4 Ways You May Be Keeping Yourself Running On Empty

AdobeStock 19254550 scaled e1591391788268


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 may have a life that is actually quite full. And you may assume that everyone feels this way.

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, chest, 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. And knowing that you love someone 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 emotionally 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 try 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 your new path, you may find that it is actually far easier than your 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
Gladeye - June 15, 2021 Reply

As a child, I was never told I was an anything and I was never encouraged to do anything. I’m 54, smart in a lot of ways, but I completely lack drive and ambition, because I don’t have any passions and I am in constant fear of rejection and failure. I want so much to relate and connect.

Sometimes, I feel I am nothing. I can’t find a single therapist in L.A. (on my health plan) that lists CEN as a specialty, either.

    Jonice - June 16, 2021 Reply

    Dear Gladeye, I’m so sorry you’re feeling this way. If there’s no therapist near you, you can do teletherapy with a CEN therapist. Or you can do a lot of healing through my books and/or online programs.

Lorraine - June 14, 2021 Reply

WOW! This really resonated with me: “And knowing that you love someone doesn’t mean that you can feel it.” I would love it if you could do an article on that – sometimes I feel so much love for my partner it is overwhelming and other times I feel numb and can’t feel the love so I question whether I love him at all. How do you know you love someone when you fluctuate between those two states?

    Jonice - June 16, 2021 Reply

    Dear Lorraine, it’s not possible to feel overwhelming love at all times. Might you feel less love if you are tired or upset about something or a little disappointed/miffed at your partner? It would be good to try to sort out what is causing your fluctuations.

      Lorraine - June 21, 2021 Reply

      Thanks Jonice. Perfect response and very apt for me. Definitely a great idea to observe what is happening when I have the fluctuations. That will help.

Sue - June 14, 2021 Reply

Thank you for all your work in this field. I finally have some answers after so many years of searching for the cause of this emptiness within. I have purchased both of your books and for the first time in my life I feel truly understood and hopeful that things can change. I can’t thank you enough.

    Jonice - June 16, 2021 Reply

    That is wonderful to hear, Sue. Keep up the good work!

Bev - June 13, 2021 Reply

I spent most of my nearly 60 years of age wondering why I was different from other people. I don’t know anyone like me. I have suffered terribly from CEN and only after finding your book did I realise this. However I am so stuck in trying to fix myself, it all seems way too hard. I find myself actually becoming more troubled the older I get. I could go on and on however I know I need to work on some recovery but it is so dammed difficult
Nobody understands me

    Jonice - June 13, 2021 Reply

    Dear Bev, saying “Nobody understands me” is painting yourself into a corner. If you’re struggling to recover from CEN, get some help! There are many resources listed on this site. I’ve seen plenty of folks older than you successfully go through the CEN recovery process.

Muchele - June 13, 2021 Reply

I am especially aware of the ‘lost’ feeling. I had a husband and 2 sons until 6 years ago. My 26 year old son died by suicide in 2015, devastating us. In 2018 my husband was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He died in fall 2019. My older surviving son is emotionally distant. I have one close female friend. I cry from loneliness every afternoon when the days activities end. I’m empty and sad,and I drink alcohol to numb myself until bedtime.

    Jonice - June 13, 2021 Reply

    Dear Muchele, I am so very sorry for all you have been through. Alcohol is a one-way ticket to feeling worse. It’s very important to reach out and accept help. You will need support to get through this.

    Gladeye - June 15, 2021 Reply

    I can’t imagine your pain. I care about your feelings and I know I’m not the only one. Alcohol is nothing but trouble, but you already know that.

Michelle - June 13, 2021 Reply

How does one cope with realizing he or she falls into more than one category? I definitely see myself within two of the four categories and it concerns me deeply, to say the least! What is the best way to begin or resume that discussion with a therapist especially? Thank you so much!

Joyce - June 13, 2021 Reply

Dr. Webb,
I thank you from my heart for your emails. I print everyone and read them over and over about CEN. Your knowledge, teaching and insight, help me so much. What you write gives me food for thought and HOPE that I will bring those feelings I do not feel to life!! I have no family here in the USA to help me. My husband passed away in 2017. So I am going it alone. To bring feelings into my life. I want them!
You are helping me with that and your book along with emails. I keep trying but it does not come easy.

    Jonice - June 13, 2021 Reply

    Dear Joyce, I’m so happy to be helpful to you! You are on the right path. I encourage you to go out and meet new people as soon as you are ready. Your newly welcomed feelings will help you connect.

Alison - June 13, 2021 Reply

How do I know that CEN is the cause of the emptiness and its not something that loads of people might feel for a multitude of reasons….

    Jonice - June 13, 2021 Reply

    Dear Alison, that is a very personal determination. You can take the CEN Test and/or talk it over with a CEN-trained therapist.

RJM - June 13, 2021 Reply

Running on empty…. your suggested redirection.. while intelligent seems shallow as it doesn’t offer anything that works for me. So, I have to accept I am “incurable?” Seems fair I guess in the relative scheme of “living” (i.e. coping) with CEN that over shadows adulthood. I cope but have never been happy… as there has been no affirmation of self to assure me of being “OK” via how I am left out… occupying a window seat on the “happiness” others seem to enjoy. No, I never found affirmation in religion.. never went into destructive behaviors like drugs etc. We are born.. we die.. in between we survive the best we can.. seems so unfair if one thinks there is way to happy by rethinking… to be happy one has to feel “affirmed.”
I don’t know what that would feel like and believe I’ll die not knowing.

    Jonice - June 13, 2021 Reply

    Dear RJM, “incurable” is an extreme stance to take. I suggest you talk with a therapist and let someone help and support you.

rose - June 13, 2021 Reply

Hi Dr. Jonice- I would like to add #5, (although it may be classified under one of the other four) and that is, feeling invisible, even when in a crowd, or even talking to someone. I had experienced this as part of CEN and still do, at times, but with working on myself in this and other areas it ‘appears’ much less often than previously. Thank you, thank you, thank you for all you do and have done.

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!

    Stephen - June 25, 2021 Reply

    I tell myself those exact things all the time! But I am trying to become more aware of when I am saying those things in my head and making excuses for people and then stopping that. They were survival mechanisms in our past because we couldn’t understand why our parents treated us the way they did, so we made up a narrative that was easier to digest and made sense.

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: