We speak frequently about the spaces inside of us. We say “I’m full,” after a big meal. When we encounter someone superficial, we say “He’s an empty suit.” The phrase “full of herself,” denotes grandiosity or an excess of self-regard. As you can see, we make reference to the fullness or emptiness of the inside self.
In this blog, I’d like to explore more deeply the question of emotional emptiness. What does it mean to say “I feel empty”?
To answer the question, we need to understand what it means to be emotionally full. Emotional fullness means something complex. It begins with the infant, who thrives in the presence of a nurturing environment. As he or she grows, the infant transforms the actual nurturing environment—the mother, father or other care-giving figures—transforms the nurturing environment from an external one to an internal one! The maturing self internalizes his or her loving and nurturing figures, pulling them symbolically inside the self for permanent residence there!
Of course, the infant also brings inside, the unhealthy, unstable and dysfunctional figures of childhood too. Their stability and functionality inform the nature of our internalized figures. A loving and healthy mother, for example, with be internalized as a loving and healthy internal figure. And tragically, a critical, punitive parent will also be internalized in that way: critical and punitive.
By the time we’ve reached adulthood, we’ve internalized our early environment, for better or for worse. What happens to this internal environment when we feel empty?
I believe that for most people, when they feel empty, it signals the absence of a supportive, nurturing inner environment. It probably indicates that the critical, punitive, internalized voice is loud and prominent, undermining the self and the sense of consolidation and cohesion. For most people, emptiness signals a lack of what is good and supportive and longed-for. Emptiness is the absence of something nurturing and supportive. It may also be the dominance of negative, critical and undermining inner voices.
We can see how debilitating it can be when we become predominated by a negative inner state. Seeking the companionship of friends or supportive family can help restore our equilibrium to where we don’t feel empty anymore.
For others, emptiness can mean the loss of the good and caring inner environment. Loss, of course, happens with death, but also with divorce or separation, with break-ups, and even with removal of physical proximity. In this case, emptiness signals the loss of a part of the interior environment that was sustaining the self.
Here, we can see how emptiness and loss are linked, and perhaps understand this often to be a more difficult state to manage in the self. This is possibly because there are essentially two injuries—the loss of the other, and the loss of the esteem and support they provided.
In either case, emptiness is a painful state to bear, and we look for comfort and support and help during periods when we feel empty. We look for emotional nurturance and the hope for being filled up again.