David Baxter PhD
Feeling Empty? Here's What It Could Mean and How To Stop Itby Sandra Silva Casabianca and Sian Ferguson, PsychCentral.com
March 28, 2021
That feeling of emptiness. It’s right there in your chest, yet you’re unsure how it came about. Is it sadness? Melancholy? Boredom? It may be a little of everything.
Feeling this way is not uncommon. You might call it “feeling empty,” while someone else might call it something different.
What matters the most is that it’s real, valid. Although overwhelming, it can be managed.
Uncovering what’s lying underneath this feeling might not be a straightforward process, but it’s possible and a recommended first step toward resolution.
The feeling of emptiness might last a few days and then resolve on its own.
Other times, it might linger for two weeks or longer. When this is the case, seeking the support of a mental health professional can help.
Why do I feel empty?Feeling empty can sometimes manifest as a sense of loneliness, confusion about your life and goals, or lack of motivation to pursue anything in life.
Everyone might feel this void in their heart from time to time.
The experience could have many causes, including shifting hormonal levels, losing a job, or the required physical distancing that comes with a pandemic.
Any life stage or situation that may require you to reflect on yourself and your life might also lead to a temporary feeling of emptiness.
Although not in every case, feeling empty could also signify some mental health conditions, such as depression, bipolar disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Only a mental health professional can diagnose your condition accurately.
But what happens when you feel empty all the time?
Losing touch with yourselfIt’s not unusual for someone to lose touch with themselves once in a while. A lack of insight into yourself may lead to that lingering emptiness feeling. Some people call this “living without a purpose.” It means that you might not have clarity on the type of person you are or the one you want to become.
Not having specific goals or dreams to achieve can also lead you to feel empty.
Losing touch with yourself can come from many circumstances. For example, a consuming relationship or a demanding job.
Unresolved past experiencesSometimes, feeling empty might have to do with a long grieving process that you haven’t explored yet. For example, an unresolved painful experience in your childhood or a sense of abandonment from a family member.
When we don’t openly talk or explore emotions that have been with us for a long time, they might manifest in other ways.
Even if it feels overwhelming and painful, thinking and talking about significant past events that caused you grief may help you process them. Depending on how strong you feel about these events, going through the process with a mental health professional is highly advisable.
Not taking care of yourselfFor some people, taking care of others might come first. This could lead them to put their own needs aside for a long time. This, in turn, may lead to feeling empty.
You might feel that making others happy makes you happy, too. Even if this is the case, it’s important to consider that supporting others is not exclusive of supporting yourself.
Everyone needs support and care, including you. Often, when your needs are fulfilled, you become better equipped to help and support others, too.
Abandoning yourself, not listening to your own hopes and desires, could make you feel empty, explained Kaitlyn Slight, a marriage and family therapist in Durham, North Carolina. Not taking care of your needs can lead to anxiety, guilt, and shame, Slight said. These symptoms might be what you call “feeling empty.”
How much time you spend on social media might also affect how you feel and could fuel the feelings of emptiness. In many instances, accounts you follow on social media might portray a lifestyle that’s not realistic or a perfect life or appearance. This could lead you to compare yourself and inevitably underscore your life.
Not having significant relationshipsThe Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the longest studies about adult life, has found that maintaining close and good relationships is the most important aspect of the human experience.
This means that it’s not about how many relationships you have but rather the quality of these relationships.
Emotional intimacy, support, active listening, and company are all important. When these are missing in your life, it could lead to feelings of emptiness and loneliness.
Is feeling empty the same as being depressed?Depression is a mental health condition that involves many symptoms including:
- lacking energy and motivation
- persistently feeling sad
- feeling hopeless
- sleeping too much or too little
- not being able to focus
- not being able to enjoy activities or people
- feeling guilty or worthless
In fact, some of Eder’s clients who live with depression report feeling empty instead of sad, she said. “This kind of empty feeling comes with not caring about much, not being interested in things, not feeling fueled by anything in particular,” Eder explained.
Feeling empty is not always a sign of depression, though. The only person who can diagnose your condition accurately is a mental health professional. They might help you figure out the nature of your feelings and the different paths you could take to feel better.
How to stop feeling emptyIt’s natural to feel concerned if you’ve noticed a change in yourself. Recognizing this feeling and addressing it is the first step toward feeling better.
If you’re feeling empty, seeing a mental health professional can help. A therapist could help you work through your feelings, uncover the cause of the numbness, and address it in a way that works best for you.
Finding ways to stop feeling empty may depend on what’s causing it. For example, if you feel numb after trauma, you might need to process this particular event. If you’ve felt empty for a long time, psychotherapy can help you unveil some of the reasons that led you here.
Gently acknowledge the emptinessIf you’re experiencing emptiness that’s more like a gaping hole, acknowledge it, and be gentle with yourself, said Eder. Remember that you’re doing the best you can at any given moment. Feeling guilty is not uncommon, but it might stop you from seeking help.
Begin by recognizing your own feelings and needs. Even if challenging, try to avoid dismissing yourself and what you feel. If you acknowledge that your feelings are linked to a loss you experienced, consider allowing yourself time and space to grieve openly. Grief looks and feels different to everyone, and there are no right or wrong ways to do it.
Once you’ve acknowledged your losses, you might go through five stages of grief.
Maybe the loss involves someone leaving your life physically or emotionally. Eder suggested speaking to yourself with compassion when exploring these feelings and past experiences. For instance, you might say: “It’s been hard to feel so lonely,” or “You’re right; you did need more love.”
Save time for yourself every dayIt’s natural to sometimes turn to certain events or activities to not think about how you feel. For example, you might feel inclined to go out with friends or spend the night playing video games.
Slight suggests you fight this urge and instead save time to be with yourself and look within. This may include exploring your own desires, fears, hopes, and dreams, she said.
Because different activities work for different people, you might find that meditation, writing, or exercise helps you refocus yourself. “It may feel uncomfortable at first, but the more you practice devoting time and energy to yourself and caring for yourself, the less present those empty feelings will be,” Slight said.
Explore your current feelingsEder suggested setting a timer for 5 minutes and noticing what you’re feeling right now. “It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering,” she explained.
You might want to write “bored” or “distracted” or “curious.” If you’re having a hard time naming your feelings, Google “feelings list,” she suggested.
It also can help to pick one part of your body, such as your hand or head. Eder recommended to then “scan for various categories of sensation like temperature, tension or movement.”
Practicing these exercises every day can help you open yourself to deeper and longer self-explorations.
Explore your feelings of emptinessJournaling might also help work on your feelings of emptiness, said Slight. She suggested exploring the following questions as a starting point:
- Have I been judging myself or comparing myself to others?
- Do I tell myself positive things? Or do I tend to notice failures or call myself names?
- Are my feelings being considered in my relationships, or am I minimizing what I am feeling?
- Am I actively tending to my physical and health needs?
- Have I turned toward behaviors or addictions to avoid my feelings?
- Am I focusing solely on the needs of another person or people?
- What am I trying to prove or win?
- Am I blaming myself or feeling guilty about things that are out of my control?
- Am I showing myself compassion like I would with a close friend or family member?
- Am I asserting myself in my decisions and respecting my personal opinions?
Connect with othersAfter sitting with your feelings and exploring them, you might find it helpful to connect with others. Reaching out to friends or family can help you feel better, especially if you’re able to confide in them about your feelings.
One idea is to regularly connect with loved ones through social engagements, hobbies, and mutual interests.
Practice self-careDepression and grief might sometimes cause you to neglect daily self-care. This is not something to feel ashamed of, but engaging in acts of self-care might help you feel better. This could include basic things, such as eating nutritious meals, getting enough sleep, and exercising. Hunger and tiredness can sometimes exacerbate negative feelings.
Consider finding positive outlets for your emotions, like journaling, a new hobby, or creative pursuit. Mindfulness and yoga are also often recommended for depression and anxiety. Consider a 10-minute yoga workout on YouTube or a quick meditation exercise using a mindfulness app.
You might also want to limit the time you spend on social media. This could progressively help you feel better. If you can’t or don’t, then try reminding yourself that what you see on the screen might not be an attainable goal for anyone. You could see it as watching a science-fiction movie that’s fun to watch but not based on reality.
Commend yourselfYou’re doing the best you can with the resources at hand.
Even as children, some people find ways to protect themselves from hurt. One of these ways might be repressing feelings. “In that case, give yourself credit for coming up with a solution that worked when you were small and powerless,” said Eder. Commend yourself for all the ways you’ve come up with to cope with events in your life. Now, said Eder, consider allowing those feelings to come out. “You have some catching up to do. And you don’t need to rush to override your old way of survival,” she added.
When to seek helpSometimes, feeling empty might lead to more distressing thoughts. If this is your case, Slight said, considering therapy can help. It can help “empower you to make your own decisions about how to implement positive changes.”
If you are experiencing symptoms of depression, unable to function in your daily life, or considering hurting yourself or others, a mental health professional can help.
Next stepsAlthough it’s natural to feel empty or numb from time to time, these feelings can sometimes linger for two weeks or more. Acknowledging how you feel and setting a few self-care strategies in place can help. Seeking professional help is also advisable.
“Whether you are experiencing difficult relationships, losses or feeling a lack of purpose or meaning, you are worthy of living a fulfilling and meaningful life,” Slight said.
Here are a few resources to take the first step to feeling better: