Why Do We Feel Empty? | Emptiness and Borderline Personality Disorder



Feelings of emptiness can sometimes creep up unexpectedly when you have Borderline Personality Disorder. How do you cope when this feeling takes over?


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Several of my readers have asked "What do you do when you experience that deep feeling of emptiness? How do you tolerate it?!"

Do you ever feel "emptiness"?

Prior to and shortly after my diagnosis of BPD, I would often experience episodes of deep loneliness and incredible emptiness. After starting DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy), I started to keep a journal of my moods, and I noticed a pattern that the feeling of emptiness would tend to show up in the evening, specifically around 7 pm.

I found this interesting. Do you notice a pattern to when your feelings of emptiness show up?

When do you get that empty feeling?:

By 7 pm, my day would be winding down, and I had nothing productive left to do. It was just me, sitting there on the couch with my thoughts and at the mercy of whatever might be on television that night.  Even with my live-in boyfriend just upstairs, I felt like something was missing.  

I would sometimes (and I see this now in retrospect) start up fights with him or let him see me with a an expression of sadness or discontent, all in a desperate attempt to engage him, thinking somehow that would cure the empty feeling.

It didn't work.

What really causes the emptiness?:

According to the DSM (Diagnostical Statistical Manual), chronic feelings of emptiness is one of the criteria in the diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder.

Google Dictionary defines emptiness as:

    emp·ti·ness
    noun /ˈem(p)tēnis/ 
    emptinesses, plural
    1. The state of containing nothing
      • - the vast emptiness of space
    2. The quality of lacking meaning or sincerity; meaninglessness
      • - he realizes the emptiness of his statement
    3. The quality of having no value or purpose; futility
      • - feelings of emptiness and loneliness


Personally, when the empty feeling come sover me, I can relate to numbers 1,2, and 3. How about you?

Through DBT class, I've learned that my own experience of emptiness comes as a result of not having a strong sense of identity, yet another symptom of BPD.  

I also notice that I experience a physical sensation -- sort of a hollowing in my abdomen and chest area (a true sensation of "emptiness"). It's a bit difficult to explain, but perhaps you know what I am talking about.

I feel empty when I feel bored:

It seems there is a correlation between feeling bored and feeling empty, which is why skills such as Distraction, Opposite Action, and Self-Soothing are often recommended to cope. I wrote this post, called Boredom and The Borderline, which gets into why some people with a BPD diagnosis turn to self-harm when bored and ideas for turning the mind to thoughts and behaviors that will better serve you in the long run.

What can I do RIGHT NOW if I feel empty?

Emptiness is a difficult feeling to experience and hold. Sometimes we have to ride it out, knowing that every emotional state is temporary and that this, too, shall pass.  We can also try to turn our mind in order to change our experience by getting skillful:
  • Distract: 
    • Turn on and get into a good movie or TV show that elicits and emotion that you want to feel (joy, happiness, etc.)
    • Go for a walk
    • Clean the house
  • Self-soothe:
    • Cuddle up with a pet or stuffed animal
    • Listen to soothing, relaxing music
    • Listen to upbeat music that makes you want to dance 
  • Distract and Self-soothe:
    • I started Pinterest boards to refer to when I need to distract or self-soothe. Have you given this a try yet?
  • Opposite Action:
    • Invoke the opposite feeling of what the emptiness is causing you to feel by engaging in a safe activity that has made you feel the wanted emotion in the past


Do you experience episodes of emptiness? How do you cope?

Thanks for reading.
More Soon.


22 comments:

  1. I know exactly what you are describing, and it helps a whole lot to know that I am not alone in experiencing these feelings. Mine, too, occur in the evening, especially if I return home to an empty house (I lost my husband to cancer 22 months ago). Thanks for your recommendations. I am working hard to get a handle on these feelings. My DBT skills do help.

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    1. Thank you so much for sharing. You are definitely not alone. My heart fell when I read about your husband. I am SO SORRY for your loss. :( It takes a lot of strength to get through. ♥

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  2. As I was reading I kept thinking how much I mistook emptiness as boredom. Further along you mention the same thing. I told my husband I feel lonely in his arms. It may have nothing to do with him and everything to do with me but we struggle because of my emptiness.

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  3. Kumiko, I'm sorry that you are feeling empty. I think boredom can lead to feeling empty sometimes. Remember that you are not alone and that each feeling only lasts so long. This, too, shall pass. Thank you for commenting. ♥

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  4. I have been reading your site for a little while now and it has always been so helpful. Tonight I did a search on your site for emptiness since the emptiness feels so overwhelming. I did read this post when you posted it, but it was helpful tonight. Thanks to your post, I decided to put some music on. I find that the emptiness is the worst when I finish an activity, especially something fun. I am not sure I am bored exactly, but... I am not sure how to describe it. It's the transition from being up to being "normal" or down that is hard for me. When I am having fun, I find that I get caught up in the fun and don't "prepare" myself for the down, if that makes sense. It's not like things are horrible, they aren't, it's just they are not as high as they were the moment before. I have been through a year of DBT and numerous years of therapy. I no longer go to therapy and I am not sure if I still meet the criteria for BPD or not, but this is still very much who I am. Your blog helps remind me to use the skills I learned in DBT and therapy. I do have an incredibly wonderful and supportive husband and a few great friends who support me. I wouldn't be where I am today without them.

