeared on how we have guided clients through emptiness.
Nurturing ourselves where there’s a lack of nurturing.
Our core of what we need comes from our childhood. This is where we learn to meet our basic needs. Food, shelter, safety and security.
Once these needs are met, our emotional development progresses to needing love and belonging. After that, self-esteem and self-actualization.
Identifying which of these needs you are missing help identify how to help fill your empty cup.
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “nurturing your inner child”. We all have an inner child, and they might need something. Sit quietly with yourself. Think about these things:
Where is my emptiness?
- How am I doing psychologically? Am I overwhelmed? Burned out? Bored? Sad? Scared? Angry?
- Am I taking care of my physical health? What is lacking? How is my eating and sleeping?
- Am I connecting with people in a healthy way? Do I feel socially satisfied?
- Do I feel a sense of purpose? What do I believe in? What is important to me spiritually?
- Am I satisfied in my work life? What is missing? What am I happy with? What do I need here that I am not getting?
These are questions to ask yourself to assess which “cups” you need to fill and identify where the emptiness may be coming from.
Identify where things seem to be lacking and make a list of things you can do to fill these cups that are empty.
If you are unsure and can’t seem to assess, go back to the basics, and think about a time you DIDN’T feel empty.
What was that like? What were you doing at that time? How was it different than now? What used to fulfill you? What gave you a sense of pride and purpose and feeling full?
Some ideas on how to help yourself combat emptiness:
- Reach out to get connection with someone
- Nurture your inner child, take them on a date! Do all the things that you need for yourself; eat your favorite foods, sleep in, journal, cry, love yourself, laugh with yourself, watch your favorite movie, etc…
- Find things that previously filled your cup, and spend time doing those things.
- Force a smile – science proves that smiling can create feelings of happiness even if they weren’t there before.
- Make a list of other things that create positive feelings in yourself, maybe that’s a movie that creates certain feelings, or music, or art. Find those things that excite you.
Be mindful when you have feelings that follow these activities.
Identify the feeling, allow it to consume you in order for you to fully feel it. Visualize your cup being filled a little (or a lot) and sit in that feeling of content. Allow it to be there, acknowledge it, and enjoy it.
Once I felt connection again, and feeling about what to write, with big thanks to my colleague who helped me connect and nurture myself with a bath and sleep, I smiled to myself and said “there it is, you got this”.
Just as these steps helped me to feel full again, I am hopeful they will do the same for you. YOU GOT THIS. Emptiness is temporary. You have the tools to fill your cup again.
Christine Barker, LCPC – www.innercouragecounselingllc.com
Emptiness feels like a portal to the chalk outline of a body.
I know I’m here, because I have a body, and here lies its outline or boundary. But there’s nothing inside. It’s void of content. It’s merely a shape.
There are times when emptiness feels more like being within an expanse of space.
It’s dark with an overwhelming sense of aloneness, and it’s completely void of anything definable or meaningful. Emptiness presents as a place of depletion and from that depleted state, even the mundane tasks of daily life can feel difficult.
When we are empty, we generally feel an overwhelm of various emotions.
At times, the emotions are so jumbled up, it can be difficult, if not impossible to discern one from another. As a protective mechanism, our brain can shut us down (emotionally), and we move into paralysis mode (or freeze of the FFF response), which overtime leads to depression. We feel numb, or void of feeling entirely.
In the high stress, high pressure, overstimulating environment of this digital age, it can be easy or become habit to feel this sense of emptiness.
The void. Nothing feels complete, interesting, or worthwhile. No amount of trying to fill the void with “stuff” works. Many people try and cope with emptiness through consumption. We consume food, we consume media, we consume fashion, information, conspiracies, self-help books, podcasts, drugs, alcohol, sex, etc.
We are full of “stuff” and yet, we feel empty within.
Inevitably, from this place of emptiness, we lose our ability to be in service to others, because we are consumed with self.
This alludes to the proposal that happiness and enrichment cannot be found in the external world.
It must be created, developed, cultivated, nurtured, and grown from within. Dennis Waitley, motivational speaker, says, “Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, won, or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace, and gratitude.”
Happiness feels like the opposition to emptiness.
When we are happy, we feel full. We feel satiated. We are confident and feel full of purpose. We have more energy and can utilize that energy to be in service to others. We can only help others from a place of first having helped ourselves (similar to the instructions given before an airline flight- we must first secure our own oxygen mask before we can assist those around us).
When we are full, we can freely pour forth more love, acceptance, and compassion to those around us. On the contrary, when we are empty, we have nothing to give or offer to anyone, including ourselves.
Curbing feelings of emptiness starts with filling ourselves through the art of nurture.
We can choose to be a whole image of a person (instead of a chalk outline.)
This involves knowing ourselves and understanding what brings us joy, what we appreciate, and what has the power to turn those frowns upside down!
This knowing or understanding comes from a place of spirituality, that deep expanse within, and is what helps to balance the mind, body, and spirit.
For each person, this will be a different process, because we are all unique.
- Is it listening to peaceful or inspirational music?
- Is it spending time in nature or taking a hike?
- Is it taking an Epsom salt bath and soaking?
- Is it meditation?
- Is it dancing?
- Is it creating art?
- Is it chanting a mantra?
- Is it writing in our journal?
- Is It cuddling with our pet?
- Is it creating a list of things we can feel grateful for?
- Is it writing a love letter to ourselves, focusing on the things we appreciate about ourselves?
- Is it connecting with the breath or practicing yoga to connect with the body?
- Is it dreaming?
- Is it creating something?
- Is it spending time with loved ones?
- Is it trying something new or accomplishing something?
Having a “go to” list for how to fill ourselves when we start to feel like we are running on empty can be very helpful.
It can also be helpful to lean on loved ones for support, especially when they offer! It’s ok to accept help. It’s ok to ask for help when life feels too overwhelming.
It can also be helpful to change our perceptions of those times we experience this void.
The void, while a place of hollow, can also present as a place of possibility.
If we perceive our experience of emptiness as place to refocus, re-center, and recharge, we can emerge full of creative energy and inspiration.
This void can become more like the womb and represent our ability to transform, and give birth to something: an idea, a new habit, a piece of art, a business, a partnership, a dream, etc.
With practice, we can learn to love ourselves, filling that void from within.
Lori Russell-Siemer, LCSW – www.lorirussellsiemer.com
Emptiness is one of those feelings that seems to be self-perpetuating, as most negative feelings are.
When we’re feeling unfulfilled, alone, and without purpose, our brains will seek out evidence to validate why we’re feeling this way. The more evidence we find, the worse we feel, and thus a vicious cycle is born.
The paradox with the feeling of emptiness, as well as every other negative feeling, is that the more we try to make it stop, the more power and energy we give to it.
Similarly, the more we convince ourselves that something is wrong with us when we feel this way and the more we convince ourselves that we’re alone in our pain, the stronger the feeling seems to become.
If you’re feeling empty, here are some things to consider:
Feeling Empty Sometimes is Normal
Empty is nothing more than a feeling. Feelings are sensations in our bodies that usually go along with thoughts in our heads that interpret those sensations.
For you, the feeling of emptiness may mean a tightness or tingling in your chest, a lump in your throat, a tension in your jaw, a heaviness on your shoulders, or a sense of unease in your gut.
Take a few moments to close your eyes and check in with yourself.
- Where is emptiness showing up for you in your body?
- Can you name and describe the sensations it brings with it?
These sensations are part of being human, and like all sensations and feelings, they are temporary. Remind yourself that nothing has necessarily gone wrong because you’re having these sensations in this moment.
You might just be having a very human feeling.
Get Comfortable With Uncomfortable Feelings
Once we’ve normalized the feeling and reminded ourselves that all feelings are human and universal, we can work on letting go of our resistance to these feelings.
For most of us, the default seems to be that when we’re in pain, we wind up compounding that pain and creating suffering when we scramble to erase the negative feeling and our truth or judge the feeling and ourselves for having it. Both of these default responses to our difficult feelings cause us shame and disconnection from our authentic selves.
When we remember that all feelings are a part of being human and that all feelings are temporary, we can stop putting so much force and energy into trying to make them go away.
How do we do this?
By becoming the watcher of our thoughts. Write down all the thoughts you’re having about the empty feeling. I would bet they’re not full of love and compassion. I would bet they’re instead full of judgment and shame.
Remember that thoughts are not facts.
Therefore, you get to decide if you want to keep thinking them. You get to decide if they serve you or if they’re coming from old scripts.
Allowing our feelings to exist without constant resistance to them happens when we challenge the thoughts we’re having about them.
I invite you to sit down with a journal and write down all the thoughts you’re thinking about the feeling of emptiness you’re having. Then pick the thought that feels the most sticky or resistant and challenge it with curiosity and compassion.
Our world seems to encourage us to constantly compare ourselves to others and inevitably judge ourselves as falling short. When we’re struggling with negative feelings, it’s easy to go to social media to take our minds off things, only to get stuck in a comparison trap.
We’ve all heard the warnings not to compare your reality to someone else’s highlight reel, and yet it’s an incredibly difficult habit to break. And once we’re looking it’s easy to assume the people with beautiful lives could never feel the way we do.
Our brains are constantly looking for evidence of what they already believe to be true.
This is called confirmation bias. Unless we consciously interrupt this pattern, we will find ourselves compounding the feeling of emptiness we already have and getting trapped in all the “shoulds.”
Stop looking at everyone else and judging yourself. Remember that no matter how good someone’s life looks from the outside, on the inside, we’re all human with human feelings.
Get Curious and Compassionate
When we let go of judgmental thoughts and just allow the empty feeling to be there, we can truly be present without feeling the need to escape.
I often advise my psychotherapy clients to visualize the part of themselves that’s feeling this way. What age is this part? What does she/he/they need? What is this part trying to tell you?
Asking these questions allows my clients to create some much-needed space between themselves and the intensity of the feeling.
I will often get a response like,
“That part of me is nine years old. It feels exactly the same way as I felt when my parents were getting divorced and they were so busy fighting, they completely ignored me. I remember sitting on my bed hearing my parents fight and no one checking on me for hours.”
Visualizing herself as a nine-year-old having the exact same feeling will allow the client to move from judgment to compassion.
I will then invite the client to imagine herself as an adult offering comfort to her younger self that was having that exact same feeling of emptiness.
I’ll ask her to picture herself walking into the bedroom where nine-year-old her is sitting alone and sit down on the bed with her, give her a hug, and acknowledge and validate her feelings.
Many clients have told me how profound this exercise can be and that has been my own experience as well.
When we become loving, safe, trusted caretakers of our own emotions, we find much more peace around them. Curiosity and compassion are the ways to develop a new relationship with the most vulnerable, hurting parts of ourselves.
Look at All the Ways You’re Full and Whole
I’ve written so far about how we can normalize the feelings we’re having, recognize our common humanity, get comfortable with our uncomfortable feelings, challenge thoughts that don’t serve us, stop comparing, and get curious and compassionate.
Once we’ve practiced these principles, we will often find that we’ve created some space and even a sense of peace around ourselves and our emotions. From here, we’re now able to use that space to connect with other parts of ourselves.
It can be helpful to remember that while a part of us feels empty, there are likely other parts that don’t feel that way at all.
Connect with the places within yourself that don’t feel empty. Which parts, no matter how small, feel full and whole?
This is where the science of gratitude comes in.
It’s important to remember that we don’t use gratitude to make our bad feelings go away, and we certainly don’t use it to shame ourselves about not appreciating the things we “should.”
Instead, we can use it to expand our awareness of ourselves and what’s true for us.
Is it possible to feel both empty AND full?
The places where we can allow more than one thing to exist within ourselves are the places where we have the most access to peace.
When we can remember that “empty” is something we sometimes feel, not who we are, we can find a greater sense of wholeness.
And in this sense of wholeness, we find ourselves.
