Accepting and dealing with inner emptiness

A common result of growing up with trauma and deprivation is what some therapists call an inability to “self sooth.” In healthy families parents model and teach their kids how to comfort themselves when they feel angry, stressed, or sad. When that doesn’t happen – especially when kids grow up with an over-abundance of stress and sadness – this is experienced as an inner emptiness that gives rise to unhealthy coping strategies later in life (including addictions, workaholism, and codependency).

This inner emptiness is a challenge for many people, and it doesn’t just go away when we grow in a relationship with God. The famous quote by Saint Augustine that “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God” is true enough about life in general, but we’re talking about the void that is created by suffering in early life and an absence of nurture.

This inner emptiness gives rise to addiction, and creates challenges for people in recovery. Many clients report that after experiencing some time of sobriety, they will struggle with times of “restlessness,” not knowing what to do with themselves. Think of being at home on a Sunday afternoon, and nothing sounds interesting or engaging enough to do. Nothing on TV, work projects seem to require too much energy, no social engagement planned … nothing seems appealing. This is often associated with depression, but it’s something more, and can be present even when other depressive symptoms are absent. It’s an inner emptiness, or restlessness. You used to cope with this by using, or acting out. Now what?

Let me offer a “Meditation Remix” (extended quote from a meditation book with a few adaptations by me). This is from a wonderful meditation book by Tian Dayton, called Forgiving and Moving On. Pick it up if you can. Here’s a remix of her meditation on “Accepting Emptiness.”

Today I see that anxiety arises inside of me when I fear my own inner emptiness. I run from the feeling and try to find activities to keep me from it. I will try something different today. I will accept the emptiness and allow it to be there. Rather than be anxious about it, I will realize that worry will not help remove or reduce it. I will relax and let the emptiness just be there without running away from it or resisting it.

Eventually the feeling will transform into something else and I will allow that to happen. Awareness of a painful state can be all that I need to transform that state into something different. It is in my resisting feeling states that they gain a hold over me – when I allow them to be, they are allowed the room to move and change.

I would add that if the emptiness really seems overwhelming, you may want to reach out to someone else. Make a call, visit a friend … do something outside of yourself. What Dayton is talking about is learning to manage our emotions by sitting with them and allowing them to be transformed. But sometimes – especially in early recovery – we may not be ready or able to do this, and we need to get out of our isolation.

But by all means, if you feel ready to try it, follow Dayton’s advice in this meditation. Sometimes the only way out is through, and the feeling of inner emptiness may be powerfully transformed just by facing it.

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13 thoughts on “Accepting and dealing with inner emptiness”

  1. Hey Mark:
    Great post. In my recovery I’ve been learning to face all the scary stuff that I used to run away from – fear, conflict, anger, anxiety, emptiness. Reaching out to others and breaking isolation also helps, but sometimes you still have to show up and face the emptiness, holding the tension of it, until it turns into something less painful and more fruitful. Thanks.

  2. Thanks for your comments Matt. As I’ve thought about it since writing this post a few days ago, I am really glad I included the last part — about reaching out and getting help if you need it. We do tend to isolate. But I still stand by the main point that there are times when we can – and should – just let ourselves sit with those feelings of emptiness and restlessness. We will likely find that they are not as powerful or long-lasting as we thought they would be.

    – Mark

  3. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for posting this. This is how I felt yesterday and I kind of wish I had read it beforehand, but I was able to reach out to several people through the phone and that helped! Thanks again!

  4. I really appreciate this posting. I have wondered about facing the inner emptiness for a long time. I became addicted to pornography a few years back as a way of dealing with the emptiness, and it cost me a woman I cared for dearly. I learned my lesson, and it has been over a year since I looked at that destructive material. However, I know th root of the problem was not porn, but my inability to face the emptiness inside myself. I pray that I will be able to someday deal with the inner emptiness in a healthy way, because right now I still feel its presence even though I have been able to stay away from my porn addiction.

    Thanks

  5. Addiction does a great job in filling the emptiness.
    Yes, it is without substance and does not nurture at any level.
    Alcohol, pornography and drugs fill you up like eating dirt when you’re starving.
    The pain DOES go away but you are weaker every day.

    God is an overly used and abused word.
    Praying is like reading a menu out loud – the hunger remains.
    Seeking the company of others makes no sense when you’re asking for something they will not or cannot give.

    In time, the fear of the darkness leaves you and the cool deep black eventually envelopes you and reminds
    you that death may not be so bad.

