The Unbearable Feeling of Emptiness - part 1
This article is a more theoretical view on what the feeling of emptiness means to us and how we can make sense of it. We are all familiar with the dreading feeling of emptiness which we have experienced at some point in our life, but it can become difficult when our whole existence is defined by this feeling and we appear to be locked in a prison of nothingness, absence of meaning and purpose... emptiness.
Readers might find understanding, hope and solace in reading about what emptiness might mean to them and others. I hope it will provide food for thought to nourish the empty soul and help readers to make sense of their own feelings. Finally, I hope it will offer the reader a possibility to learn from their own state of mind to be able to move on and reconnect with their own sense of being alive again.
Emptiness is a feeling or “non-feeling” that comes in many different shades and appears to be experienced by a wide range of clients with borderline, narcissistic, and depressive pathology. However, I was startled when, during a session with a client A who had come to seek therapy for her depression showed me an emptiness which I never seem to have known before. The client told me about her “empty” life which was a life without enjoyment, without friends, without past or future and without any apparent feeling. Her emptiness was so overpowering that I felt everything that had been, disappeared in a kind of void. Just as my client, all I could suddenly feel was emptiness. To my surprise, there was not even a sign of fear or sadness about her emptiness – there was absolutely nothing I could relate to in her. I was intrigued to notice that in this particular moment, there was even an absence of desire to change this emptiness into something more alive as complete emptiness also meant a complete absence of desire.
In fact, emptiness has been described in many different forms and is sometimes used interchangeably with notions of absence and nothingness. In the following article, I attempt to define emptiness by comparing its different meanings with each other as well as comparing it with the concepts of absence and nothingness.
The nature of emptiness implies that it contains or holds nothing, but looking closer at its meanings one can come up with a whole range of meanings: It can be seen as something lacking purpose or substance, as devoid of something or an entity not being occupied - to name a few. Altogether it implies that there is a container – in our case the client – who does not contain anything, who is empty or at least experiences himself to be. Looking at the meaning of nothingness in a Bionic sense, it differs in the notion that it does not refer to a containing agency but “to a state of nameless dread, annihilation, and fragmentation that cannot be thought about, but is an overwhelming chaos of sense impressions, affects, and preconceptions”(Stevens, 2005).
Absence, on the other hand, describes the lack of something that was expected or desired to be there - the absence of an unconsciously or consciously expected thing. Thinking about object relations, emptiness can be imagined as an object containing nothing whereas absence would denote the complete absence or lack of the object.
The first paper that instantly comes to my mind thinking about emptiness is Winnicott’s “Fear of Breakdown” (1986). His idea being that emptiness is a state that needs to be experienced as a state of being that is the basis of taking in anything. However, in practice, clients will often fear the awfulness of emptiness and defend against it by creating a controlled emptiness or fill the emptiness greedily in order to avoid it. Winnicott says that the state of emptiness belongs to the past and has already happened during a time when the ego was still too immature to conceptualise and integrate it. It therefore has to be experienced again during therapy when the client can tolerate this state by depending on the auxiliary ego of the analyst and experience it as meaningful.
In a similar fashion, Bion recommends the analyst to attain a sate without memory or desire, a state of the unknowable but yet starting point of all knowledge (1970). However, looking further into Bion’s work, Bion appears to be referring to nothingness.
For Bion, the ability to tolerate, or modify nothingness and no-things leads to the ability to think about a good object that is absent. To conceptualize and signify nothing is the beginning of the ability to imagine and symbolize something that is not there, leading to thinking and the ability to give meaning to experience. In contrast, an inability to tolerate nothingness (often due to an uncontaining environment), there is an attack on any kind of link, resulting in either manic, omnipotent merger or evacuation into the body or outside into others and the world (Bion, 1970).
A client of mine (client B) who I had seen for a lengthy period would frequently get into states during which no emotion or thought could be accessed or link could be made. In a state of dreadful agitation, she would seemingly fight to make sense of what I had said to her. Her mind went completely blank and she could not even disagree or agree to simple statements such as “it seems difficult for you to explain how you feel at the moment?” or “for how many sessions do you think would you like to see me?”. Sometimes, with time, she was able to utter “I don’t know!” There were moments in our sessions when my client managed not only to evacuate herself from any thoughts or feelings but also managed to do the same to me. I would find myself in states of d complete inability to think and at the end the session I would be suffering from a throbbing headache and extreme exhaustion.
There is a striking resemblance in Bion’s and Winnicott’s understanding of the infant having to be able to bear a sense of emptiness and nothingness as a prerequisite to any learning and acquisition of meaning. However, there is an important difference between the two theories being that Winnicott refers to the emptiness as a feeling of the client of not containing anything whereas Bion describes a sense of there not being anything – a complete absence of object as well as content.
Nevertheless, is it possible for us to differentiate between the two states in the clients we see? Comparing client A ,who I presented at the beginning of this essay who presented with a complete emptiness which I felt in the transference as her not containing anything, with client B, who could not access any thoughts or feelings and often entered a state of complete nothingness, it appears that there is a distinct qualitative difference in the clients presentation as well as my transference towards them. It could be argued that the client A presented with a true emptiness as described by Winnicott in “The fear of breakdown” (1986) which is further supported by client A’s history of anorexia which could be interpreted as her attempt to create an artificial, controlled state of emptiness as a defense against experiencing the emptiness she might not have not been able to conceptualize as an infant.
On the other hand, client A never showed a fear of the emptiness she experienced constantly but appeared to have accepted a state in which emptiness had become part of herself. It could be interpreted as her having reached an absolute state of controlled emptiness and a, possibly unconscious, wish to experience her emptiness in the counselling room with me acting as her auxiliary ego.
At the same time, it throws up the question about the value of Winnicott’s theory in practice and how we can facilitate a client to experience emptiness in a way that will support them in re-experiencing a state of “true” emptiness.
Winnicott’s theory about the false and true self seem to be much more useful for our practice which was also received as more fruitful during the therapy of client A. Regarding the development of the true self, Winnicott postulates the necessity for the facilitating environment, in which the infant has an innate maturational tendency to operate (1960). The facilitating environment allows it to operate in an uninterrupted continuity of being, which lays the foundations for psychosomatic integration, aliveness and hence the true self. If the environment fails in supporting the infant to develop its true self, a false self, as a protective mechanism of the true self, is developed. In opposition to the true self, the false self is marked by a feeling of emptiness and estrangement.
In contrast to the emptiness that needs to be experienced in order to take in, the false self is an artificial construct operating as a defense.
Client A appeared to operate in her “false self” most of the time which went as far as her making up lies to cover up for her absence of friends and the endless times she would spend by herself. She felt she could not show others her true self and confess that she actually did not have any friends and spend most days alone at home. Whenever she would make contact with people and attempt to build relationships, she would adapt herself to what she felt was expected from her – to be happy, to be sociable and to have plenty of interests. Her relationships would never last as she would always end up at a point where her guilt about having told so many lies and her constant fear that the other person would find out about who she really was so unbearable that she had to break up the contact. It was never difficult for her to make friends, but she would always relate to them in her false self and therefore never gave her any real, long-lasting pleasure and fed into her feeling of emptiness and estrangement of herself.
- This is part 1 of 2 of an article on "The Unbearable Feeling of Emptiness". The second part will be published shortly -
Bion, W. (1959). Attacks on linking. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 40:308-315
Bion, W. (1970) as cited in Green, André (1996). On private madness. London : Rebus Press. 380 p ; 23 cm.
Fink, B. (1997). A clinical introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Theory and technique. Harvard University Press. 298p.
Freud, Sigmund (1917). Mourning and Melancholia. In Freud, S. (1984) On metapsychology : the theory of psychoanalysis Harmondsworth: Pelican Freud Library, Penguin
Green, André (1996). On private madness. London : Rebus Press. 380 p ; 23 cm.
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Winnicott, D. (1960). Ego distortion in terms of true and false self. In Maturational processes and the facilitating environment. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1965, pp. 140-152.
Winnicott, D. (1986). Fear of breakdown. In Kohon, G (ed) (1986) The British School of Psychoanalysis, The Independent Tradition. London: FAB
Winston, A. (2009). Anorexia nervosa and the psychotherapy of absence. British Journal of Psychotherapy, 25(1), 77-90. doi:10.1111
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