Amy Beth Acker, LCSW, CCTP – www.amybethacker.com
Many clients come to therapy in hopes of gaining fulfillment and happiness in their lives.
They have felt a void and inner desolation while also lacking purpose and meaning in life. This can become difficult to overcome on your own and can be masked with the belief that you are missing things such as needing a partner, money, success, love/admiration from others, close friendships, a job, intimacy, etc..
However, when we dig deeper there is often more behind the emptiness.
Once you get that dream job you will feel whole; when you find the person who loves you, you will feel satisfied. Then when those moments come it doesn’t feel the way you thought it would; there still feels like there is something missing.
More often than not, it comes down to lacking in the relationship with yourself and/or believing that you don’t deserve to be happy (even subconsciously at times).
All of those surface level concerns are real and can be a part of the puzzle in finding purpose. However, you have to feel like you deserve happiness and joy in your life and allow it to be there without sabotaging it.
We need to be able to acknowledge the emptiness and in a gentle way.
Beating yourself up, dismissing, or trying to simply change these feelings isn’t usually very effective. The feeling of emptiness is most likely there because of something deeper and trying to explore and understand that can be really healing in trying to stop feeling empty. Self-exploration can be a helpful and healing tool which may take some experimentation to find what works.
To overcome the feeling of emptiness, there has to be a deeper understanding of where the feelings are coming from through exploration.
This can be best done in a therapeutic setting with someone who is trained to guide you through the experience.
If that doesn’t feel realistic or that feels like too big of a step for you right now, you can start on your own with journaling, meditating, or other processes to allow you to explore your thoughts and feelings.
You are doing this to get to know yourself and that means going DEEP not just looking at things on the surface or what you see right away. It can be uncomfortable and overwhelming to confront what may be hiding in the shadows.
Some questions to meditate on in those experiences can include:
- Have you been comparing yourself to others?
- Are you judging yourself?
- Do you only notice or pay attention to failures or limitations you are facing?
- Are you minimizing your feelings?
- Are you taking care of your overall wellbeing including your emotions, mental, and physical health?
- Are you focusing too much on the needs and wants of others?
- Are you blaming yourself for things that are out of your control?
- Are you treating yourself with the same kindness that you extend to others?
By trying to build your relationship with yourself, you can start to fill in parts of your life without needing anyone or anything else to fill that void for you.
Often, when there is a feeling of emptiness or void there is an attempt to fill that with other things which can lead to using alcohol, drugs, TV, social media, toxic relationships or anything else to ‘feel better,’ but that is often only a temporary fix or band aid to something that is much deeper rooted in your life.
You are your own unique person so try to find things that work for you not what works for everyone else.
Meditation might be helpful for one person, but not for another. Journaling, exercising, reading, cooking, it really depends on your unique interests. It may take some experimentation to find things that allow you to feel connected to yourself.
Once you know the source of some of these feelings, you can start to dismantle and overcome some of these feelings.
Again, this is best done with a trained professional who can assist in this process and allow you to find ways to challenge and reframe some of these thoughts and feelings holding you back.
They can assist in finding what works the best for you and provide perspectives as well as tools and techniques to work through and confront what is contributing to the void and emptiness that you feel.
Emmily Weldon, LPCC, LMHC – www.mindfulsolutionscorp.com
Now more than ever it seems like people are finding it harder to feel connected and fulfilled. We live in strange times and that definitely has an impact. We have all been living in some variation of quarantine for the bulk of this year. Kids are not in school and people are working from home in numbers never seen before.
The good news is we have technology to keep connected. The thing is, for many people, the inclination has been to withdraw instead of reach out.
People are feeling isolated and alone and this in turn impacts feeling fulfilled or like we have a purpose, and can result in feeling…empty.
We need to fill our buckets.
But how? How do we combat those feelings? How do we take care of ourselves, as largely social animals, in the face of so much isolation? How do we fill our buckets? That is the quandary.
It is easy to say reach out. Or start a hobby. Or volunteer. We all know on some level that to feel differently, we have to change something. It is harder to do that and feel it is meaningful. There is more to it than that.
In my opinion, there are different aspects that have to be addressed. A person’s internal life as well as their external life.
That internal life includes attending to the feelings, sensations, and thoughts that come through. Often, we can find ourselves so lost in the clutter of our lives or our community or the world at large that we lose track of what’s happening in our bodies. Spend time each day attending.
Sit with yourself and listen to your body.
- Where are your aches and pains? What eases them?
- What are the sensations you feel?
- When you let your mind wander, listening to your internal works, what occurs to you?
- What comes to the forefront?
- Is this something you can use to increase your satisfaction and fill that emptiness?
If sitting quietly and attending is difficult (and it certainly is sometimes) then selecting a meditation app to install on your phone can help.
There are a large number of free or paid apps that can provide a framework for internal exploration. You get to select the purpose and then sit back and listen and follow along. That can be a softer way into building your ability to attend to your inner self.
Another way to get in touch with our inner self is to write.
Or record yourself talking. Or use a talk to text app. Do some stream of consciousness work to see where that leads. This can get you more in touch with your wants and needs which in turn helps you identify a direction.
One last place to check in regarding your inner life is your self-talk.
We all have an internal monologue that just runs through our heads all day long. Sometimes we are aware of it, often we are not. It is just always there. For many people, this patter is particularly negative.
If you are struggling with feeling empty, maybe spend some time really listening to the messages that you give to yourself.
So much of our internal monologue is automatic and was created so long ago, that it is like a warm blanket. It is comforting and it all feels true (though it is often hypercritical).
When we are critical of ourselves, that often takes the form of really mean or demeaning things.
If you find that this applies to you, the first step to changing it is to be aware. Recognizing it and giving yourself grace.
Allowing that sometimes things don’t work out or go as planned but that you are able to live through it. You are able to be ok on the other side. That you are ok.
That internal monologue can change, and it can get easier to soften it, but it takes time and effort to allow that you don’t deserve the mean things you are saying to yourself. (Would you say them out loud to someone else? This is a good measure).
The other side of this is your external world.
The part of you that touches your family, friends, and community. Right now, contact is limited. We are being told to cancel holiday plans. With all the things we have lost this year, this is just one more. But particularly around the holidays, people can struggle and with the world turned upside down, that is going to be extra true this year.
So as we rocket into our non-holiday times, finding ways to fulfill expectations and our need for contact differently this year becomes a mission.
Reach out to people who make you laugh. And seek ways to connect through technology.
Take some of the things you discover during your meditations and writing and put them into action.
This may take some thinking because we have so many restrictions right now, but allow your creative side to come into play. Seek the challenge of overcoming the obstacles to meet your needs in alternate ways.
So in the end, I believe that the answers lie with each of us for what will fill the emptiness and bring us satisfaction and fulfillment.
I believe that each of us has the ability to find those answers and that they are going to come in a combination from internal exploration and connecting with the outside world. You have the power to do this. You can fill your own bucket.
Amy Ziegenhorn, LMHC – www.amyztherapyservices.com
How do you react when someone asks How are you? It’s easy to respond on autopilot with I’m fine. But that’s now always the truth, is it?
Try checking in the mirror while asking yourself How are you?
What happens if you’re totally honest? Sometimes the answer might be empty or I don’t really know. You’re not really sad or happy. Just kind of feeling numb or hollow — empty.
Feeling empty can be pretty darn uncomfortable.
The first reaction to this nagging discomfort is usually What’s wrong with me? Or you might just grab for some food, a drink, or activity in hopes of getting filled up.
But wait a minute. Is feeling empty all that bad?
In fact, what does empty even feel like?
One way to find out is to hang out with this feeling for a time and get to know it.
When you feel this hollowness or emptiness, it’s obviously trying to get your attention. There are ways you can give this feeling the kind of attention that will get you to the heart of the matter and lead you to feeling more alive and at ease again.
A good place to start is with your body.
Check in and notice where in your body this empty feeling is located. It might help if you close your eyes first and take a deep breath. Just noticing that change in your breath will help move your attention from your thoughts into your body.