    Talk, talk, talk.
    Teachers, Preachers, Counselors and Doctors put on a good show but as it was said elsewhere is
    a “Tale told by an Idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”

    I no longer see how it is possible to reverse decades of abuse, neglect and simply not being GOOD enough, ATTRACTIVE enough, SEXY enough and smart enough.

    The fact is, being a loser is a reality and NO ONE likes a loser.

    Suicide is frowned upon but face it – who wants you?

    Who?
    Who?
    Who?

  6. To the person who wrote, calling themselves “Fool,”

    I’m very sorry to read what you wrote, because I can only imagine the pain that underlies it. I am sure that anything I would say to try to comfort or reassure would sound like platitudes. I know many people who felt super-low and contemplated suicide who found that things did turn around for them, and were so glad that they didn’t take that step. I hope that will be the case for you too. Email me through the contact page if you think I can help.

  7. Fool,

    Everything you say is true and I know we (as addicts) all experience those feelings from time to time. My feelings of self-loathing and sadness and helplessness have been at an all time high lately. I see nothing but failure and ruin when I look at my life. So many opportunities I have completely wasted by succumbing to my many addictive behaviors. I have hurt so many of my loved ones as well as myself.

    I love how you said addiction is like eating dirt, it fills us up yet makes us weaker in the end. That is the best thing I have read in a long, long time.

    I’m sorry you’re hurting and feeling like a loser and that there is no hope. I wish there was more I could do for you. Just try and take heart by knowing you’re not the only one battling these demons. I can’t seem to get a grip on this addiction either and it is eating me alive by killing me from within. Yet I won’t stop fighting it…ever.

  8. Hi..Very valuable identification of inner emptiness. though I am a therapist, and help others, I get a Sunday afernoon emptiness…Some of this got much worse after my husband of 50 years died…and there are rare chances one can meet up with a partner.
    When I seek to explalin the Sunday emptiness, I can feel myself back at WW2, parents working night and day, and I was home alone; much…Told it was “my part of the war effort”…Used to feel fear at night alone; and I imagine Sunday the worse. Was being raised as Christian Science: No Sin, sickness or death….so no complaints about anything…
    Perhaps writing more about this alone agony will help me identify it; Any suggestions about books on WW2 latency age children?

    Thanks…you are surely help people…Pats

    1. Thanks for writing Patsy. I am sorry to hear about your losses. Losing a spouse you were with for half a century … I can only imagine how rough that would be. What you’re saying about WW2 kids makes sense. I am not familiar with anything written specifically about depression for WW2 generation. I will say that I have done some work with people from other countries who are children (and grandchildren) of war (mostly Vietnamese and Koreans), and the experience you describe seems to closely match what they talked about too. I think what you’re dealing with is a lot of deprivation … in an environment of mass trauma, parents are unable to give their kids the kind of nurturing and assurance that they need. Sadly, the Christian Science background you described, seems to just add to all that, with the denial of negative aspects of reality. Since you are a therapist yourself, and have much life experience, I will dispense with giving any of the general advice about dealing with depression … you know more about it that I do, I’m sure. I will say this, for what it’s worth: the two things I have found the most helpful have been (1) to recognize that these moods of sadness/emptiness come and go, and that rather than trying to escape them, it sometimes works better to just “sit with them”, and allow them to come and go. (2) To see how often I need support from other people, and find that their encouragement and support can be just what I need. This is sort of the opposite of #1 above … and I find it a trick sometimes to know what is best (just sit with it, or get together with some friends). Usually it’s some combination of both of those.

  9. Thank you so much for writing this. I am in recovery 16 yrs and still battle this emptiness. I always feel i am some how defective for not being able to fill it with “higher power” as many of my friends in recovery do. Just simply accepting it feels like a huge relief.

    i am also very touched by the responses here, all of them. So much human kindness here. Thanks you

    1. Michelle … thanks for writing, and congratulations on your 16 years in recovery! I am glad you’re taking away encouragement from this article, and the responses from others. I can relate to what you’re saying about how other people seem to be able to “get” certain things in ways that we can’t. Over the years, though, I’ve come to suspect that that’s probably not quite true. Not trying to be cynical, but I know it’s very easy for people to come across as having things more together than they appear — and this seems especially true when it comes to “spiritual” things. The other thing that I see happening is that people seem to be doing so well, and are so happy with what seem to be little more than simplistic and unhelpful spiritual platitudes. But life has a way of catching up to everybody. I certainly know that there were times in my past that I gave the impression of being satisfied with some pretty simplistic views about God, life, and spirituality … but then I hit a wall. (Maybe you have too?) Thank God for recovery!

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