The Faces of Emptiness: The Paths to Healing

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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.

A quote from the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect

There are legions of fine people walking around feeling numb or empty, and for good reason. They all grew up in homes that did not notice their feelings or respond to them enough.

There is, indeed, a real connection between this type of childhood and that feeling. And the short quote above, in some ways, says it all.

But to summarize in a nutshell how this happens: Your parents act as if your emotions are invisible or irrelevant, so you do too. You block your emotions off to “protect” yourself from being bothered or burdened by them. You lose access to this deepest, most personal expression of who you are.

Then, as an adult, you feel it. Perhaps you know you should be feeling something but you’re not. Perhaps you look around and see other people living in a bright, colorful world but yours seems gray. Perhaps you have a deep sense of something missing inside you. Perhaps you feel an empty feeling in your belly or chest or throat.

Perhaps your body is trying to tell you that something is very wrong.

Healing Your Emptiness

Healing your emptiness is not necessarily simple, but it is definitely possible. It has been done successfully by many people before you, and it will be done by many after.

The healing process takes place in three different areas, outlined in the table below. Once you’ve looked through the 3 areas of healing your emptiness, continue on to see the steps you can take to work on this.

3 Areas to Heal Your Emptiness

Thoughts/Behavior Relationships Your Inner Life  
Recognize what you didn’t get in childhood Increase emotional connections Grieve what you didn’t get
Emotional awareness & management Boundaries (distance?) with parents as needed Develop compassion for yourself
Self-care Work on trusting others Decrease self-directed anger
Decrease self-blame Therapy relationship Self-acceptance & self-love
Increase self-knowledge Share your pain with another Value your emotions
If you have depression or anxiety, consider therapy and medication Let down your walls Reclaim the parts of yourself that your parents rejected or ignored

If you find this Table overwhelming, please don’t be alarmed. As I said above, all of these can be done. I know this because I have been through them with many people in therapy, and have witnessed amazing progress.

However, please take note of two things: It takes commitment, a conscious effort, and time; and it often helps tremendously to work with a skilled therapist who you feel very comfortable with.

Follow These 3 Steps to Heal Your Emptiness

Step 1: Recognition and Grieving: The first and most vital step for everyone who feels Empty is to recognize that your empty space represents something that you didn’t get in childhood. Identify what is missing (emotional validation, connection and perhaps rejected parts of yourself), and grieve it all. This may involve feeling sad and/or angry. It’s okay. You have to feel it to move forward.

Step 2: Start to Fill the Holes: Befriend your emotions; start noticing when you have them; learn to name them and to manage them. Listen to what they are telling you.

Step 3: Work on Self-Care: Put yourself first, learn to say no. Pay attention to your own needs and recognize that your needs matter. Stop blaming yourself.

Steps 1, 2 and 3 can all be worked on by making a conscious effort, paying attention, and self-monitoring on the tracking sheets from the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. You may want to enlist the help of a CEN therapist. Visit the Find A CEN Therapist List to find a CEN-trained therapist to help.

Step 4: Let Down Your Walls: Share with a trusted person that you are working on getting closer to people, and to accept and feel more connection and love. Try to express your feelings more and to be more assertive.

You may make more progress here by getting some emotional or physical distance from your neglectful parents. The distance can be temporary, while you work on this.

Step 5: Learn to Love Yourself: Yes, it is easier said than done. This process involves seeing yourself as the child you were, growing up as you did. What parts of you did your parents ignore or reject? Know that they did so because of who they were, not because of who you were.

Have compassion for that little child, and for yourself as an adult. Your struggle is real, and you deserve more and better. You must reclaim, and learn to love, all of the different parts of who you are: your emotions, your needs, your inner you.

Above all, as you do this work, please carry these words with you:

Your emptiness is an important part of you. It represents the old and the past, but also the future and the new.

It is not an absence but free space filled not with pain, but with possibility. It is room for your new story, the one you will write yourself. It is room for your life, your feelings, and the people who you choose.

Fill it with self-knowledge, self-care, self-compassion, self-love, and your people.

Then you will find yourself running on empty no more.

To read more about healing the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect on your relationships see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty. 


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Murphy - March 29, 2022 Reply

Excellent article. Thank-you.

Carol - March 27, 2022 Reply

This explains so much. At this point in my life how do I identify my needs and what I want because all my life I have been taught to only people please and take care of my parents who are now dead. It’s a dreadful emptiness. It was filled with work.

    Jonice - March 29, 2022 Reply

    Dear Carol, the answers are in your feelings. Start paying attention to your feelings.

Cas - March 27, 2022 Reply

I have both of your audiobooks. They have been astoundingly helpful. I’ve suffered from depression, PTSD and the woeful emptiness for over 40 years. I’ve seen many therapists and they’ve never seemed to help. Once I listened to your books on audible I found the descriptions fit me to a T. My parents both had major trauma and problems in their life and had very little room except to try to survive. I have been told from the time I was a small child that I wanted too much attention and that what I needed or wanted was unimportant. Because it always was my parents survival mode and care first and nothing else. At 64 I feel like I have lost a lifetime and hope that in the time remaining I can gain some fulfillment.

J. Caz - April 18, 2020 Reply

What is emotional validation from their parents in childhood? Can you give examples?

    Jonice - April 18, 2020 Reply

    Dear J.Caz, both of my books are full of examples, but one would be: “I understand that you are sad. It’s because…. I get it.” Just letting someone know that their feelings make sense and are understood.

George - April 14, 2020 Reply

Hi Child Hood Abuse By’ Step Father NARRCISS Control BEAT’ING’S Watch Him’ Beat My’ Mother An’ Separate Us From RELITIVE’S For Most of Year’s GRow’ Up’ An’ My’ Mother Had Two Nervous Break Down’s All’ of My’ Siblings left Home Before 16 yrs of Age I’m Still Recovering At 62 Yrs Thank You !!

    Jonice - April 14, 2020 Reply

    I am so sorry, George. That is a lot of abuse to endure as a child. I’m glad you are in the process of recovery!

Karl - April 13, 2020 Reply

I have been diagnosed with Avoidant Personality Disorder, and find that there are several similarities between CEN and AvPD. After years of struggling with AvPD/CEN, not knowing what’s been wrong but pushing on regardless (both mentally and physically), I have unfortunately also developed ME/CFS. My body no longer tolerates the stress of leaving the house to go to a therapist. But these very concise, to-the-point emails that you send out have just the right amount of wisdom and concrete advice about what to do, and how to do it. So I just want to say a big THANK YOU for spreading your words of wisdom. I find myself well on the start to recovery. A long road ahead, but I finally feel that I’m getting the tools to do the job needed.

    Jonice - April 13, 2020 Reply

    Dear Karl, I am so glad to be helpful to you. Avoidance and CEN definitely go together. Perhaps you’ll be able to get to a point to be able to see a therapist to guide you further, as I know that can help things along faster. All my best to you!

Syonia - April 13, 2020 Reply

Thank you for your work its been a big help to me for years. I’m struggling more frequently over the loss of my children. It’s all consuming and I have to mask it at all cost or I’m debilitated. My son has refused to speak with me for the last 17 years. Other family members are in contact but I’m blocked on all social media, calls, or any communication whatsoever. My daughter has in the past year or so has joined with him in the rejection. The emptiness is getting stronger over time and I need a way to cope. The family has tried over the years to help me start to rebuild our relationship but the kids refuse to speak to me. Is there anything I can do or read to help alleviate this soul crushing feeling of loss? It is moment by moment day by day and much sleeplessness. I can’t force them to let me in but I need to try to work past it. My other family members have tried to discuss this with them to no avail and are astonished, as am i, over their reluctance to give an inch and at least have a conversation. I am now convinced I was the most horrible mother ever even though I tried my best. I’ve gone thru so many stages of grief that they just repeat. Is there a way to stop the cycle?

