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The Three Faces of Emptiness

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.

Emptiness. It’s not a disorder in and of itself, like anxiety or depression. Nor is it experienced by most people as a symptom that interferes with their lives. It’s more a generic feeling of discomfort, a lack of being filled up that may come and go. Some people feel it physically, as an ache or an empty space in their belly or chest. Others experience it more as an emotional numbness. You may have a general sense that you’re missing something that everybody else has, or that you’re on the outside looking in. Something just isn’t right, but it’s hard to name. It makes you feel somehow set apart, disconnected, as if you’re not enjoying life as you should.

People who don’t have it don’t understand. But people who feel it know:

In many ways, emptiness or numbness is worse than pain. Many people have told me that they would far prefer to feel anything to nothing. It’s very hard to acknowledge, make sense of, or put words to something that is absent. Emptiness seems like nothing to most people. And nothing is nothing, neither bad nor good, right?

But in the case of a human being’s internal experience, nothing is definitely something. “Empty” is actually a feeling in and of itself. And I have discovered that it is a feeling that can be very intense and powerful. In fact, it has the power to drive people to do extreme things to escape it.

Empty is the “unfeeling” feeling. It’s the painful sense that some vital ingredient is missing from inside. I often have talked about the root cause of empty feelings: Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). But the type and depth of emptiness you feel is determined by the type and depth of CEN that you grew up with, plus some other parenting factors.

Three Major Causes of Emptiness:

Type 1: Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) This type of emptiness is caused by growing up in a household that is blind to emotion. Children who grow up this way sense that their emotions are invisible and irrelevant. They push their feelings down, so as not to burden themselves or their parents. These children grow into adults who are out of touch with their own feelings. The emptiness that results is literally a deep sense that something is missing inside; some essential ingredient that is a deeply personal and vital part of who you are. That essential ingredient is your feelings.

Type 2: Active Invalidation in Childhood This is a more extreme version of the CEN described above. It happens when your parents are not just blind to your emotions; they actively reject your emotions. Examples are negative consequences (ex: “Go to your room”) or punishment for simply being sad, angry, or hurt. If you grow up this way, you learn not just to push your emotions away, but to actively reject and punish yourself for having feelings. In adulthood, your empty space will be filled with self-directed anger and self-blame. On top of feeling empty, you may feel uncomfortable in your own skin, and you may not like yourself very much overall. You may be more vulnerable to depression.

Type 3: Shallow, Harsh, Unpredictable Parenting This is the type of childhood experience that causes significant disruption in the child’s personality. It can lead to the development of a personality disorder such as Narcissistic or Borderline Personality. These parents respond to their children on the surface, while selectively, unpredictably rejecting and punishing their kids’ emotional responses. In addition, the parents may reward their children for being how they want them to be, and harshly reject or punish them for simply being, or feeling, themselves. When you grow up this way, since you are not permitted to “be” who you are, you develop a fragmented version of who you should be. You reject parts of yourself that your parents find unacceptable (including your feelings), and may experience yourself as perfect one day (when you’ve pleased your parents), and horrible or worthless the next (when you have not). The missing piece for this child, once grown up, is more than emotion; it’s also a cohesive sense of self. This is the deepest, most painful form of Empty. This is the emptiness that is felt by many people who are struggling with personality disorders.

So if you have Empty Type 1 or 2, you have a cohesive sense of self, but you lack access to your emotions.

With Type 3, you have a fragmented sense of self. And the anger and pain caused by the unpredictable, shallow and harsh treatment throughout childhood runs deep.

For those who grew up with Type 3, your emotions may erupt unpredictably and intensely, and feel outside of your control. You feel empty because you sense, deep down, that your true “self” is fragmented or missing. Sadly, you were not able to develop it while you were growing up.

Here’s the good news. All three forms of emptiness, once understood and acknowledged, can be healed. In fact, it’s even possible to recover from Types 1 and 2  on your own, if you have the right structure and enough motivation. Type 3 emptiness can be healed with persistence and high-quality therapy.

To learn more about emptiness and how to heal from it, watch the first of my free, New 3-Part Video Series, Why You are Running on Empty.

Also, watch for my next post, The Three Faces of Emptiness: Four Steps to Heal, which will be about the paths to recovery when you have Emptiness Type 1, 2 or 3.

Photo by Mitya Ku

The Three Faces of Emptiness

Jonice Webb PhD

Jonice Webb, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist who is recognized worldwide for her groundbreaking work in defining, describing, and calling attention to Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). She writes, speaks, and trains therapists on the topic, and is the bestselling author of two books, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. She also created and runs the Fuel Up For Life Online CEN Recovery Program. Since CEN can be difficult to see and remember, Dr. Webb created the CEN Questionnaire and other free resources to help you figure out if you have it. Take the CEN Questionnaire and learn much more about CEN, how it happens, and how to heal it at her website

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APA Reference
Webb PhD, J. (2016). The Three Faces of Emptiness. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2020, from


Last updated: 2 Feb 2016
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