How many times have you heard someone say: “I just feel so empty?” Maybe they didn’t use that exact word, but that was the gist of it. Sometimes this label “emptiness” gets thrown around in talk about depression, sometimes with burnout, sometimes with relationship problems, or sometimes “mid life crisis.”
As a young pastor my reaction was to think in spiritual categories … people feel empty because they need God. But what happens when godly people still feel empty? What happens when pastors feel empty? It’s time we add another, more nuanced, way of thinking about “inner emptiness.”
Early life trauma
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 an 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.