‘I have of late – but wherefore I know not -lost my mirth, foregone all custom of exercise; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition, that this goodly frame the earth seems to me a stale promontory.’
We have seen in other articles posted on this site that those who suffered significant childhood trauma are at increased risk of developing conditions such as depression, anhedonia and borderline personality disorder (BPD). One of the main symptoms of all three of these disorders is chronic and intense feelings that life has no meaning or purpose and a sense of emotional deadness/sense that one’s feelings have ‘shut down’ (sometimes referred to by psychologists as having flat affect). In short, a feeling of being emotionally void and of absolute emptiness. This intense, profound and pervasive sense of emptiness is also associated with feelings of alienation, identity disturbance. fear of abandonment and dissociation, helplessness, mental paralysis and a distressing sense of ‘losing the ‘self.’
According to Gunderston, in people suffering from BPD, feelings of emptiness is a symptom which is particularly resistant to treatment compared to, for example, symptoms of BPD such as impulsivity and anger so that patients are forced to live with, and adapt to, such feelings rather than to eliminate them completely.
Failure of Early Caregiving: Object Relations Theory:
One theory that purports to explain the origins of feelings of profound emptiness derives from object relations theory. According to this theory, which is concerned with the effects of the interaction between the infant and his/her environment, inadequate early caregiving in early life leads to the infant being unable to internalize feelings of safety and security so s/he does not learn to self-soothe. This inability to self-soothe (a key feature of BPD) extends into adulthood, according to the theory, and part of the psychological manifestation of this inability frequently takes the form of feelings of emptiness.
Feeling empty can lead the individual into a desperate search to at least feel something, even if that ‘something’ is negative ( in terms of its effect on self and others).
This drive to feel something rather than nothing is generally fuelled by an unconscious motivation.
Because it is so hard for an individual suffering from this pervasive sense of emptiness to feel anything, the experiences that s /he may seek to pursue (to at least feel something) may be ones that are intense (whether they be emotional or physical experiences).
Such experiences may include:
– provoking others into angry and aggressive arguments
– provoking physical fights
– impulsivity/thrill-seeking/risk-taking (eg. high stakes gambling)
– extreme use of alcohol/street drugs
– being cruel to animals
– testing others to their limits ( to see if they remain loyal)
– compulsive shopping
– compulsive eating
– mirroring: the individual who experiences feelings of emptiness tends to have a very weak sense of his/her own identity and feels hollow as a person. In extreme cases, this can lead him/her into taking on the persona of someone else in order to fill this vacuum. In so doing, s/he may imitate the person’s mannerisms, behaviour and style of dress and take up the person’s interests and hobbies. In very extreme cases s/he may take on the person’s name and pretend to have their past.
More healthy ways of strengthening one’s sense of identity include:
– voluntary work for a cause one supports and believes in (eg. Amnesty International)
– taking up a new hobby or resuming an old one
– getting a pet
– developing spirituality
– going to adult learning classes to study a subject that interests one
– training for a new career
Therapies that can potentially help people suffering feelings of emptiness include:
– existential psychotherapy
– humanistic psychotherapy
– logotherapy (this therapy was developed by Frankl, the writer and holocaust survivor)
Gunderson, JG, Links, PS. Borderline personality disorder: A clinical guide, 2nd edn. Arlington: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2008
Klonsky, E David. (2008). What is Emptiness? Clarifying the 7th Criterion for Borderline Personality Disorder. Journal of personality disorders. 22. 418-26. 10.1521/pedi.2008.22.4.418.
David Hosier BSc; MSc, PGDE(FAHE).
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