The Difficulty of Facing the Feeling of Emptiness

16 October, 2020
"Everything's going well in my life, yet I feel empty." It's pretty common to hear people say this. What leads to this feeling of emptiness? How hard is it to face this void and create a new reality?

“I have everything I want in life but I still feel empty.” This phrase is constantly repeated in psychology consultations. You have everything you once longed for and you still don’t feel happy. When this happens, it’s quite common for individuals to do anything to keep themselves distracted in order to avoid thinking of this reality.

However, generally speaking, there comes a day where they can’t take it anymore. At that moment, the person thinks that facing the void is the right thing to do. However, doing so is more difficult than it seems. Learning the causes of this emptiness may be a painful, but necessary, thing to do.

The feeling of emptiness

Words fall short when you talk about the feeling of emptiness. If you’ve had this feeling at some point in your life or even right now, you know very well what we’re talking about. Sometimes, it becomes an “existential crisis“, since it upsets all ideas about the meaning of life.

This feeling of emptiness supposes great discomfort. As a matter of fact, it’s so intense that people do all sorts of things to make it stop. But they fail every time. Controlling the feeling of emptiness can be like trying to make a bowl with your hands and trying to hold water. Said discomfort, along with the uncertainty of not knowing where to go or what to do, makes anyone feel hopeless.

Believe it or not, many people experience this on a daily basis. This is the common scenario: a person who seems to have everything they wished for; a good job, friends, a partner, and they still feel unsatisfied. There’s another way to see it. Imagine you reach a long-term goal with a lot of effort and dedication. You thought that, at that moment, you were going to feel happy and accomplished, but you end up feeling disappointed instead.

A sad woman looking out the window.

Trying to fill the void

This feeling of emptiness is so unsettling that the initial impulse is to fill that void as quickly as possible. People who feel this way make multiple attempts to relieve this sensation with tools that don’t work in the long term.

Something these people like to do is avoid boredom. This way, they have no time to think about the existential crisis they’re going through. Additionally, it’s worth noting that they often have strong feelings of anxiety in moments of inactivity or free time.

Another resource they use to relieve the feeling of emptiness is related to the acquisition of material goods. It’s very common to hide feelings of uneasiness with compulsive shopping; buying things they don’t really need. In the same way, they may resort to other addictions such as alcohol, gambling, and binge eating, among others.

Undoubtedly, what all these strategies have in common is that they’re a momentary palliative of the feeling of emptiness. In addition, this type of addictive behavior can generate other health, economic, or relationship problems that usually force the person to ask for help.

Why does this feeling occur?

The feeling of emptiness is associated with symptoms related to mood, anhedonia to be more specific. It refers to the inability to enjoy what used to provide pleasure in the past. It’s vital to mention that this deficit is related to different brain functions.

Those with a feeling of emptiness have less activity in the striatum, a brain component closely related to the sensation of pleasure.

In addition to this, this feeling is related to various psychological pathologies or vital moments. Let’s see some of the most significant:

  • Mood disorders such as depression. When a feeling of emptiness becomes chronic, a depressive disorder can develop, given that the main symptoms of this disorder are hopelessness and anhedonia.
  • Grief. When you lose a loved one or go through a tough breakup, life as you know it changes abruptly, which can unstabilize you. Certainly, it’s pretty common to feel empty after an experience like this.
  • Having very high expectations. When a person places all their efforts on one goal, be it getting a stable job or starting a family, it’s normal to have high expectations. However, if they don’t get their way, they’re unable to escape disappointment. For example, we can see this in the so-called age crises.
  • Wanting to have excessive control over everything. The main characteristic of neurotic spectrum disorders is the feeling of wanting to control everything that happens. For that reason, these individuals love planning every single thing. Once they realize that many things are out of their control, the feeling of emptiness and hopelessness awakens.
A worried man sitting.

Facing the feeling of emptiness

The feeling of emptiness connects with a deep nonspecific malaise. The person feels very uneasy and has no idea how to stop feeling that way.

Furthermore, this void produces such intense emotions that it’s common for people to come up with quick strategies (keeping busy, addictions, and compulsive shopping) to try to mitigate them. However, these behaviors are only a patch that can create more difficulties than the initial problem itself.

The causes of this feeling are very diverse. In fact, they usually depend on the subject’s age. However, when the feeling of emptiness becomes chronic, a mood disorder, such as depression, can rise to the surface.

Although it’s painful to recognize, a certain level of emptiness or existential crises are needed in certain vital stages, as they’re a great engine of change. Once someone faces this void, there’s nothing else to do but dig deep within themselves to find its cause.

In fact, this search allows reconstructing a new and better identity, with which the person can feel happier and overall comfortable. Sometimes, doing some self-introspection is what you need in order to reinvent yourself.

Beck, A. T., Rush, A. J., Shaw, B. F. & Emery, G. (1984). Terapia cognitiva de la depresión. Bilbao: Diari De Balears.

Beck, A. T., Weissman, A., Lester, D. & Trexler, L. (1974). The measurement of pessimism: The hopelessness scale. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 42, 861-865

Frankl, V. E. (1994). La voluntad de sentido. Conferencias escogidas sobre logoterapia. Barcelona: Herder.