The Definition of Empty: “Not Filled”

Everyone knows what the word “empty” means. It’s a simple word, easily understood.  But what does “empty” mean in terms of human feelings and emotions? Here, it is not so simply defined.

My definition of emptiness as a human emotion: the feeling that’s caused by the absence of feeling; a general sense that something is missing inside of oneself; a feeling of disconnection from oneself and others; numbness; sometimes experienced physically as an empty space in the belly, chest, throat or other part of the body.

Emptiness is not a clinical term among mental health professionals. It’s not a common term among the general public. It’s not something that people generally talk about. Yet in my 25 years of practicing psychology, I have encountered many people who have tried to express it to me in some way. Few of them have had the words to describe it. Mostly I had to intuit what was going on for them and give them the words. Each time, it brought the person great relief. It is incredibly healing and connecting to put a label on a plaguing, undefined feeling that has dogged one for years. A label offers understanding and hope, and a path somewhere.

I have a theory about why emptiness has gone so unnoticed, unknown and ill-defined. It’s because emptiness is not actually a feeling; it’s an absence of feeling. We human beings are not wired to notice, define or discuss the absence of things. We have a hard enough time talking about feelings. But the absence of feelings seems almost too vague, unimaginable, invisible; too difficult to grab hold of.

This is why so many people live with this feeling on and off throughout a lifetime. Many people don’t even know they have it, much less what it is. They just know that they feel “off”; like something just isn’t right with them. They feel different from other people in some inexplicable way. One person said to me, “I feel like a bit player in the movie of my own life.” Another said, “I feel like I’m on the outside, looking in at other people who are truly living.”

I also have a theory about–

What causes emptiness:

Children who grow up in a household where feelings are not acknowledged, validated or responded to enough, receive a powerful message. They learn that their emotions are not valid, do not matter, or are unacceptable to others. They learn that they must ignore, neutralize, devalue or push away their emotions. For some children, this message permeates every aspect of their emotional lives; for others, it may only affect certain parts. Either way, the child disconnects from his own feelings. He pushes them down and away (because after all, they are useless, negative or unacceptable to others). It’s adaptive for the child to do this, as it will help her to be more comfortable in her family environment. But she is unknowingly sacrificing the most deeply personal, biological part of who she is: her emotions. Years later, as an adult, she will feel the absence of this vital part of herself. She will feel the empty space which her feelings are meant to fill. She will feel disconnected, unfulfilled, empty.

I have noticed, over years of working with people who have emptiness, that they are usually thoroughly stand-up folks. They are folks who care for others better than they care for themselves; who put a smile on their faces and soldier on, never giving away that something’s just not right for them. They literally run on empty.

I‘ve given a name to this process of developing emptiness. I call it Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). I’m trying to educate people about CEN. I’m trying to reach the scores of people who are living their lives under its influence, with little awareness or ability to describe it. I’m trying to offer them the words to talk about it, and the opportunity to heal.

To learn more about emptiness and Childhood Emotional Neglect, read more throughout this website, www.EmotionalNeglect.com, or pick up a copy of my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. It’s available on this website under THE BOOK tab, via Amazon (Kindle or paperback), or through your local bookstore.



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Topher - September 2, 2023 Reply

I think we all experience these sorts of things and for all sorts of different reasons and this can shift as everything about us shifts, constantly, as we journey towards the end of living.

I journal and I notice that I experience this ‘weirdness’ as I call a few times most weeks. I seem to notice it when there’s a mismatch when a part of me might want to do something like spend more time with friends or family and be more social but the competing demands of work on my time and energy make this impossible. It could be a multitude of other reasons as life moves on, sometimes its a fleeting thing other times it lingers.

It seems to me that there is always a danger when putting a label on something like CEN that we automatically construct a story around such a label of brokenness and maybe a self fulfilling prophesy emerges along with the story reinforcing a certain perspective.

Perhaps this might be helpful for some but perhaps its a disaster for others. It looks like science is showing us that our memories are constructions that are changeable and malleable so we can misremember and falsify memories really easily.

I wonder how looking back through these constructions might keep us stuck there and obscure what could well be a range of current cultural disorders that are actually more responsible for our current state than anything else. Diets filed with UPF, de-pressing jobs, poverty, bad neighbourhoods, horrible school experiences, shift works, debt, overuse of screens and on and on – cultural disorders abound, unnoticed and obscured by psychologising and psychiatrising everything.

    Jonice - September 4, 2023 Reply

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Human psychology is indeed complicated, and research shows that memories can be corrupted by time and emotion. However, that doesn’t mean that we should say that none of our memories or feelings can be trusted. When people feel a gut sense of a connection to something or a deep feeling of finally understanding themselves or having discovered a personal truth, it would be a mistake to ignore that or try to explain it away.