    Jonice - April 13, 2020 Reply

    Dear Syonia, I’m so sorry this is happening; it must be so painful. I wish I could advise you but I don’t have enough info about you and your kids and what went wrong between you. All I can say is listen carefully to anything they say about why they have cut ties, and seek the advice of a professional therapist. If this is CEN-related, I suggest you find your therapist from the CEN Therapist List on this site. All my best wishes to you.

    Laura - April 16, 2020 Reply

    Hi Syonia,
    I have cut ties with my father and mother – not completely as in the case with your children, but perhaps I can provide some insight:

    My father and mother divorced when I was 13. My mother unbeknownst dropped me off at my father’s house with all my things in garbage bags. I never had a normal relationship with her since. I am 35.
    My father used me as his personal sounding board – I was troubled and needed guidance and stability. Instead I received daily the complicated emotionality of a man whose wife left him for a fellow coworker and start a new life. In addition to feeling rejected by my Mom, all i wanted to do was help my Dad not be so sad. I absorbed his pain and did not have a clean slate as a 13 -14 year old girl to develop my own sense of self. We talked daily about my Mother and how terrible she was to leave us. My 2 younger siblings would come over on weekends and my Mom would not ever try to see me when she dropped them off. She would send gifts to my Dad on holidays from the younger kids that had cruel innuendos like a giant MR BIG chocolate bar or a bottle of wine that said FAT BASTARD. These sorts of things (there were many) stayed with me and I carried so much guilt with me as a teen that in my early 20s I experienced a psychosis. I was hospitalized and my father went through my room looking for answers: he took my journal and read through them, told the staff that my Mother abandoned me… ugh, it goes on and on. He was constantly violating my boundaries. To this day, he does not listen to me, he only sees what suits him.

    During this time in pandemic, my life comes back at me as if it happened yesterday. I think of what my dreams were when I was young – I was playing piano and singing. But I became a counselor for my Sad Dad and constantly wondered what I did to make my own Mother just disown me so easily and drive away.

    I keep in touch with them here and there but mostly have cut them out. I do not want to have them on my Instagram but I keep them because I dont want them to feel like you do. Too much guilt. I let them know I’m alive but when they get too close, it feels like an open wound and it pushes me off balance. I will not invite them to my wedding, but I’ll let them see it on social media. I dunno! Pain is real and I love them deep down, but my life is better when they aren’t screwing me up.

    I’m sorry that you feel empty from this loss.

    Like Jonice said, try truly listening to your children and take down any walls of defense and denial.

      Jonice - April 17, 2020 Reply

      Dear Laurie, it was so kind and caring of you to share your story to help Lyonia. I applaud you for saving yourself from the dysfunction you have experienced. Thank you for sharing!

Melissa - April 13, 2020 Reply

Dr. Webb,
It seems like there’s an invisible, bottomless hole that needs to be filled in me. I’ve tried busyness and food but neither work. With focus I’ve been able to slow down and feel more but I still overeat. It feels like there’s a link between CEN and lack of control with food but I don’t know what to do. Do you have suggestions?
Thank you so much!

    Jonice - April 13, 2020 Reply

    Dear Melissa, sometimes the efforts to fill oneself can take on a life of their own. Definitely keep working to feel and process your feelings. At the same time, your eating may have become a compulsion or habit and will have to be addressed separately as a habit. I encourage you to seek some help with that from eating experts or programs. I hope this helps, Melissa. Keep up the great work you’re doing!

Matt - April 12, 2020 Reply

Hi Jonice,
so glad I found you and
your practice!
You are savings lives
I helping people come.back to life
Thank you!
.art S

    Jonice - April 13, 2020 Reply

    I’m glad to be helpful, Matt. Take care!

