“I feel so empty.”
I can’t even tell you how often I’ve uttered that statement. But that number pales in comparison to how often I’ve thought it. That single thought plagues my mind on a weekly basis, sometimes on a daily basis. It won’t always last for long, as this sensation is often accompanied byb a rapidly changing emotional state. I could wake up feeling so empty, like nothing has a purpose, like I shouldn’t even bother, and by lunchtime, I’ll be giddy with laughter and feeling on top of the world, weighed by the knowledge that this joy won’t last. Or I could wake up determined, go for a run, start typing away at my laptop, and by that evening, the gaping hole is back. My evening will be spent trying to drink enough to fill the emptiness and dreading the hangxiety that will surely follow my mistake in the making.
I feel so empty. I feel so empty so often.
In the DSM-V, there are nine criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder, and one of these is a “chronic feeling of emptiness”. I think it’s one of the more overlooked symptoms as most individuals fixate on the self-harm, self-destructive behaviours and pattern of unstable relationships, to name a few. But we underestimate the effects of this overpowering emptiness, and we negate to consider how deeply it is buried in an individual with BPD and the effects of it.. Because BPD isn’t comprised of nine separate conditions, they all feed into one another and act as reactions.
This emptiness can take many forms. It can feel like a physical hole in you, one you try to stuff full of food just to take the edge off. It can feel emotional in many different forms: loneliness, dissatisfaction, sadness, apathy, boredom and disconnection. Finally, it can feel existential, as you ponder why you even bother, what drives you, what’s missing in life.
It differs per person and per day, but the emptiness is an overwhelming force. It sits in your vision and refuses to budge. It taints every mood, every good moment, as no matter what, you feel empty and unfulfilled.
It’s like when your legs ache, and nothing you do can fix it, you feel uncomfortable sitting down, lying down and standing; there’s no way to get comfortable. That’s how it feels emotionally to experience chronic emptiness. You try a multitude of solutions but nothing fixes it. The void comes out of nowhere, you never know when it will hit, and you never find a way to really fix it.
In his article for The Mighty, Seth Stewart explained that his chronic emptiness would be better described as “longing”. He claims that we all have this yearning to be filled with connection, fulfilment, love and understanding, a yearning to comprehend the universe we inhabit, but the difference is that it’s amplified in individuals with BPD. We basically got a far too big dose of longing.
Personally, I think of my chronic emptiness as a craving that I can never quite fill, like when you eat an entire tub of ice cream and feel sick yet somehow want more. It makes me feel alone in every crowd, and it makes me lost and behind everyone else in life. I always feel like happiness is just out of reach, like I’m missing a puzzle piece that would help me feel settled in who I am, and in that gap lies my empty feeling.
It would be simple to say that Borderline Personality Disorder causes a chronic feeling of emptiness. But that would be oversimplifying it and negating the people who experience such emptiness without having BPD. So instead, here are some of the seeds of chronic emptiness:
It usually stems from an identity trigger, as having a developed sense of identity is extremely important in our emotional stability. So when something is missing, you feel that absence, and it develops into chronic emptiness.
I have a recurring thought, and it usually comes in those moments of emptiness, when I think that “I just want to be a whole person”. I don’t think I can completely explain it. I just feel like I’m missing a part of myself; I’m missing something important in who I am, like a puzzle piece that could explain me. When I’m writing and focused on what I love, I can ignore that missing part, but any small happening can remind me of it.
Most of the coping mechanisms used for chronic emptiness are maladaptive, so I’m in no way trying to promote these, and in the next section, you’ll find how we should actually try to deal with it. But I do think it’s worth including these methods, as they don’t serve as ideas but rather the reality. Most people with chronic emptiness have considered or tried them, and I think we all know deep down that they don’t work.
I’ve mentioned binge-eating in an attempt to physically satisfy the emptiness; individuals will eat until it’s painful just to try and trick themselves into feeling emotionally full. Drinking excessively is also used, as it acts both as a distraction and a cover, and can help you feel less self-conscious and depressed. Individuals will also use various substances to fill this ache, and so it can quickly lead to addiction, which is also common in BPD individuals. It’s not unusual to use sex as a way to fill the emptiness, as the pleasure acts as a distraction, and you feel full in a different way. You also feel wanted, which can combat the unworthy feelings that led to your emptiness. Unfortunately, many use self-harm to try and beat the void, particularly before we have come to understand why we feel this way. Self-harm is highly addictive and gives an instant rush; the activity aspect of it also helps to feel like we’re doing something, even if that something is about punishing ourselves. All of these behaviours work short-term, if they even work at all, and ultimately lead you to feel emptier than ever.
I often try to ‘fill’ myself with other people. I fixate on them, making their problems my own and focusing on what I can do for them. A challenging aspect of my current breakup is not having someone to look after anymore, as now I have to deal with myself instead. I frequently distract myself with the possibility of someone else; I obsess over them, so I don’t feel so empty. I fill myself with other people, and then somehow, I feel abandoned when they don’t return this effort, when they don’t even care about me.
The list of coping mechanisms could go on and on, and individuals usually use more than one. It’s important to remember that it isn’t a conscious decision. You don’t think, “I’m empty, and so I’ll do ----- to feel full”. There isn’t rationality to it, you feel empty, and like you’re pouring out onto the floor, so you reach for the first solution you can think of. You feel empty, and because of that, suddenly, this thing feels like a great idea, like you should’ve been doing it all along.
The best thing you can do is speak to a trained professional. If you’re in doubt about whether you need to talk to a trained mental health professional, you probably should, and there is no harm in trying it. Several therapies are used for chronic emptiness, as it is usually treated alongside another issue or trauma. For example, Dialectical Behaviour Therapy will focus on creating healthier relationships for the individual and finding a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Alternatively, based on the cause for the chronic emptiness, a different form of psychotherapy or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy will be suggested.
But therapy only works if you’re willing to make those changes outside of sessions too, which is far easier said than done. You have to find another outlet when the emptiness strikes. It could be something creative, like writing, drawing, doing your hair or playing an instrument. It could be physical; I often go running when I feel empty, as it gives me something to focus on as I work towards a distance and a source of accomplishment. You could try talking it out with someone or telling them you need to talk about something else as a distraction. You could try to work through the feeling on your own by journaling or free-form writing to try and find what is at the root of your emptiness. You could create a playlist for these moments or try a meditation app.
It’s about finding what works for you, as it doesn’t really matter what works for other people. But even though your maladaptive solutions feel like they work, it’s not a long-term fix, and it’s not what you deserve. You deserve to find a path through this emptiness that doesn’t hurt you or others. You deserve to find happiness and a complete sense of self. It’s hard to realise that you deserve these things, as it can come with guilt for not working towards them, but you can do this, and you will.
Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
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