Joy - September 19, 2020 Reply

I was raised in a CEN/alcoholic home and have been diagnosed with Asperger’s. I also identify with HSP. Is it possible to tweak these apart? The symptoms are so similar, especially emptiness and loneliness, and overlap each other; I don’t do confusion well.

    amy - March 21, 2022 Reply

    I am looking for an answer to this question as well. My husband and I were both raised in CEN homes. I am trying to overcome this, while my husband doesn’t feel the same need. We have wondered if he is on the spectrum, and there does seem to be a lot of overlap between this and alexithymia.

Daria Beale - August 17, 2019 Reply

I remember this feeling, that I was missing something, everybody else just knew. It was like everyone had gotten a memo, that I never saw, and they all acted like, what’s wrong with you? You didn’t get that memo? But, no one could tell me where to find it, or what it said.

    Jonice - August 18, 2019 Reply

    Dear DAria, that is likely a result of CEN. It is common among people who grow up in families that ignore feelings. You can heal your CEN and the world will feel less confusing and puzzling.

Olivia - August 29, 2017 Reply

I googled “why do I feel so empty” and found your book, I then downloaded the audiobook and my cousin also bought your book.
I couldn’t believe how much it made sense. I’ve been through hell and back with neglect from my mother, my dads booze habit, and then to top it off, I spent 14 years being abused by the father of my kids. Seeking help now.

tracy - September 14, 2016 Reply

Hi my name is Tracy some times I fee like empty or alone. For one I grew up without my father hasn’t been in my life . My mother died a while back . When she passes I looked for my father. Been call him much as I can. NOTw .Don’t even get a call from him. It a Tex. And I’m in a relationship and I feel that my and my fire husband some times don’t connect. I feel like I’m being used. I been feeling like this a couple years since my father been in my life. I feel out place. And on top of that I don’t like ke his daml t members.

Susan - July 16, 2016 Reply

Hi- thank you for your post and helpful suggestions and most importantly validation. I ended up seeking out Therapy over 2 years ago. My husband became very ill and then was home
Recovering and doing well while I
Was ready to fall apart. My journey has been hard, scary and enlightening. I am just now coming to terms with how emotionally neglectful my mum was while I experienced years of physical abuse from my father and sexual abuse from a neighbor that led to my suicide attempt – all not acknowledged by my mum. Years followed of burying my issues and pleasing or trying to please everyone -But me. So much of your posts resonates with me. It doesn’t make sense to me why I am annoyed at my mum for the not doing while I had really focused on my father and what he did. My process has been long and surprising that I can’t just wish it away. I find it helpful to read I am not alone and that this work can be hard- thank you!

Ash - May 14, 2015 Reply

I am crying and going through all of your blog posts, thank you so so much. I am 21 and I have been on a healing process, alone for the most part, since discovering I had an anxiety disorder a few months ago. I have been learning self-love and have unlearned a lot of the unhealthy feelings that result from CEN. But reading these posts is so incredibly helpful. Its giving name to so many things I’ve felt and explained the reason why I do things I’ve been condemning myself for. I’ve only really been working on healing for about 6 months and its been difficult and at times I’ve felt lost and unsure what to do next because I am doing it on my own, through my own research and prayer and self inquiry, etc. I really cant articulate how incredible and helpful it is to find this. Thank you so so much.

    Jonice Webb - May 17, 2015 Reply

    Dear Ash, I’m so happy to be of help! At 21, you have ample time to deal with everything, and it sounds like you are. I encourage you to find a trained professional, and let him or her help guide and support you through the process. CEN folks feel more comfortable doing everything on their own, and that’s exactly why they (you) shouldn’t. Wishing you all the best.

Terry - February 25, 2015 Reply

Thank you for bringing CEN to the attention of all who suffer. My childhood was extremely dysfunctional and as a result my adult life has been in turmoil for many years. When I was in my 20’s I saw a therapist and couldn’t explain other than to say I felt empty inside. Now I know why, unfortunately I lost my husband over my mental health and I’m 3 years into being single again. With the help of your book I
have realized a lot of things were not my fault, I was wired
incorrectly. It’s hard to make people understand though, they can’t comprehend the depression and anxiety that I am lft with. I don’t remember the last time I was happy or looked forward to something.Thank you for the book, it’s a start.

    Jonice Webb - February 25, 2015 Reply

    Dear Terry, yes it’s a start. I hope that you’ll continue. Now that you know what’s wrong, therapy can be very different. Please find a good therapist, show them the book and work through it with them. That way you’ll address what’s really wrong instead of a bunch of distracting variables and symptoms. I think that you CAN be happy and looking forward to things. Take care!

