It’s like I have no emotions. I’m numb a lot of the time.
Something is missing in me.
I have no idea how I feel about anything.
Sometimes my chest feels hollow.
I feel empty inside.
What might seem like five unrelated statements is actually five different people describing the same feeling. Everyone says it differently because there is no standard word for it. But for these five people, and thousands more, it is the same feeling, caused by the same problem.
The one word that sums it up best:
Of all the different emotions that a person can have, Empty is one of the most uncomfortable. To feel Empty is to feel incomplete. It’s a feeling of something absent or missing inside of you, of being different, set apart, alone, lacking, numb.
This is a feeling that can drive people to do a myriad of unhealthy things, like overeat, overdrink, over-shop, or even use drugs. This is a feeling which gradually, quietly erodes a person’s joy, energy and confidence. It flies under the radar, and carries with it a tremendous power to degrade your quality of life.
Just as every feeling we have tells us something about ourselves, so also does empty. It tells us that we are missing something vital in ourselves. Something that is required for happiness and fulfillment. Is it something different for every person? I don’t think so. What’s missing is the same for all who feel empty. What’s missing is:
From talking with scores of people who have this feeling of emptiness, I have been able to identify what I believe is its cause. It’s a childhood experience which each has lived, but few are able to remember. It’s Childhood Emotional Neglect. Each of these people grew up in a home in which his emotions were not accepted, responded to or validated enough.
Our emotions are hard-wired into us. They are the most deeply personal, biological part of who we are. When you are raised by parents who ignore, invalidate or fail to respond to your emotions, you learn quickly to do that for yourself. It is not a child’s conscious choice. It is an invisible message with invisible power. The adaptive child automatically adapts. He ignores, invalidates, and fails to respond to his own feelings.
So as an adult, when you feel empty, what is missing in you is the same ingredient that was missing in your childhood: acceptance, responsiveness, and validation of your emotions. But now, in adulthood, it is not from your parents that you need this acceptance. It is from yourself.
“But I do have emotions,” you may be saying to me right now. “So why do I still feel empty?”
Picture a wall inside yourself. On one side of that wall is your feelings, and on the other side is you. Your feelings exist, and they are real. Sometimes one breaks through the wall and you feel it. But the wall is still there.
Signs That You Have Emptiness
If you feel that this article applies to you, please know this: Yes, something is missing. Yes, it is vital. You are not needy, and you are not numb. You are not different, and you are not alone. Everything that you need to fill yourself is already there inside of you. Waiting for you to open your eyes, break down the wall, and see.
The fuel of life is feeling. If we are not filled up in childhood, we must fill ourselves as adults. Otherwise we will find ourselves running on empty.
I will be writing about the process of filling yourself in future posts. Also, feel free to read Running on Empty for more information about how to go about it.
Jonice Webb has a PhD in clinical psychology, and is author of the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. Webb has been licensed to practice since 1991. She has been interviewed on NPR and over thirty radio shows across the United States and Canada about the topic of her book, and has been quoted as a psychologist expert in the Chicago Tribune. Prior to joining PsychCentral, she was the Mental Health Editor for BellaOnline, the second largest women's website in the world. She currently has a private psychotherapy practice in Lexington, MA, where she specializes in the treatment of couples and families. Webb currently resides in the Boston area with her husband and two children. To read more about Dr. Webb, her book and Childhood Emotional Neglect, you can visit her website, Emotionalneglect.com; or view her short videos on YouTube.Like this author?