Feelings of emotional emptiness can be unfamiliar and scary. It can be unnerving not to be able to describe your feelings and not to know what to do next. Don’t worry, if you can relate to feeling empty, we’re here to help you overcome it and advise you along your journey.
What is emotional emptiness?
Although it is commonly associated with a symptom of a larger disorder, emotional emptiness is a state of mind that can occur all on its own in response to a certain loss or life change. Studies have shown emptiness as a result of the mind trying to create an emotional distance from a recent event, in an effort to protect you from dealing with a potentially intense negative emotion. You can think of it as the mind’s equivalent of bottling up emotions. Understand that if you are experiencing this, emptiness is not at all a reflection on you, it is just a coping mechanism that the mind has developed. And even though the intent is to protect you, it more often leaves you feeling numb, confused, and a little scared (Fogarty 1978).
Emotional emptiness can occur in the presence of a variety of negative emotions, but most commonly, it is associated with underlying loneliness (Fogarty 1978). It can absolutely be difficult to acknowledge that you may be feeling lonely, sad, or anything similar, but emotional acknowledgement and acceptance is crucial in combating emptiness.
According to Psychologist Dr. Noam Shpancer, emotions are a sort of communication system for your body, so they are important in keeping you grounded and understanding yourself. They keep you in touch with what is happening to you, with you, and around you, and they can help you figure out how to act on what you are feeling (Shpancer 2010).
Avoiding emotions shuts that system down, and tends not to last long. When we bottle our emotions up, we leave them unresolved and stirring around inside for longer than is healthy, and we thereby make it easier for them to explode at unpredictable times. Shpancer also says that avoiding emotions for a long period of time can lead to increased anxiety as we subconsciously continue to anticipate an emotional release (Shpancer 2010).
On the other hand, emotional acceptance is much healthier for the mind. According to Shpancer, consciously choosing to work towards accepting a negative emotion allows you to acknowledge it. It also allows to you take steps to work through the emotion. When we accept emotions, we also give ourselves the chance to put it into perspective and make it more attainable in our minds (Shpancer 2010).
We understand that this is easier said than done. Accepting emotions can be difficult, and that is the reason why we develop certain coping mechanisms. It is important to remember that acceptance is a journey, and will not happen overnight. Be kind to yourself, and give yourself time.
Studies have shown that mindfulness is an effective way to acknowledge and accept certain buried emotions, such as sadness and loneliness (Farb et al. 2010). According to mindfulness teacher Melli O’brien, working slowly, purposefully, and mindfully will help you overcome negative emotions and move through some key steps (O’brien).
In addition, based on a study by Ljubomir Aftanas and Semen Golosheykin, meditating can help deal with negative emotions. It was shown in the study that people who have been regularly meditating for a long period of time had an easier experience processing and reacting to the onset of negative emotions (Afanas and Golosheykin 2005).
Emotional emptiness is often rooted in subconscious emotional avoidance, and although we may want to accept our emotions, it may be even more difficult if our ability to express them feels blocked.
Numerous studies have shown that the arts, visual or otherwise, are very beneficial in helping us develop or express their emotions. In fact, there is something called art therapy, in which therapists use visual art as a medium for emotional development (Rusu 2017). To make it easier to express an emotion, and therefore identify it, taking it activities such as drawing, painting, singing, dancing, writing, journaling, cooking, or anything else inherently artistic will help you release your emotions in a way you might understand. Once you know what you are working with, identifying it, acknowledging, and accepting it seems so much more possible.
So you’ve chosen to accept your emotions, express them, and work through them. You no longer feel empty, but now, you might feel sad or lonely. Now what do you do?
The process of overcoming a negative emotion is much more effective when we can pinpoint what exactly the emotion is. Although emptiness can be a result of a variety of emotions, loneliness is the most common. Loneliness is difficult to feel, but it is important to remember that you are not alone. Loss, life changes, or certain disorders such as depression can bring about or intensify feelings of loneliness and that can be tough to work through (Marano 2003). It is also important to understand that loneliness is internal, and that it is entirely possible for someone with a busy social life to feel lonely.
An article by Maria Cohut from Medical News Today suggests deepening relationships that already exist, getting a pet, limiting time on social media, and embracing the solitude of being by yourself for a little bit can help you overcome feelings of loneliness (Cohut 2018).
Sometimes, though, once we express our emotions, we may realize that we feel just sad. Sadness can be difficult to deal with because it may be somewhat ambiguous if we cannot identify a source right away.
It is important to remember that sadness is a necessary emotion and it is perfectly okay to feel it. One of the most important strategies for dealing with sadness is to allow yourself to be sad without feeling guilty, ashamed, or sorry (Gundersen Health System). Trying to hide sadness just keeps it sitting inside us. Once you have let yourself fully experience your emotions, do something comforting. It could be an activity you enjoy or talking to a loved one.
Remember, you are not alone. Feeling empty, sad, or lonely is okay and nothing to be ashamed of. We hope this gave you some insight on how to process and overcome these emotions. If we missed any strategies, please let us know below. Thanks for reading!
Aftanas L, Golosheykin S. “Impact of regular meditation practice on EEG activity at rest and during evoked negative emotions”. International Journal of Neuroscience. 2005; Vol 115(6).
Cohut, Maria. “Coping with loneliness: Ideas and strategies”. Medical News Today. 05 January 2018.
Farb NA, Anderson S, Mayberg AK, et al. “Minding one’s emotions: Mindfulness training alters the neural expression of sadness”. Emotion. Feb 2010; Vol 10(1), 25-33.
Fogarty, Thomas F. “On Emptiness and Closeness”. Center for Family and Learning Archives. 1978.
Haufrect, Sarah. “Does Emotional Emptiness Have Meaning?” Psychology Today. 20 September 2017.
“Healthy ways to deal with sadness”. Gundersen Health System. N.d.
Marano, Hara E. “The Dangers of Loneliness”. Psychology Today. 01 July 2003.
O’Brien, Melli. “How to Use Mindfulness to Work With Negative Emotions”. Mrs. Mindfulness. N.d.
Rusu, Marinela. “1. Emotional Development through Art Expressions”. Review of Artistic Education. 2017; Vol 14, 227-238.
Sphancer, Noam. “Emotional Acceptance: Why Feeling Bad is Good”. Psychology Today. 08 September 2010.