Fill that Empty - January 27, 2015 Reply

Dear Dr Jonice Webb
I want to thank you so much to have come across your site. I’m a Chinese age 40, from the survey, I’m in it. Though I’ve not read your book (I will asap), your words of CEN understanding efforts has acknowledge and comfort me the most. Since last Dec till today, though I’m getting depress and come to terms of this effects, I need to appreciate having the fortunate to found about myself. I began to think about my parents and friends having CEN too. I could not blame my parents though, but I’m praying things will change for a better. I’ve a question here, hope you would enlighten me.
1) Should I share my CEN to my parents, sibling and friends? (Since they are suffering it too) Does this necessary to share it? I feel ashame and being judged.
2) will there be any bad consequences of doing so?
3) how should I treat my friends who has the same (or worst) CEN than me? (I’m a Buddhist leader) how should I respond to them since I’m one myself too but I do not want to disappoint them? However at times, I just want to be myself.

Thank you for reading, hope to hear from you.

    Jonice Webb - January 28, 2015 Reply

    Hi Fill that Empty, I understand what’s happening for you. Once you understand CEN, you start to see it everywhere. Deciding to share it with your parents can be dicey. I would do that very carefully. Siblings and friends are easier. I think it’s such a helpful concept that it’s worth talking about with people you feel can benefit. Having people read my blog or the book is a good way to introduce CEN. Focus on yourself, and healing yourself before you worry about others, oK? Take care!!

Ruth Anne - January 24, 2015 Reply

Dr. Webb, I am so glad I have found your website. I know that I have suffered from CEN for many years but never had a word for it. My father was virtually absent from my life and my mother, once remarried, found me unnacceptable and rebellious. I have spent so many years full of rage for their neglect. I even married a man who was emotionally neglectful. I have repaired my relationship with my mother and husband but my father has recently died and I have been left with this overwhelming confusion, sadness, anger over his neglect. I hate that I even feel this way. I’m gonna get your book so I can get through this.

    Jonice Webb - January 24, 2015 Reply

    Dear Ruth Anne, of course you feel this way! Your feelings are normal. Your parents are/were not, I’m sorry to say. Your anger at them makes sense, but your anger at yourself does now. You can still have a fulfilling, happy life. You sound ready to take on your CEN, and that is Step 1. I think the book will be very helpful, and I encourage you to also find a therapist to work with if needed. Take care, and check back to let us know how you’re doing, OK? Best wishes for you!

Tracy - July 31, 2013 Reply

I’m becoming more aware of this in my own life. The other day my parents and I decided to spend a day in the States (we live in a Canadian border town) and said we would get lunch while we were down there. The drive to get us to our destination would take us about an hour, but my stomach was already growling. I knew I couldn’t last that long. At 35 years of age, instead of saying I couldn’t wait until we get to our destination I ask them to stop at McDonald’s so I can get a coffee for the drive down all the while knowing I’m going in to pick up a few McNuggets to quell my hunger. I minimized my feelings of hunger because I knew I’d get flack from my parents for either a. Not eating before we left, b. not preparing for a trip and now we have to stop, and/or c. “Couldn’t wait until we get there, huh?” (Which I heard and further minimized with “Oh, they just smelled so good I had to take a batch”).

    Jonice Webb - July 31, 2013 Reply

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience! Your example is about a physical feeling (hunger), but chances are, this dynamic between your parents and you also extends to emotional feelings. Yours is a perfect description of how a person who’s feelings are minimized by others will begin to minimize their own feelings. It’s a natural process. I hope you’ll do your best to fight against it. Owning your own feelings, accepting them and valuing them is the process for filling yourself up. I appreciate your comments so much. I wish all the best to you.

Judy Wolven - July 31, 2013 Reply

I just wanted to tell you that you are the first person to ever point me in the right direction about what’s been going on in my head. I’ve visited counselors and therapists in the past, and all they seemed to want to do, is medicate me, for the purpose of making me stop crying when I try to discuss how I “feel”. Reading your book, after being led there by Psych Central on Facebook, I finally am able to articulate to others “why I am like this”. At the age of 51, I can finally look back on things from my childhood, and fully understand how messed up those incidents really were, and how they have affected my entire adult life. I’m not sure I can change myself, but I know I can now help my friends and family understand me better. Thanks!

    Jonice Webb - July 31, 2013 Reply

    Thank you so much for your comment. I am so honored that my book has touched you in this way. I want to tell you that you definitely can change this. It’s a matter of learning to value and trust your emotions. I’m not saying it’s easy; it’s not. But it’s worth the effort. Please keep on trying! My best wishes to you.

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