The unbearable feeling of emptiness - part 2

- This is part 2 of 2 of an article on "The Unbearable Feeling of Emptiness" -

In a different light, her emptiness can also be understood as a defence which corresponds to Winston’s (2009) observation of emptiness as a common feature of patients suffering from anorexia as client A had in the past. In his view, emptiness in anorexics is a result of the child having had difficulties in introjecting a good maternal object because the mother had been emotionally unavailable or because the child had to defend herself against excessive intrusion. The child would then react by trying to take in nothing at all in an attempt to block all emotional communication from her mother, whether good or bad.

Emptiness as a defence has been widely described in the literature as a symptom of various presentations. In “Psychoanalytic perspectives on emptiness” Levy interprets emptiness as a latent anal wish to be emptied out and rid oneself of aggressive wishes as well as the wish to be "filled up" and internalise longed for objects. The scope of this essay does not allow to go into details of these different defence mechanism but it is important to keep in mind that emptiness can have many different defensive functions.

In Klein's (1946) view, excessive projection as a schizoid mechanism results in feelings of both emptiness and persecution, as well as guilt for having invested one's badness into the other. Other people may be seen as dangerous sources of intrusion and retaliation and are therefore avoided. In similar fashion, those aspects of self that are seen as dangerous to the object may be disowned or annihilated. This may reduce anxiety, but at the price of parts of the self.

In regard to client A, Klein’s theory is supported in her decrease in anxiety as opposed to an increased “fear (of emptiness)”. Futher to this, client A would often give the impression that she felt people around her could see inside her and one day find out what a worthless person she really was. One day she told me about a dream during which she had to go to the headmasters office at the school where she worked, who told her that she had to leave school as he realised she was too depressed and incompetent to do her work. The client refused, but decisions had been made and there was no way out. Client A would constantly feel she had to lay everything about herself open to anyone who would ask for it and therefore developed her coping mechanism of lying in order to satisfy the intrusive and persecutory attacks from without and at the same time protecting her core self.

Further to excessive projection, Klein suggested that the denial of one's own destructive impulses becomes transformed into the fear of annihilation from without. Sustaining the illusion of having no needs quiets the terror of destructive need/greed from within and persecution/annihilation from without. Essential aspects of self, such as its needs are therefore lost, resulting in profound subjective experiences of emptiness.

Klein’s theoretical basis about the creation of emptiness in patients heavily relies on the fear of annihilation. However, in contrast to Winnicott’s fear of emptiness, Klein places importance on annihilation and persecution from without and sees emptiness as a mere by-product of the schizoid mechanism. It could be critizised that Klein does not recognise emptiness as a feeling in its own right. On the other hand, Klein’s theory acknowledges the often hidden, terror of a patient’s greed and needs that she denies herself in order to ward of intrusion and retaliation. It appears as if those terrifying fears and wishes are far too often ignored or possibly shied away from when thinking about emptiness. Most of the object relationship theorists such as Winnicott and Bion usually emphasize the lack of the maternal care and leave out important factors that might give an insight into the origin of emptiness.

In relation to Klein, who describes emptiness as a result of a schizoid mechanism, Andre Green talks in “On private madness” about his experience of working with patients with borderline states and psychotics. In his view, these patients “struggle not only against persecutory fears and the associated threat of annihilation but also the confrontation with emptiness as one of the most unbearable states”. The difficulty that arises in this group of patients is that the fear is so great that they would rather cling on to a bad object, instead of letting it go and replacing it with a good object, as it's disappearance will mean that they will have to be faced with the horror of emptiness.

Green states that in these patients, emptiness can only be cathected negatively and hence lead to a dreadful nothingness which drags the patient to a bottomless pit. Since something had not been provided by the object, or the mother, there seems to be no other solution than a flight towards nothingness where a state of quietude and peace can be found. Green (1975) suggests that when the parent is unavailable, the empty space that might have been tolerable becomes intolerable; and "may empty itself by means of the aspirations towards non-existence, through the expression of an ideal, and self-sufficiency, which is progressively reduced in the direction of self-annihilation".

He relates this to the function of primary narcissm which, as a positive effect, follows regression after satisfaction and on the other hand, can create a death-like quietus out of emptiness and nothingness.

In the positive sense, Green’s understanding is similar to Winnicott’s understanding of emptiness as a silent self of being. It is the state where all growing can begin and the endless struggle against the fear of emptiness has been abandoned.

In the negative sense as observed in borderline patients and psychotics, the experienced emptiness is usually a defence that is characterised by drive towards self-annihilation.

Green, in his theory, succeeds in finding a consensus between Kleinian and Winnicottian ideas and furthermore is able to transfer his findings into practice. However, one has to be careful that his part of his focus, based on Freudian and Kleinian ideas focus heavily on nothingess and annihilation. In contrast to Klein though, Green a distinct drive towards self-annihilation in certain states of psychotics and borderline states in contrast to Klein’s idea of defending against it. From my clinical experience I can agree with Green that in borderline patients such as client B, I often observe an almost addictive compulsion towards annihilation, a wish for non-existence that would finally allow her to end her suffering. It could be interpreted that her emptying herself of any thoughts and feelings was an attempt create an illusion of self-sufficiency and absence of needs. Client B dreaded to ask for help and would often be unable to do so as she would forget what to say, even forget what she wanted when faced with a situation in which she had to express her needs and wishes.

Having looked at the different way in which emptiness described and mentioned in the psychoanalytic literature it becomes clearer that emptiness can be seen in either a “positive” sense as a state that needs to be experienced as a prerequisite of any growth and maturity. In a “negative” sense, it is a defence against, or repression of, wishes and fears that the immature ego is not able to bear.

Even though the different theories disagree in certain ways, they all assume that in a healthy person, emptiness is a state that the mature self usually does not find itself in and if it does, it is only a transitional state towards being filled again. If we go back to the initial definition of emptiness, it refers to the self being or feeling empty and therefore the latter theories also presuppose that there is such a thing as a self.

Epistemologically, the existence of self has not been discussed sufficiently and the notion that emptiness is a symptom rather than being a mature part of our selves has been accepted without being challenged.

Therefore, as a complete opposition to the latter theories, Lacan and his theory needs to be mentioned (Fink, 1997).

Following Jacques Lacan’s theory, human being is a "lack of being" originated in the lack of an object. Hence, for Lacan, the subject is fundamentally empty as a cause of the first symbolization of the human being as a unitary system, which is an illusion and result of the mirror phase. During the mirror stage, the infant identifies with a mirror image or the image of the mother and sees its own being in the Other. The result being, that from the beginning, the subject is torn. He is divided between the place from which he sees himself, and the image (the Other) with which he identifies. From this perspective, a human being can never experience a wholeness that would amount to being.

Therefore, as the self is a social construction and we are in reality fragmented, without clear boundaries, it is impossible for us to be “filled/not-empty”.

Lacan therefore completely differs to most other writers in the sense that emptiness, following his theory, is not a state that needs to be experienced in the Winnicottian (1986) sense or is a result of repression or schizoid splitting, but is mainly a fact.

To conclude, emptiness is a qualitatively different feeling from absence and nothingness as it requires an object to be empty as compared to absence and nothingness being able to exist or non-exist without relation to an object. Furthermore, the state of emptiness can either be expressed as a “positive” emptiness that is close to a silent self and a foundation for real existence and for the ability to take in anything in any constructive fashion. “Negative” emptiness, in contrast acts as a defence and result of repression. Thinking about clinical situations, we are more often faced with the emptiness as a defence, especially in the form of client’s “false self” as presented by client A, which could be made sense of not only within a Winnicottian framework but within a Kleinian or Greenian discourse. However, it is important for therapists to keep in mind that the experience and acceptance of emptiness in the counselling room as proposed by Winnicott, Bion and Green can be of immense value if not necessary in order to allow the client to develop and grow and “take things in”.


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.

Klein, M. (1946). Notes on some schizoid mechanisms. In Klein, M. et al. (1952) Developments in psycho-analysis. edited by Joan Riviere    London :   Hogarth Press :   Institute of Psycho-analysis

Levy, S. (1984). Psychoanalytic perspectives on emptiness. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 32(2), 387-404. doi:10.1177

Stevens, V. (2005). Nothingness, no-thing, and nothing in the work of Wilfred Bion and in Samuel Beckett's Murphy. Psychoanalytic review, 92(4), 607-635.

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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