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Emptiness: The Un-Feeling Feeling

Everyone knows what “empty” means. It’s a simple word, easily understood. But what does “empty” mean in terms of human feelings and emotions? Here, it is not so simply defined.

What is Emptiness? 

The feeling that’s caused by the absence of feeling; a general sense that something is missing inside yourself; a feeling of disconnection from yourself and others; numbness; sometimes experienced physically as an empty space in your belly, chest, throat or other part of the body.

Emptiness is not a clinical term among mental health professionals. It’s not a common term among the general public. It’s not something that people generally talk about. Yet in my 25 years of practicing psychology, I have encountered many people who have tried to express it to me in some way.

Few people have had the words to describe it. Mostly I had to intuit what was going on for them and give them the words. Each time, it brought the person great relief. It is incredibly healing and connecting to put a label on a plaguing, undefined feeling that has dogged you for years.

A label offers understanding and hope, and a path somewhere.

I have a theory about why the feeling empty has gone so unnoticed, unknown, and ill-defined. It’s because empty is not actually a feeling; it’s an absence of feeling. We human beings are not wired to notice, define, or discuss the absence of things. We have a hard enough time talking about feelings. But the absence of feelings seems almost too vague, unimaginable, invisible; too difficult to grasp.

This is why so many people live with this feeling on and off throughout their lifetime. Many people don’t even know they have it, much less what it is. They just know that they feel “off.” Something just isn’t right with them. They feel different from other people in some inexplicable way. One person said to me, “I feel like a bit player in the movie of my own life.” Another said, “I feel like I’m on the outside, looking in at other people who are truly living.”

What Causes Emptiness?

Children who grow up in a household where feelings are not acknowledged, validated, or responded to sufficiently, receive a powerful message. They learn that their emotions are not valid, do not matter, or are unacceptable to others. They learn that they must ignore, neutralize, devalue, or push away their emotions.

For some children, this message permeates every aspect of their emotional lives. For others, it may only affect certain parts. Either way, the child disconnects from his own feelings. He pushes them down and away (because after all, they are useless, negative, or unacceptable to others).

It’s adaptive for the child to do this, as it will help her to be more comfortable in her family environment. But she is unknowingly sacrificing the most deeply personal, biological part of who she is: her emotions. Years later, as an adult, she will feel the absence of this vital part of herself. She will feel the empty space which her feelings are meant to fill. She will feel disconnected, unfulfilled, empty.

I have noticed, over years of working with people who have emptiness, that they are usually thoroughly stand-up folks. They are folks who care for others better than they care for themselves, who put a smile on their faces and soldier on, never giving away that something is just not right for them.

They literally run on empty.

I‘ve given a name to this process of developing emptiness. I call it Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). There is one tremendous piece of good news for those with CEN. Once you know you have it, you can heal it.

You can begin to give yourself the emotional attention you did not get as a child.

You can accept your own feelings as an expression of your true self, instead of believing that they are wrong, or a weakness, or a source of secret shame.

You can begin to pay attention to what you want, need and enjoy. You can begin to use your voice to ask for them.

I want all of this for you, and more.

You’re overdue. It’s time.

And you deserve it.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is so invisible and unmemorable that it’s hard to know if you grew up with it. To find out if you are living with CEN, I invite you to Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.

Photo by Pat Hawks

Emptiness: The Un-Feeling Feeling

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. (2017). Emptiness: The Un-Feeling Feeling. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 31, 2020, from


Last updated: 1 Oct 2017
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