    I have just wanted to thank you for your blog for some time now. I know it is hard for me to open up to people and I admit, the true borderline in me was afraid you would abandon the blog when your boyfriend returned. :) I am happy to continue to read new posts which continue to inspire me.

    ~Katie

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  5. Thankyou for your posts, your such a strong woman!. this article has made me feel less alone in my emotions. I feel emptiness a lot of the time. I think this boils down to lack of self worth. I feel like the most useless, awfull, and disgusting creature. Nobody seems to understand the intensity of this. My friends say they hate parts of themselfs but I hate every inch of myself. I obsess about comparing myself with everybody else, this just results in more self hate. I can talk to anybody but i still feel disconnected with the whole world. x♡♥

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  6. I don't have issues with boredom. I'd like to have more time to do more stuff. I feel intense loneliness and don't believe people who love me that they are there for me despite their assertions. I feel like the drama mama. My friend's girlfriend even said I was dramatic sometimes. That hurt actually a lot. I tried to cover up the hurt. I've distanced myself from people but I crave connection and emotional attachment. I'm afraid of it, too. I have a lot of difficulty with boundaries.

    I think my Dad was BPD or at least had some of these characteristics. My therapist told me he didn't consider me BPD yet I have some of the emotional regulation issues, including loneliness and emptiness.

    It's like I want attachment. Ut fear it. I get close to a handful of people and I try real hard to shove these people out of my life. I feel like I don't deserve them in my life. My therapist reminds me that I can only do something about this moment, the one I'm in. He's right. But it's tough sometimes to live it.

    Thanks for the BPD posts. While some don't resonate, others do, like this one.

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  7. I've just been scrolling through your posts, looking for something that leaps out at me, and I decided to try to find something about the emptiness, because that is one of the biggest problems I have with borderline. I hit paydirt when I read this post. I feel like this a lot, even when I'm with other people. I feel like I don't fit in anywhere (a symptom of another disorder) and I feel alone, even in a group, and I feel empty. It's very difficult to feel that way at anytime, but especially in a group of people who are all laughing and having a good time. I find that I just have to wait it out because a lot of times, regardless of what I decide to do, I carry that feeling with me. Music helps a lot, it distracts me, but nothing really makes it go away. Like I said, I just have to ride it out, and eventually I guess I get distracted enough. I have a daughter who is almost 3 - her birthday is this Thursday - and she is probably the biggest reason why the emptiness goes away sometimes, but even that doesn't help at times, I get to feeling so bad. It gets really hard to cope with. But I do :) I'm glad I read this post, especially because it tells me I'm not alone. Thanks, Debbie.

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    1. I know you left this comment a while ago, Deborah, and I hope you are doing well. Thank you for your kind reply!

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  8. This one really hit home. I've felt, and still feel, all three and more - usually leading me into (yet another) existential crisis. Thank you for the helpful skills and tips. #PointForDBT :)

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  9. As I was reading the part where you talk about the physical sensation of hollowing in your abdomen and chest, I was saying, "Yes.... YES!" I know EXACTLY what you mean, because this is how I experience the feeling of emptiness as well. It comes when I feel alone and cut off from the rest of the world (even if people are physically around me). I will actually clutch my abdomen to try and get some feeling in there. It is definitely a bizarre feeling, but I have experienced it for many years. So interesting to know of someone else who understands this feeling, and that I am not the only person who experiences it.

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    1. Isn't it amazing -- the common experience? I hope you are learning to find ways to show love and compassion for yourself and to work through these episodes in a soothing way. Thanks for commenting Elaine!

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    2. Hi! I stumbled across this blog during a search on the strange, disturbing physical sensation that I sometimes get in my stomach, right below my sternum which has always confused me. I don't have BPD although I do have bipolar type 2, and I can relate to some of the experiences of people with BPD, particularly when I am in a mood episode. Your description of the physical sensation seems identical to what I get, and although I can't figure out the exact emotion, I have always known it was an emotion rather than having a physical cause. This is the only emotion I experience that I find difficult to define. As a child I described it as feeling homesick, as I used to experience more often when away from home, like on school camps. As an adolescent I experienced it most often in social situations when I felt disconnected from the group of friends I was with. I'm 26 now and these days I get it most often after sex (sorry if that's TMI) or on a holiday, usually accompanied by mildly depressed mood. Thankfully it only lasts a matter of minutes. Next time I'm in risky situation I will try opposite action and see if this helps prevent it.
      I am a community mental health worker and now I wonder if my clients with BPD also experience this feeling. I might ask them. :) thanks for sharing!

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  10. I'm now 19 and for as long as I can remember, even as a young child, I would experience these feelings. All I could do was hold my breathe and stay completely still and eventually the feelings would subside. Now i'm older and having a lot of anxiety and dealing with panic attacks i'm a little bit more concerned about it. I feel very separated from my emotions however and it sometimes makes it hard for me to tell what is real and what isn't. I've always been told that if you have something like BPD or Bipolar that you're kind of in denial about it almost and don't realize it until someone else notices and points it out so I almost feel as if i'm making all the other stuff up because if I had a personality disorder I wouldnt be able to know about it myself? I've always been a bit fearful of having a disorder like this because my mom had Bipolar and my sister has BPD and i'm not sure if that i am making myself feel these things because i'm so scared that i actually mimic the traits almost. I apologize for writing this long comment on your post, I just don't have many people i feel comfortable talking about this with and i'm hoping someone will stumble upon it with some guidance or share stories of how they came to realize they had it.

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    1. Thank you so much for reading and commenting, Taylor. As I'm sure you know, only a qualified medical professional can diagnose you...but even if you do have BPD or any other disorder, know that there is hope! Once you know your diagnosis (if you have one), you can seek out the proper treatment for your own personal recovery. I wish you well on your journey, dear Taylor!

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    2. I wouldn't say that it's so much being in denial as it is that it's all that you know and don't realize that the way you experience emotions is any different than the way anyone else does. I had never heard of BPD before I was diagnosed with it, and I had no idea what it was. When I began reading about the illness I saw how this was me and started to understand that some of my emotional and cognitive defaults were different from other people's.

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  11. I find it amusing that when I end up googling things I'm confused about or want to know more about I keep coming across your blog. Your posts often end up being exactly what I was looking for, and they speak to me on a deep level. Not just because I count you as a friend, but because of the honest telling of a shared experience so many of us who have experienced BPD. It's no wonder I was so struck by this a year ago.

    I'm often confused when it comes to "emptiness." I check in with myself from time to time about where I'm at in terms of the actual criteria. I try not to identify too much with BPD, and still I find it useful as a guideline for how I've morphed along this journey of recovery.

    I find your description of what this experience is to assist me in the search to describe my own. I feel like I'm in some weird dream where everything moves around me, and I find myself clueless as to my role in the dream. One could probably call this derealization, though I am less concerned by what that experience is and would prefer to identify the emotion behind this. It's so hard to describe that all I could come up with as a possibility is emptiness. I even found myself using the same skills you suggested before I read this. They helped... to a degree. I haven't really felt this in quite a while which is probably why I was so confused and found myself Googling things. I don't think identity issues led me here though. I've gotten to a point, thankfully, where those no longer plague me. I think it's the time. November has always held some secret from me. It's an anniversary but of what I don't know. Probably some sort of childhood event. This emptiness feels more like some sort of reminiscence. Like a time warp. In that sense, I think grounding skills would be more helpful.

    I wonder if others experience emptiness that way. Less as a sort of futility or boredom but more as a feeling of bended time, the surroundings feeling like something foreign and somehow not just "now." Off to try some grounding...

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    1. Dear Aeshe,

      So glad that your googling led you back here and that you shared your experience.

      I also want to thank you for articulating your insights around the yearly "anniversary." I'd never thought about it this way before -- that one some level, part of us "remembers" an event, and that's why we get certain strange feelings each year.

      Thank you again, and please let me know how the grounding goes for you.

      Huge hugs,
      Debbie

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  12. Hi Debbie..another great article! Yes I do feel empty chronically and it is definitely worse than being bored. If I am simply bored, I am still interested in doing something to entertain myself but when I feel empty...just that there is nothing and I feel nothing. I just star into the air feeling the sensation that I am going to dissolve into the air. It sounds extreme but emptiness feelings can get that bad for me. I am still working on developing and actually mastering coping skills so that I don't just lay around and let the emptiness occupy me. Sometimes I just let that feeling take over me but watching my favorite music video and exercise especially seems to help..

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    1. Hello Angel. Thanks for your kind words. I am sorry to hear that you suffer with this all too typical aspect of BPD. I am also very glad to hear that you are working on the skills and want to encourage you that I came a LONG way with this symptom by using them.

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  13. Hello Debbie, I came upon your blog because I was wondering if any research has discovered why we feel this way. I was hit with this feeling just this afternoon. Yes there is a pattern to my feeling too. While I was going through this empty feeling, I remembered that once I even had this happen when I was with my three children enjoying a meal in a bustling restaurant. For me, it seems to have something to do with the angle of the afternoon sun. I wonder if the look of the light is simply triggering a memory of an intense lonely feeling from long ago, one that I don't even recall consciously. Has anything been written about this? I know that certain odors trigger memories, why not light as well? Just wondering. Wouldn't that be nice to know though? Then we wouldn't have to place any importance on this feeling, since it really comes from nothing but an imprint, sort of like a scratch on a table, left somewhere in the brain from a memory that has no bearing at all on the present?

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