Patrice - April 12, 2020 Reply

I am 66 and finally realize the reason I have felt so lost my entire life…lost in understanding myself and relationships with others,(Especially men). My mother revealed to me that when I was 5 with Tonsillitis, she did not notice I wasn’t eating until my stomach protruded in starvation mode. When I was 6 months old, I had to go to the hospital for Pneumonia, for 1 week, and she did not go. I have no “sense of self”. I don’t know how to get one. I think it is too late for me.

    Jonice - April 12, 2020 Reply

    Dear Patrice, that sounds like all kinds of neglect and I’m so sorry you experienced that. It is never too late to find your feelings and yourself, and at 66 you have plenty of time. I encourage you to check the Find A CEN Therapist List and make an appointment. You can work your way through this and experience and enjoy life differently.

Jo - April 12, 2020 Reply

How to ‘feel’ and grieve the tragic sudden unexpected death of my husband of 48 years? I’ve been bipolar for 30 years and fit the criteria for borderline personality disorder disorder until 8 years ago. Lots is of DBT,mindfulness and therapy so do not meet the criteria any more.
But…..I’m not feeling the sadness etc. And am concerned.

    Jonice - April 12, 2020 Reply

    Dear Jo, I am so very sorry for your loss. Grief is a very individualized thing. Your brain may be still trying to process this extreme event. I encourage you to talk to a therapist for guidance through this.

Robyn - April 12, 2020 Reply

I came across your work around 6 months ago, and could immediately relate to what you describe. Learning about CEN brought me clarity and understanding of why I think and feel as I do, going back for as long as I can remember. I have distanced myself from my parents for my own peace of mind, and started on what I believe to be the path to recovery. I have apologised to my 3 children for things I may have done that neglected their emotional wellbeing when they were growing up. One of my children who is probably more sensitive than the others thinks that I am just playing the victim card, and is unwilling to forgive me for my past words and actions. She is living back at home again as an adult, but will not even acknowledge me when I am present in the house. I feel like I am back in that place of rejection and aloneness yet again, but I’m not wanting to further contribute to my daughter’s woundedness by insisting that she find somewhere else to live. I feel like she is using my woundedness to bully and manipulate the situation to her advantage. Is this something you have come across before?

    Jonice - April 12, 2020 Reply

    Dear Robyn, I’m sorry you are going through this. I strongly encourage you to talk this through with a therapist. Mother/daughter relationships are very complex and I don’t know enough about the full picture to say anything useful. Except yes, I have seen this before. A therapist can help you find the right boundary with your daughter and hold it. Please seek help.

Donna - January 31, 2015 Reply

I have been in therapy on and off since high school. I am 57 years old now. Therapy never really helps me even though I feel I give it my best effort. Recently I discovered Dr. Conrad Baars book at the book store and took it to my then therapist. She said “it’s as if you wrote this about yourself.” She was frustrated that her Masters of Social Work program had mentioned nothing about emotional neglect. I started out hopeful and committed but after about six months decided this young woman really could not reparent me for five years and she agreed, there was really nothing she could do for me. I was very discouraged for about a month or two but then found you online and am feeling more hopeful. Thirteen or more therapists have never mentioned this disorder and actually seem to see me as high functioning. In reality, I am severely struggling with the symptoms of emotional neglect. Can you suggest a course of action for me regarding: therapist or by myself read the book and work on this? Thanks, Donna

    Jonice Webb - February 1, 2015 Reply

    Dear Donna, I’m glad that you feel hopeful, as I think you should! You are motivated, and you know what’s wrong, the two essential ingredients for change. I suggest you read the book, and then find a therapist who’s willing to go through the second half of it with you, and help you with the healing parts. Check back and let us know how it goes.

Aaydah copprue howard - December 8, 2014 Reply

I am interested in receiving information to help me and my family

    Jonice Webb - December 9, 2014 Reply

    Hi, Aaydah, I’m sorry but I can only answer specific questions on this page. Let me know if you have a particular question, OK? Thank you.

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