Now that you’re settled in and ready to explore your feeling of emptiness, begin to scan your body to find the place where this feeling is most apparent to you.
Be curious, looking for any subtle sign of that numb or empty feeling in your body. Is there perhaps a hollowness in your stomach? Maybe your feet or legs are feeling kind of ungrounded. Is your jaw sagging? Your chest a little sunken? Take your time. It may take a few minutes for you to notice anything.
Once you become aware of the physical sensation of emptiness, how is your experience of that?
Can you just let yourself feel empty, without trying to change it? Stay with it as best you can, even if it feels uncomfortable (it probably will). Is anything shifting on its own? Is the emptiness still there? Does this part of your body feel like moving in some way?
Your body might be giving you some clues about what you are genuinely hungry for.
Balance? Stability? Freedom? Sense of direction? Comfort?
Place a hand (or both hands) on the area of the body where you experience these sensations.
Spend a few moments touching this area with curiosity and compassion. Notice that your body is actually quite substantial. You really are there. Not exactly empty! There is definitely a you there. What happens if you press on the area you are noticing? What happens if you stroke it? Consider moving it in the way it wants to move.
Stroking your body can be a wonderful way to help you reduce the feeling of emptiness.
You can stroke the area where you experience emptiness again and again, letting the feeling of being touched remind you that you are quite naturally full of life. Or you can start with stroking your legs gently and slowly, and move up your body, stroking yourself all the way up to your face.
As you do, see if you notice yourself feeling calmer, more peaceful. Satisfied. Full. At ease.
Emptiness is uncomfortable, but it is also a very normal condition.
If you explore its presence in your body with compassionate, curious attention, you may find that you just naturally fill yourself up.
Regula Badertscher, MSW, LGSW – www.regulabadertscher.com
With this past year bringing so many unexpected plot twists and resulting disruptions in our “normal” routines, many of us are finding ourselves feeling depleted and empty.
While some of us feel compelled to search from within to renew a sense of purpose and fulfillment (and are not incorrect to do so!), another way to beat the emptiness inside of us is to look out beyond ourselves.
Dr. Caroline Leaf, a neuropsychologist, writes in her book Switch on Your Brain, that one way we repair our hurting brains is to refocus on someone or something else and help them.
Here are two practical steps that you can take to begin this journey to reestablishing feelings of fulfillment in your life:
1. Rekindle an old passion or try something new.
Was there a social issue or a particular group that you have enjoyed participating in or campaigning for in the past?
If not, now is a great time to get plugged in and connect to learn more and cultivate a new passion!
Do you love animals? Consider becoming an animal foster parent or volunteering at your local animal shelter.
Do you want to help the homeless? Try volunteering at a local charity that serves this population or even make some direct contacts on your own or with a small group by distributing small goodie bags to homeless persons in your area.
As we become part of something much bigger than ourselves and fill up others, we end up inadvertently filling up our own tanks.
Volunteerism within a cause that you truly care about grows positive, passionate feelings that spill over into other areas of your life.
2. Be an active listener.
So often we become so focused on our own challenges that we stop really listening to the struggle of others. However, shifting our focus often shifts our mindset and helps us heal (Yes, thinking about others can actually help our own brains heal when we’re hurting!).
While you may be tempted to one up a complaining friend or even just plain commiserate, try instead to respond by restating what you’re hearing him or her express.
For example, as a friend is talking about her recent job loss and resulting financial stress, you can reply with, “I hear that you’re really stressed about how you’re going to pay your bills next month.”
When we actively listen instead of quickly sharing our own struggles or carelessly giving unsolicited advice, we are letting our loved ones know that their message has been received clearly.
As they feel heard, we can benefit from knowing that we were able to help just by being fully present…which helps us to connect more deeply in relationships.
Keep in mind that filling up an empty tank is not a singular event.
Imagine how far you’d travel if you only filled up your car’s tank every once in a while! Congratulate yourself for taking small, measurable steps, and consider asking a close friend or family member to join you in some of your efforts if you’re not ready to forge new paths alone.
As we grow and improve our connections with others, we will in turn grow ourselves.
