8 Signs That You Have Empty Feelings


It’s like I have no emotions. I’m numb a lot of the time.

Something is missing in me.

I have no idea how I feel about anything.

Sometimes my chest feels hollow.

I feel empty inside.

What might seem like five unrelated statements is actually five different people describing the same feeling. It’s a hard emotion to identify, and even harder to put into words. Everyone says it differently because there is no standard label for it. But for these five people, and thousands more, it is the same feeling, caused by the same problem.

The one word that sums it up best:


Of all the different emotions that a person can have, Empty is one of the most uncomfortable. To feel Empty is to feel incomplete. It’s a feeling of something absent or missing inside of you, of being different, set apart, alone, lacking, numb.

This is a feeling that can drive people to do a myriad of unhealthy things, like overeat, overdrink, over-shop, or even use drugs. This is a feeling which gradually, quietly erodes a person’s joy, energy, and confidence. It flies under the radar and carries with it a tremendous power to degrade your quality of life.

Just as every feeling we have tells us something about ourselves, so also does empty. It tells us that we are missing something vital in ourselves. Something that is required for happiness and fulfillment. Is it something different for every person? I don’t think so. What’s missing is the same for all who feel empty.  What’s missing is:


From talking with scores of people who have this feeling of emptiness, I have been able to identify what I believe is its cause. It’s a childhood experience which each has lived, but few are able to remember. It’s Childhood Emotional Neglect. Each of these people grew up in a home in which his emotions were not accepted, responded to, or validated enough.

Our emotions are hard-wired into us. They are the most deeply personal, biological part of who we are.  When you are raised by parents who ignore, invalidate, or fail to respond to your emotions, you learn quickly to do that for yourself. It is not a child’s conscious choice. It is an invisible message with invisible power. The adaptive child automatically adapts. He ignores, invalidates, and fails to respond to his own feelings.

So as an adult, when you feel empty, what is missing in you is the same ingredient that was missing in your childhood: acceptance, responsiveness, and validation of your emotions. But now, in adulthood, it is not from your parents that you need this acceptance. It is from yourself.

“But I do have emotions,” you may be saying to me right now. “So why do I still feel empty?”

Picture a wall inside yourself. On one side of that wall is your feelings, and on the other side is you. Your feelings exist, and they are real. Sometimes one breaks through the wall and you feel it. But the wall is still there.

8 Signs That You Feel Emptiness

  1. At times you feel physically empty inside
  2. You are deeply uncomfortable with feeling, or appearing, needy
  3. Sometimes you feel numb
  4. You question the meaning and purpose of your life
  5. For no obvious reason, you sometimes wonder whether you want to live
  6. You feel mystifyingly different from other people
  7. Some important ingredient is missing from your life
  8. Deep down you feel you are alone

If you feel that this article applies to you, please know this: Yes, something is missing. Yes, it is vital. You are not needy, and you are not numb. You are not different, and you are not alone. Everything you need to fill yourself is already there inside of you. Waiting for you to open your eyes, break down the wall, and see.

The fuel of life is feeling. If we are not filled up in childhood, we must fill ourselves as adults. Otherwise, we will find ourselves running on empty.

For help understanding and healing your empty feelings see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

Childhood Emotional Neglect can be subtle and invisible, so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out if grew up with CEN, visit EmotionalNeglect.com and Take The CEN Test. It’s free.


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S - November 9, 2023 Reply

Hi Dr Webb
I have been in and out of therapy for years.
I have gone through a highly volatile divorce and bear lots of resentment for the manner in which things played out. Despite multiple attempts to get help and rewire these thought processes I and snappy, angry and empty. It has impacted the relationship I have with my two teenage daughters and I like I need to be on medication or suicidal at times.
I’m 44 and desperately wanting to not feel this hopelessness anymore


    Jonice - November 24, 2023 Reply

    Dear S, I’m so sorry you feel this way. I recommend that, if you haven’t already tried this, you try sitting with your feelings each and every day, preferably with your therapist. Try to feel your feelings and identify them using the Emotions Words List on this website or in the back of Running On Empty book. Keep working on this, it’s very important because your happiness and well-being matter.

