4 Ways You May Be Keeping Yourself Running On Empty


Julie loves her husband Dom very much, but lately, all they seem to do is fight. Julie wonders how Dom can possibly complain that she’s not home enough lately when he can see how many demands she is juggling.


Bill struggles to do everything right in life. He has a good job and a family that loves him. Yet he walks through his days feeling numb. As he provides for his family and responds to his boss’s every request, he sometimes wonders what it’s all for. Recently he’s been drinking more than he should.

House, job, family. Parenting, grocery-shopping, errands, and social media; we are all people of the world. And in today’s world, our lives are overly full in so many ways. So it’s ironic that so many of us feel so very UN-full.

The feeling of emptiness is elusive. It’s experienced differently by different people. Hardly anyone knows how to put it into words. So you may at times say you’re stressed or down because it’s the best word you can come up with, even though it doesn’t seem to quite capture what you feel.

Even more likely, you say nothing. After all, you can see that your life is actually very full. You have no idea that so many people around you feel a sense of emptiness as well.

4 Ways to Feel Empty

  • Numbness: This involves walking through your life with little emotion. You know you should feel more joy, more excitement, more love; and also more sadness, and perhaps more grief. You’re not sure why, but those feelings are just not quite there.
  • A physical ache: Almost no one feels this all the time. But you may at times feel an emptiness somewhere in your body. In your belly, throat, or head for example. A deep, painful ache that’s difficult to name, and seems to come from nowhere.
  • A feeling of being lost and alone: Surrounded by people, and yet lonely. Lots of places to be, and yet lost. Having people around doesn’t mean you feel that you belong with them. Knowing that you love them doesn’t mean that you can feel it.
  • Over-taxed and joyless: So many commitments and not enough of them are to yourself. You’re there for everyone else’s needs, but what about your own?

Whatever your personal experience of emptiness, the roots of this feeling almost always can be found in your childhood.

We grow up in households that are busy or struggling, and somehow not quite nurturing enough. From this we learn everything about how to stay busy and struggle, but little about how to nurture ourselves.

So we grow up looking in all the wrong places for support and fulfillment. We live our adult lives with a sense that something is missing, and no idea how to find it.

4 Ways You May Be Keeping Yourself Running On Empty

  1. By Being Too Externally Focused: It’s natural in today’s world to be caught up with what’s outside of you: your house, your job, your car, successes, failures, sports, and the weather. Truly, those are all good things. They will provide for you, entertain you, and give you topics at dinner. But they will not fill you up.
  2. By Ignoring What Emotionally Fills You: Part of being too externally focused is that you may end up not seeing what’s closest to you: You and the people who love you. You may, for example, be so busy with your many commitments that you have little time to enjoy yourself with your family or children. In fact, you may not find yourself enjoying much of anything. Yet you may seldom notice that your joy is missing.
  3. By Poor Self-Care: Self-care is a way of nurturing yourself. Do you deserve to be healthy? Are you worth the time it takes to buy and prepare healthy food? To plan a family vacation so that you can enjoy your family’s company and make happy memories? Is it more important that you start another project or that you be aware of your own needs, and try to fill them?
  4. By Seeking Fulfillment in All the Wrong Places: There are many tempting ways to fill yourself, none of which will work: activity, alcohol, recognition, admiration, food, shopping, gambling, social media, money, drugs, and success are just a few.


Julie can’t see what Dom sees: that she is hugely over-committed. In addition to her job and her two daughters, she volunteers on two committees at the school. She’s involved in a town fundraiser, and now she’s talking about starting up a small business on the side. Dom watches helplessly as Julie becomes increasingly depleted and worn.

Over-committed and joyless, Julie has lost her way. She seeks to fill herself up with activity, projects, and maybe some recognition, with perhaps a little money thrown in. On this path, Julie will never stop having those pangs of emptiness that come and go.


Bill walks through life feeling numb and knowing that something is not right. He knows he should be happier and more fulfilled. After all, he’s the man with everything. Bill has no idea that throughout his struggle to do everything right in life, he has missed the boat on what truly matters to him.

Bill knows how to walk the walk, but he doesn’t know how to feel. He’s caught up in the externals of life, and he cannot see himself. Bill is missing out on what could give his life meaning: his feelings.

No matter what type of emptiness you feel and how you’ve tried to fill it, it’s never too late or too tall a task to change your course.

Focusing inward instead of outward; noticing your own feelings and needs and trying to meet them; finding what makes you happy, and making memories with people you care about. This is the path to filling yourself. 

Surprisingly, once you’re on it you may find that your new path is actually far easier than the old one.

To learn more about how to become more self-aware and fill yourself up, see the book Running on Empty.

This article was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been updated and published here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral.


Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Judy - June 10, 2020 Reply

Hello Jonice ..I do appreciate your newsletters.. am reading your book again.. I don.t know if you have any therapists here in Australia? Judy

    Jonice - June 10, 2020 Reply

    Yes, there are CEN therapists in Australia! Just check the Find A CEN Therapist List on this site.

Karen - June 9, 2020 Reply

Dr Webb Yes you’re right! It definitely does get easier the further along the path. At first though it’s tough. Many things you tell yourself to explain life’s awful moments (such as “she really didn’t mean to hurt me” or “he really does love me; just doesn’t know how to express it” or “I really don’t need people” or “if I just try harder I’ll be accepted/loved/successful/appreciated” and so on) are shown up as the lies they are. That leads to a crisis of not knowing what to believe and consequent intense pain and grief. I’ve been there. But with a good therapist, your books, articles and encouragement and self kindness I now know it’s possible to come through to a better place. I have come to terms with the fact that those lies were my way of coping from a young age, being self protective in the only way I knew how. I had to learn not to be self critical for doing that. Instead I’ve come to appreciate my own strength of personality not only in surviving but also now starting to chart my own course in life. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for how your work has helped me along this path.

    Jonice - June 10, 2020 Reply

    Dear Karen, thank you for those great examples of the falsehoods CEN people tell themselves. I’m so glad to be a part of your recovery!

GM - June 8, 2020 Reply

What if when getting in touch with how you feel, you find so much pain and sorrow that it is unbearable? What if you feel so emotionally bowed over that you don’t know how to overcome?

    Jonice - June 8, 2020 Reply

    Dear GM, this is your body telling you to talk to someone. Your pain and sorrow must be processed, and you’ll need some help doing that. Please reach out to one of the therapists on the Find A CEN Therapist List under the Help tab of this website. It’s essential that you turn toward this instead of running away from it. I’m so sorry you are going through this.

Diane - June 7, 2020 Reply

Thank you so much for this article. I had no idea my busyness was a form of emptiness. I have your book and just started therapy. I have renewed hope for healing.

    Jonice - June 7, 2020 Reply

    Great, Diane!

Barb - June 7, 2020 Reply

I finally retired from teaching and finally have minute to think about myself. I’ve known I have the “highly sensitive” (HSP) trait for years and now also know I had CEN. So I’m wondering if/ how the two are connected & how to integrate the trait with the results of the neglect. Has this been addressed by you or others? If so, where can I find it? Thanks, Barb

    Jonice - June 7, 2020 Reply

    Hi Barb, check my Childhood Emotional Neglect blog on psychcentral.com. I’ve written several blogs on HSP combined with CEN.

Leave a Comment: