For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with chronic feelings of emptiness. The emptiness sits in the middle of my stomach like a hollow chasm that grows larger the more I notice it. It feels like I am hungry but without the desire for food. The hunger is for validation, attention, and comfort. If I start to acknowledge the feelings of emptiness, then my anxiety rapidly increases and takes over my body. I worry that there is something fundamentally wrong with me, that my feelings of emptiness and loneliness will never pass, and that I am alone in my struggle. These feelings strike whenever I am not experiencing another strong emotion, or when I am not distracted by external stimuli like work.
Since being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, I have learned that chronic feelings of emptiness are experienced by many sufferers. People with BPD swing so quickly between extreme emotions that the emptiness is something that we create to detach ourselves. This guide to BPD also theorises that chronic feelings of emptiness can come from being continually let down by others, an expectation of abandonment, and unstable relationships.
Ineffective ways of coping with chronic emptiness.
I have tried to cope with these feelings in many ineffective ways. I tried to fill the void with alcohol, drugs, and engaging in risky sexual behaviours. Other common ineffective coping strategies include self harm, binge eating, risky driving, gambling, and spending too much money.
These coping strategies can fill the void for a while, but the feelings of emptiness always creep back in. They are also stronger because you feel guilt and shame about engaging in harmful behaviours. If you engage in behaviours like drug use or binge drinking, these behaviours also warp your brain chemistry and increase the likelihood of future feelings of emptiness.
You can try to distract with constant activity.
More recently, I have become something of a workaholic and fill every possible hour with ‘productive’ tasks like writing, website design, and social media networking. This works up until a point. While you are fully engaged in a task, you won’t notice the chronic feelings of emptiness, and you will also feel productive and on track.
However, I notice that as soon as I stop being busy, I can feel the emptiness creeping back into my body. It’s simply not sustainable to be busy and productive all the time, and exhaustion leaves you more vulnerable to your emotions.
You can use self soothing techniques.
In dialectical behavioural therapy, self-soothing is an important part of learning to tolerate distress. It means engaging with each of your senses in a meaningful and mindful way. I rely on hot showers, listening to rain sounds on YouTube, and stroking my inner arm with the tips of my fingers when I need to soothe myself. Some recommended activities for each of the senses includes:
- Look at images that are soothing to you, such as nature scenes.
- Listen to calming music or meditation tracks.
- Light a candle with a soothing scent and spend time inhaling the smell.
- Eat comforting food or something with an intense taste.
- Touch a soft fabric or stroke an animal.
A more comprehensive list of recommended self soothing techniques can be found here.
Self-soothing is an effective way to distract yourself from feelings of emptiness without making your situation worse or increasing your stress. You need to do the activities with intention and dedicate your attention to them, or else they are ineffective. Self soothing won’t make the feelings go away permanently, but can help to relieve some of the distress when they are taking over your body.
You can introduce more meaningful activities into your life.
Adding more activities that have personal meaning is the most effective strategy that I have found so far. This means working on my writing, but also taking leisure time to read, switch off my phone, and go on day trips to explore new parts of my state. The feelings of emptiness still strike, particularly at night, but I don’t feel like they are completely overwhelming me.
These are the activities that I recommend to bring meaning into your life:
- Read about topics that interest you.
- Spend quality time face-to-face with people that you care for.
- Purposely disengage from social media and turn your phone off.
- Reach out to people who are struggling and offer them support.
- Volunteer, donate, or contribute in some way to your community.
- Make time for walking and being alone with nature.
- Re-explore hobbies that you used to love when you were younger.
- Make achievable goals for things that you want to improve in your life and tackle them step by step.
You can of course explore activities that have more personal meaning, and be mindful of how they improve your emotional state. You will still likely struggle with feelings of emptiness sometimes. I have increased meaningful activities in my life and still struggle with emptiness most nights. However, I feel more in control of my life and am slowly starting to accept that the chronic emptiness is just a feature of my life that doesn’t have to rule me.
It’s important to remember that you are not broken or alone. So many other people struggle with chronic feelings of emptiness and loneliness, and there are always others that you can reach out to if you need.