Mike - September 2, 2022 Reply

Having read both books, along with numerous articles by Dr. Webb, it seems clear that we each have a Neglect/Attention spectrum or axis.
The furstration and consequent situational resentfulness I had, made healing difficult in several ways:
The learned neglectfulness in others prevents success in attempting ot overcome and change from neglectful relationships.
The neglectfulness learned – absent from childhood modeling, – required years to even see where I was and am neglectful.

I often assert that culture is what is passed on during developmental periods, especially as these are powerful periods when attention is naturally occurring in the young. Just as other animals (you might see it mostly in domestic companion dogs. they are highly attentive and communicative, but when exposed to a familiar human, signal for only a short period, perhaps just once, and seeing no response, shut down attempts to communicate.

Babies are profoundly absorbent of behavioral cues, storing what is repeated or emotionally arousing/salient to form assessments of both what is of value to their intimates, and thus, what is of social value to themselves to imitate, remember, know.

There are too many factors occurring in siblings – my own sister, once emotinally attentive, predictive, compassionate, as she attempted to instruct and expand her children’s love, care, prosociality, formed resentments unrelated to reality, due top having experienced both extreme neglect and some significant verbal and behavioral abuse (our father scored pretty much Zero on parenting scales, while our mother shunted emotional interaction and attention to delusional religion, dissociating love from real individuals, misattributing it to judgmental illusions of autocratic deity, whose rules must be strictly adhered to).

Her emotional abilities deteriorated so much that she is unreachable. The fact that she is a Registered Nurse, exposed to so many individual in her work, in emergency rooms, seems to have made her exhausted, more callous.

One would think that we learn that babies, friends, intimates, can do no actual wrong, but instead communicate what they have learned and not learned, seeking more healthy intimacy.

Neglect implies lack of full attention, in the present moment. The problems appearing in marriage and like relationships, in my experience are due to reduced willingness to attend, to value the partner.

Coming into relationships perhaps too late – my first occurred at age 24 – I have found no one seemingly unscarred, no one not avoidant. I am slow to realize, having the combination neglected childhood – and experiencing abusive rejection from grandparent as well as parents.

Children are resilient; we learn to function in spite of neglect and abuse. But as we mature- age 25 or so is cognitive maturity, we reflect behaviors that appeared to work for others. I happen to resist the most egregious – for example, I do not separate the sexual act from the aroused emotions of love, attachment that arises, feelings like gratitude and attention.
While excuses ar made for urban hectic life, that is just stress, stress similar to that of danger war,.
There are limits to our ability, and constant “dating” and other immersion in unrelieved novelty, makes us want to skip the necessary time or steps to intimacy.

We blame – a rejective heuristic having no function other than ending relationship. I do not blame parents, etc. who were neglectful, as it became clear that they, too, had NO ability to comprehend the neglect they persist[ed] in, for their lifetimes.

Yet, I expect anyone else to act as a peer, not resisting simple attention, not blitzing their senses in the effort to avoid emotion. I think of therapists and clients as entering a contract of Openness. This presumptive contract is what we expect from anyone intimate. Yet it is vanishingly rare that any commit to just plain openness.

I keep looking at my own actions; otherwise, I would blame and resent those who reject. Our very family long disintegrated.

I see that the practitioners of therapeutic psychology have embraced the recognition of stultifying neglect, even though the US culture (indigenous aside) exists in a state of normalizing neglect.

Doreen - April 22, 2021 Reply

Hi jonice, i havent read your book. Just want to say this i have been having this emptiness now for a very long time and i can’t seem to get any help for it. It not easy just to hear someone say i understand what you are going through.

    Jonice - April 25, 2021 Reply

    No, Doreen, that is not enough. Only you can take the steps to heal. You’ll find many resources to help you with that throughout this site.

Victor - October 24, 2020 Reply

Dear Jonice, your book was a huge help for me to discover emotional neglect in my childhood. I would like to ask how often does lead emotional neglect to develop narcissistic personality disorder in the adulthood and under what circumstances could this happen? Are there any studies on this?Thanks.

Debra - September 9, 2020 Reply

Dear Doctor: This emptiness has plagued me for a very long time. I was treated poorly as a child and am still as an adult.

    Jonice - September 9, 2020 Reply

    Dear Debra, how do you treat yourself now? You deserve to be treated well and it’s very important to do take care of yourself.

Ed - September 9, 2020 Reply


Thank you for your insightful work. My recent diagnosis as an Asperger and HSP tells me I grew up in the family bubble for a life, not understanding society, others, nor myself obviously. I got yeses to 22 of 22 questions on your CEN test and so may add this third diagnosis. My hope is that you continue to write articles and point this out to others who do not know they need help.

    Ed - September 9, 2020 Reply

    As an aspie I never understood people, let alone me. Interpersonal communication is also a great stumbling block. Never was my truly loving parent able to talk with me about these obvious defecits. Being HSP gave me sensitivities that were never dealt with about everything and everyone. Mom was HSP and likely suffered similarly, so could not help. Dad was Asperger so he had his blind spots also. Guess you could say I was born into a soup for CEN.
    Thank you for your article.

    Jonice - September 9, 2020 Reply

    I will continue, Ed! New article every week right here on this website. All my best!

Tanya - September 8, 2020 Reply

As comforting as it is to finally figure out why I’ve always felt like I’m walking around with a hole in my core, as Gregg mentioned, identifying the issue (s) is a tiny drop in an ocean on the road to thriving And such a frustrating & confusing road it’s been for me having also been in & out of therapy since I was 7 years old when my mom would save the last 15 minutes of her session for me with her counselor.
At 50 years old & STILL struggling to find a therapist worth regurgitating my story to yet one more time is not easy. I don’t know what the problem is with the mental health community but finding a therapist to help me do the work on my specific issues shouldn’t be this hard when I’ve put as much time, effort & money into all aspects of the process as I have. It doesn’t seem right that I’ve learned more through my own research efforts than I have during years of sessions with mental health professionals.
It is a heartbreak for me to know that if only I could have found the right help sooner, I could have given my daughter more of what she needed & perhaps my relationship with her might not have fallen vulnerable prey to the alienation tactics. And as Deidre mentioned, the fear that I likely didn’t validate or show up for my daughter emotionally the way she needed & made her feel like my mom did at times is brutally painful.
It’s almost too much to comprehend that I

    Jonice - September 9, 2020 Reply

    Dear Tanya, it’s never too late to change your relationship with your daughter. Find out exactly how to do it, regardless of her age, in the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. It’s very important!

V - September 7, 2020 Reply

Thanks so much for sending these emails. They have helped me so much. I see a therapist and list like this help me to explain things to her. Many times I just don’t know how I feel so it is very hard to explain it to someone else.

Trish - September 7, 2020 Reply

I was adopted when I was three months old. My mother was emotionally unavailable and never showed affection. I craved love and approval but never got it. When I was 15 I was put back into children’s aid and made ward of the court. Rejected twice in the first 15 years of my life. As I read this it is very relatable.