Laura Miller, LCSW – www.millerfamilytherapyinc.com
What is lonely emptiness?
Sylvia Plath knew about lonely emptiness. She writes, “I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.”
Lonely emptiness can come from lacking passion or direction. It can result from being disconnected, isolated, or feeling that you are misunderstood and don’t fit in.
Generally, it is about lacking meaningful connections with others.
Most people experience lonely emptiness at some point in their lives. It has many names. Some call it melancholy or depression. Some call it the blues or dysphoria. And it has many faces. Some describe it as a kind of numbness that fills the body. Others tell of a dull weakness, like feeling you’re moving through molasses.
For others, it may manifest as a dearth of interest and drive accompanied by feeling alone.
It can be intense or mild; episodic or chronic. It can include agonizing feelings with self-injurious thinking, and sometimes it can involve counterproductive behaviors, such as cutting and substance abuse.
How is lonely emptiness related to traumatic experiences?
Trauma can impact the way our minds make sense of the world, and we are beginning to understand now that trauma changes the way our nervous systems react to cues from our surroundings.
Trauma impacts individuals differently, but–generally speaking–reactions to trauma share common characteristics.
Lack of self-esteem, shame, a generalized sense of feeling unsafe, sleep issues, difficulty connecting in healthy relationships. Some trauma symptoms result in acting out. Others result in us shutting down.
We create all sorts of clever cognitive and behavioral ways to circumnavigate or survive traumas.
Because these ways help us to survive, we often cling to them. But contexts change, and the constructs that served us before no longer work. As a matter of fact, they often work against us!
Lonely emptiness is often a result of trauma.
Different kinds of trauma.
- The worst type of trauma is neglect because it leaves a gaping hole. It’s harder to articulate, to explain, or to make sense of. It often makes us feel unreal. There are no scars to show, only emptiness.
- Acute Trauma, sometimes known as Shock Trauma, is a single stressful event that is experienced as out of control, dangerous, or extremely stressful. Car accidents can result in trauma symptoms, natural disasters, and deaths of loved ones. Physical abuse can be experienced as trauma. Sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and bullying are traumas.
- Developmental Trauma is trauma that happens during our developmental years, which tends to drive the impact deeper, unfortunately, because children don’t have the psychological and physical girth to stand up to traumatic events or circumstances.
Complex Trauma has several definitions.
It can happen when someone experiences multiple traumas over time, and it is also when someone is stuck in a hopeless-helpless situation over an extended period. (Abuse is not always obvious.)
What can be done to address trauma-based lonely emptiness?
1. Break Silence and Isolation.
Lonely emptiness doesn’t survive well without its two malevolent companions: silence and isolation. Find another human being–often a professional listener–to help you break silence and end isolation. Then you’ll begin to understand that almost everyone feels the same way you do at times, and you can begin to make the connections that will help you heal.
2. Get off the social media apps.
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and others are designed to pull you down into the rabbit hole of more and more screen time. Many of us are growing addicted to the dopamine hits we receive from the stream of fleeting connections. These virtual relationships can never replace human interaction and physical activity.
3. Find a therapist.
Trauma-based lonely emptiness can be a very tangled ball of twine. Most people need help sorting things out. Find a therapist who knows how to help with depression, anxiety, and trauma.
What will a therapist help me do?
Our emotions, our thinking, and our bodily sensations are energies flowing through us. Lonely emptiness is a sign that energy has been blocked somewhere inside, and trauma is often the culprit.
Just as stagnant water can putrefy, so can the energies that run through your body and mind.
Just as pressure can build up behind a dam, your emotional energies can build pressure. A therapist will help get the energies flowing again.
Past trauma can cause you to perceive danger where none exists.
Trauma survivors often keep themselves guarded and tense because they are unaware of how their bodies react to stress. Some combination of flight, fight, or shutdown is the default mode. I work with clients to help them understand and to become aware of how trauma has impacted them. I use Somatic Experiencing to help clients reprogram their bodies and learn to self-regulate and heal.
Kelly Fern, MA, LMFT – www.kellyfern.net