The Different Faces of Emptiness: Part 1
In many ways, emptiness or numbness is worse than pain. Many people have told me that they would far prefer feeling anything to nothing. It is very difficult to acknowledge, make sense of, or put words to something that is absent. Emptiness seems like nothing to most people. And nothing is nothing, neither bad nor good. But in the case of a human being’s internal functioning, nothing is definitely something. Empty is actually a feeling in and of itself. And I have discovered that it is a feeling that can be very intense and powerful. In fact, it has the power to drive people to do extreme things to escape it.
(From Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect)
Empty is the” unfeeling” feeling. It’s the painful sense that some vital ingredient is missing from inside. Does it feel the same for everyone who has it? For example, does it feel different if you have depression, a personality disorder, or just straight Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)? The answer is yes. It all depends on one factor: how extreme were its causes?
Causes of Emptiness:
- Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): This is the type of Empty that I address in my book, Running on Empty. It is caused by growing up in a household that is blind to emotion. Children who grow up this way sense that their emotions are invisible and irrelevant. So they push their feelings down, so as to not burden themselves or their parents. These children grow into adults who are out of touch with their own feelings. The emptiness that results is literally a deep sense that something is missing inside; some essential ingredient that is a deeply personal and vital part of who you are. That essential ingredient is, of course, your feelings.
- Active Invalidation in Childhood: This is a more extreme version of the CEN described above. It happens when your parents are not just blind to your emotions; they actively reject your emotions. Examples are rejection (ex: “Go to your room”) or punishment for simply being sad, angry, or hurt. If you grow up this way, you learn to not just push your emotions away; but to actively reject and punish yourself for having feelings. In adulthood, your empty space will be filled with self-directed anger and self-blame. On top of feeling empty, you may feel uncomfortable in your own skin, and you may not like yourself very much overall. You may be more vulnerable to depression.
- Shallow, Harsh, Unpredictable Parenting: This is the type of childhood experience which causes significant disruption in the child’s personality that can lead to the development of a personality disorder (such as Narcissistic or Borderline). These parents respond to the child on the surface, while selectively, unpredictably rejecting and punishing his emotional responses. In addition, they greatly reward the child for being how they want him to be, and harshly reject or punish him for simply being, or feeling, himself. When you grow up this way, since you are not permitted to “be” who you are, you develop a fragmented version of who you should be. You reject parts of yourself that your parents find unacceptable, and may experience yourself as perfect one day, and horrible or worthless the next. The missing piece for this child, once grown up, is more than emotion; it’s a cohesive sense of self. This is the deepest, most painful form of Empty. This is the emptiness that is felt by people with personality disorders.
So if you have Empty Type 1 or 2, you have a cohesive “self,” but you lack access to your emotions. With Type 3, you have a fragmented “self” and little access to your emotions. But the anger and pain caused by the unpredictable, shallow and harsh treatment throughout childhood runs deep. Those emotions may erupt unpredictably and intensely, outside your control. You feel empty because you sense, deep down, that your true “self” is fragmented or missing. Sadly, you were not able to develop it while you were growing up.
Here’s the good news. All three forms of emptiness, once understood and acknowledged, can be overcome. Watch for my next post, The Different Forms of Emptiness Part II, which will be about the paths to healing when you have Emptiness Type 1, 2 or 3.
Yes, they are different.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty.
This article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral