Traditionally it is believed that the feelings of emptiness are unique to those who suffer from mental disorders such as depression. However, the truth is that it is a mental condition that we can all suffer from and can become chronic if we do not pay attention to it.
A team of psychologists from the University College London, decided to deepen these feelings of emptiness and found that are much more widespread than is socially recognized. Perhaps out of fear of being stigmatized or due to the lack of habit of talking about our emotional states, the truth is that many people carry these feelings of emptiness and loneliness alone.
Therefore, anyone can experience feelings of emptiness, regardless of their mental health history. It is a complex experience whose ramifications extend to all areas of life and which can be life threatening. For that reason, it is important that we know how to recognize it in order to tackle it in time.
“A bottomless jug”
These psychologists spoke with more than 400 people between the ages of 18 and 80 who had felt empty at some point in their lives, some rarely and some all the time. These people filled out a questionnaire that inquired into those feelings of emptiness. It is, therefore, a pioneering investigation that provides a first-person approach to the feeling of emptiness.
Some participants described these feelings of emptiness as “a kind of bottomless jug that can never be filled” or “a feeling of otherness and separation from society” that “drains up all your life and energy.”
In fact, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the feeling of emptiness and loneliness is precisely that feeling of inner emptiness. That feeling of emptiness comes, in large part, from anhedonia. In other words, people who feel empty often experience a kind of “emotional anesthesia” that prevents them from feeling despair, but also joy. When they look inside, it is as if they find nothing.
Those psychological feelings are often accompanied by uncomfortable physical sensations. For example, people used to describe a pain, a knot, a feeling of emptiness in the body and often indicated: “I feel like an emptiness in the chest.” These perceptions indicate that the feeling of emptiness often has an impact on a physical level.
“I feel invisible”
Emptiness is typically experienced in relation to one’s relationship with the others. First, the participants felt that they had nothing to contribute to the others. They felt incapable of making a positive impact in their lives and a valuable contribution to their interpersonal relationships and community life. For this reason, they were often described as “a nuisance” or “a burden to the others.”
Second, they also experienced a lack of recognition, indicating that the feeling of emptiness is not something that grows from the inside out, but can also be fueled by circumstances, especially when we move into emotionally disabling environments.
One person said: “I feel invisible to those around me.” Those who experienced a feeling of emptiness often said that they were neither heard nor noticed by the others, including the people who mattered most to them. They felt that they were like a “missing person”, despite being surrounded by people.
Interestingly, this disconnection with the others was also associated with the feeling of being objectified and expendable. Many people reported being victims of the doormat effect or feeling like someone else’s tool, especially those who were part of their circle of trust. They also felt alone, disconnected, isolated, and emotionally distant from those around them.
“Everything I do is useless”
Another of the states that accompanies the feelings of emptiness is the feeling that everything lacks meaning and purpose in life. Most of the participants acknowledged that they had “nothing valuable to work for”, they could not participate in any meaningful activities and “they did not want anything”. That means they lacked a direction in life.
One of the people interviewed explained: “You feel like everything you do is useless and you just keep moving. You just try to fill the time until you die. Sometimes you have fun or something good happens that can distract you for a while, but in the end there is an inner emptiness that never goes away. It’s like you’re transparent and anything positive like love or joy just passes through you without sticking, and then it’s like it’s never been there. “
Another person said: “I felt as if I was not part of the world, I couldn’t feel anything and nothing I did had an impact on events or on other people, I ‘existed’ but I wasn’t alive’”.
People who feel empty do not find meaning in what they do or in life itself. Many feel like living on autopilot. They carry out the necessary actions for survival or to comply with social conventions, without any conscious involvement but in a mechanical way. It is as if the world has left them behind, unable to absorb that vitality and dynamism.
Those feelings can be dangerous. In fact, these psychologists identified a link between recurring feelings of emptiness and suicidal ideas or behaviors. People who reported feeling empty all the time were more likely to have thoughts about suicide or even made suicide attempts.
The trap that the feelings of emptiness sets us
The feelings of emptiness are rooted in the absence of emotion and purpose in life. It is an existential feeling, a background orientation that structures the way in which the “self” relates to the interpersonal and impersonal world. That feeling is a way of “being in the world.”
As a result, the “self” is perceived as diminished, empty and worthless, driven solely by inertia. This creates a potentially deadly trap since, lacking motivation, the feeling of emptiness robs us of the experience of searching and striving. Instead, the “empty self” encloses us in a kind of inner bubble or prison that constrains and prevents us from connecting with the others or enjoying the world and life.
Interestingly, half of the participants in the study had never had mental disorders, which shows that the feelings of emptiness are not unique to those suffering from depression or borderline personality disorder, but can be experienced by any of us. That is why we must be attentive to their signals.
Herron, S. J. & Sani, F. (2021) Understanding the typical presentation of emptiness: a study of lived-experience. Journal of Mental Health; 10.1080.