Donna - September 7, 2020 Reply

Dear Jonice – I have to say a very big thank you – I always wondered what it was that was missing in my life and I tick all of the boxes for CEN. I can’t remember my mother spending time with me and my father became my refuge – however he did not like talking about feelings either although he was always there for a hug and support. My mother was a bully who loved the phrase ‘how could you do this to me?” when I was hurting I was made to feel guilty and my feelings were dismissed as ‘silly’, ‘stupid’ or ‘get over it’, but whatever it was I was hurting about it was always my fault. Everything was always geared towards what she wanted.
So thank you – I am now 63 and always wondered why I feel so numb and invisible to others and I feel still that no-one cares about my feelings. I am married to someone who had a mother similar to mine so we struggle in our relationship but we are solid in our love for each other so we weather the storms.
I will look for a therapist as I really need to get past this – I am sick of feeling this way, but knowing what the problem is has already helped!
Warm regards

    Jonice - September 7, 2020 Reply

    I’m so glad to be helpful to you, Donna. And I’m proud of you for seeking a therapist!

Kara - September 7, 2020 Reply

Dear Dr Webb just when I think I’m on top of this CEN thing along comes another one of your enlightening articles! All 8 apply to me but #5 in particular stands out. Whenever I have this thought I suppress it. It pops into my head from time to time seemingly out of the blue. I’m not suicidal so it feels quite alien to my usually positive frame of mind. I don’t want to stay there for fear I’ll actually go down a black hole and do something. However now I understand it is part of CEN, I’ll just sit with the feeling, explore it and come to terms with it. That process has worked well for me since coming into contact with your work to accept my anger, shame etc, so I figure it will work with this too. Thanks once again for an incredibly insightful article.

Chris - September 7, 2020 Reply

I’ve had this emptiness as long as I can remember. I tell people that I’m missing something everyone else has, like a secret everyone knows but no one is willing to tell me.

Pauline - September 6, 2020 Reply

Hello Jonice

I am definitely suffering from CEN. I have recently leaned that I am also an HSP
I feel deeply about others and how they feel and sad events. But feel numb and have never been able to talk about things that happened to me as a child.
I don’t understand why events are surfacing in my brain now.

Thank you

Jason - September 6, 2020 Reply

Why can’t other people understand, I don’t want people in my life!? Cause all people will do is hurt you, they want to make themselves feel better, off my misery. Screw them people. I have been empty so long, that there is no getting out of it. I wish I never existed! I won’t harm myself, or anyone else, I just hate life. I didn’t ask to be born, so why do I have to be here all alone, cause people are a$$e$? I’m sorry, I said to much.

    Jonice - September 7, 2020 Reply

    Dear Jason, there is only one way out of this for you, and that will be to accept help from another human being. I encourage you to connect with a therapist who can help you start opening your boundaries. Most people are not out to harm you, but when you have many bad experiences in childhood, it can definitely seem as if they are.

Deirdre - September 6, 2020 Reply

My mother was proud of following the Truby King baby raising program. This had the baby being isolated from birth, picked up and fed every 4 hours, played with for a period of 10-20 minutes daily. It said to indulge a crying infant was to create a monster and that soon it would realise who was boss and be quiet. It was, it gave up expecting comfort. My mother was a cold woman who `disliked being touched’ and I was never game to ask for comfort no matter what happened. Even when I was sexually molested at age 13 I `knew’ that she would simply say `it was my own fault.’ I have never had a loving sexual relationship, fear I may have damaged my own children and at age 78 know it is too late now to do anything about it. So I write. Stories about adventures and loving relationships. I had no idea I had CEN until a psychologist had me do a questionnaire for `Life Traps’ and there it was `emotional neglect.’ I’m glad you have also identified this pervasive and destructive condition and that so many may fight their way to a better life. PS: The Truby King method ended in 1955 and even before that many mothers were unable to listen to there newborns cry for hours on end but if they told the mothercraft nurses that they were severely scolded. It was cruel for both mother and baby. It went on from 1915 – 1955 and damaged so many lives.

    Jonice - September 7, 2020 Reply

    That’s horrible, Deirdre, I have never heard of that method but I do know that the fear of spoiling children caused great numbers of people to thoroughly neglect their babies and children. I’m so sorry this happened to you.

Deb - September 6, 2020 Reply

I too, vacillate between emptiness and too many feelings. I’ve been working my therapist to find the middle ground but it’s hard work. I still find myself getting especially frustrated with folks who have to get all in their feelings during business meetings, I was raised that you don’t bring emotion into the workplace, at all. I know everyone is different, but when folks get all feely, my walls still go up high and fast and no matter how hard I try to bring them down, it can take me days to see what really bothers me about the entire situation. I’m learning, tho.

    Jonice - September 7, 2020 Reply

    Keep learning, Deb! That is the key. Don’t stop striving for that middle ground of comfort with your emotions while also being able to manage them.

Patrick - September 6, 2020 Reply

If I ever meet you, you’ll get a huge hug! Finally Someone gets my childhood!

Chrissy - September 6, 2020 Reply

I was never allowed to get angry at my parents. They called me an ungrateful disrespectful brat. That even applied to the time my Mother went into a psychotic rage over GOD knows what and she started choking me to the point I couldn’t breathe so I pried her fingers from around my small neck and she actually ran into the house and told my Dad that I bent her finger back and hurt her????? I felt like I was in the twilight zone. Now as an adult I just want to sleep ALL the time and feel like a zombie when I’m awake. Thanks, Jonice, for another eye opening article.

    Jonice - September 6, 2020 Reply

    That is abuse, Chrissy, and I am very sorry it happened to you.

M - September 6, 2020 Reply

At different times, I feel both: the emptiness that is described in the article, and the emotions that Cat mentioned. The emotions are very strong and very many and very complex and overwhelming, as though I feel much MORE than others, not less.

    Jonice - September 6, 2020 Reply

    Dear M, consider talking this over with a CEN-trained therapist. It will be helpful to get some help with these strong feelings.

Susan - September 6, 2020 Reply

Thank you for your ongoing help and advice, Dr Jonice. I have read your books and found validation in them and your regular postings.

The empty feeling, for me, is also as if I’m so ‘full’ of stuff that I’m deliberately not wanting to feel, I cut off and choose to be empty, as it feels safer.

This is something I’m working on and trying to learn from. Thank you for your ongoing support, you are wonderful X

    Jonice - September 6, 2020 Reply

    Dear Susan, it’s good to hear this. I’m glad you’re working and learning.

Gregg - September 6, 2020 Reply

Hi Dr Webb,

I’ve been on antidepressants and in therapy on and off for three decades because of my alcoholic/Valium addicted mother who alternately ignored me or emotionally abused me. I’m in my 60s now and wonder if my attempts to heal will ever end.
Some of us have tougher journeys than others…
I have both of your books and re-read them annually. My therapists agree that CEN is one large component of my emotional problems.

    Jonice - September 7, 2020 Reply

    Dear Gregg, it’s true that recovery is harder for some than others. I’m glad you have a therapist and I encourage you to keep working at it. Step by step, it will pay off.

Jan - September 6, 2020 Reply

So glad you listed numbers 4 and 5 as I identify with them and haven’t seen these particular descriptions of emotional neglect before. I am 79 years old and have worked with a terrific therapist for some time now who does not use the word, “CEN,” but who recognizes my problem of repressed emotions from childhood. Every year I feel better as I continue to pursue my healing. I’m not giving up because my dad and his mother both lived to be 101 years old, so I may have many years ahead of me!

    Jonice - September 6, 2020 Reply

    Dear Jan, absolutely you must keep working on this! It can have a big impact on your quality of life, and it sounds like you have plenty of time to do the work 🙂

cat - September 6, 2020 Reply

I have had a hard time understanding this, because I would not describe this feeling as emptiness. i feel very full of feelings and needs. i experience having pain and overwhelming need for things that others don’t seem to need, and i flip from understanding that as a lack in myself and a lack in the world and other people, but never emptiness in myself.

    Jonice - September 6, 2020 Reply

    That’s okay, Cat. Be true to your own feelings and don’t feel pressured to feel “empty.” Everyone is different.

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