The Fullness of Emptiness

IMG_1309We are born divinely alive and fully awake to the richness of being human; there is no such thing as an empty baby. Babies cry when they’re sad and laugh when they’re happy. They scream if their needs aren’t met and they scrunch up their faces in frustration if life isn’t going as they would like it to go. Part of the reason why we’re so drawn to babies is exactly because of their fullness, their innate ability to embrace the wide spectrum of feelings as they arise.

But all-too-often, these feelings are squelched by well-meaning parents and caregivers who don’t have a loving relationship to their own emotional lives. Because most children are raised in a “get over it” environment, when it comes time to have kids of their own, adults have little tolerance for any feeling other than happiness and peace. We praise the “easy” babies in our culture and turn a judgmental and intolerant head toward the “fussy” ones. In order not to lose the attention and approval of their caregivers, babies and kids learn early in life to limit their emotional range to the palatable and innocuous middle. A flatness naturally ensues. And years of flatness, of narrowing your expression of feelings to the acceptance range, results in a numb, empty heart.

Emptiness is a modern cultural malady. Anxiety, depression, and emptiness are the garden variety emotional states that afflict millions of people, young and old. Because of how common they are, we often believe that living with anxiety or emptiness is a natural way to live. Nothing could be further from the truth. A healthy human being is neither anxious nor empty but profoundly alive and connected to the wide range of feelings that we’re meant to feel.

It’s easy to mistake emptiness for calmness. For my clients struggling with relationship anxiety, they’ll often share that, after reading through my site or going through the e-course, their anxiety has abated only to be replaced by a sense of calm when they think about leaving the relationship. “Doesn’t that mean that’s my truth? Have I arrived at my clarity?” they’ll ask with a tinge of panic in their voices. To which I explain that feeling calm is infused with a thrum of aliveness and peace whereas emptiness or numbness is flat and dead. So when the anxiety empties out into numbness, it’s easy to believe that you’ve found your truth when, in fact, without the distraction of anxiety you’re now ready to begin the real work of learning how to love yourself.

Loving yourself is a big task, and an essential prong in the process is learning to embrace all of your feelings – both positive and uncomfortable – with curiosity and compassion. For hidden inside the flat state of emptiness is a kaleidoscope of squashed down feelings. In other words, if you’re feeling numb or empty it’s likely because, as I mentioned, you’ve clamped down your heart early in life by not allowing pain – loneliness, frustration, disappointment, sadness, fear, jealousy – to enter.  And when you clamp down the pain, you also siphon off the pathways to joy and aliveness.

The work, then, is to learn to move toward everything uncomfortable, every split off and fractured feeling that you’ve stuffed into the black bag of shadows that trails behind you. Everything you’ve learned to say no to as a child because it was deemed “weak” or “unnecessary”. Every feeling you truncated because it was “time to get over it.” The work is to transform the “no” into a “yes”, to dive into the tunnels of memory and retrieve the scared child sitting on the school bus or the lonely child sitting on the couch alone in the middle of the day watching television. The work is the sit with that child and listen to her stories, hold him as you longed to be held, attend to her pain that had no choice but to slither like a puddle of ink into the crevices of psyche. The ink tells your story. The work is to reclaim the link, to listen to your story with the heart and patience of the warmest mother you can imagine.

At first you may only feel numb and empty. Start there. Just as pain and joy share a chamber of the heart, emptiness and fullness share a sphere of soul. The way to fullness is through the emptiness, which means becoming curious about its details. “Full attention fills the empty ache,” writes Ann Voskamp in One Thousand Gifts. What does full attention mean? She’s writing about giving full attention to life as a way to cultivate a practice of wonder and gratitude, but it also means that every time you notice the emptiness, you give it your full, non-judgemental attention. Instead of trying to escape the emptiness through searching the Internet or calling a friend or eating or resisting it, you become very still, turn inside, and become acutely aware of what emptiness actually feels like. What lives inside your emptiness? What color is it? What shape? What memories are encased inside its protective shield? Write about it, dance it, meditate on it, draw it.

It’s a softening, this attention to emptiness. It’s a slow, gentle tip of your orbit so that the sun of your attention is pointed at the emptiness. It’s sending this warmth from your light into the cold spaces of your heart until slowly, slowly, the emptiness begins to thaw and the squashed-down kaleidoscope of colorful feelings begins to drip through. We are meant to be fully alive, and our aliveness lives in our feelings. With enough spacious time and loving attention, your emptiness will belly over into your birthright of fullness.

14 comments to The Fullness of Emptiness

  • Laura11

    This was a great article because I know so many relationship anxiety sufferers have wondered the same thing: “Is this my truth? Is this my clarity?” Because we have become so used to feeling the anxiety, once it’s gone we are left in that weird, uncomfortable place. I know I have continued to ask myself those questions, and I’m ashamed to say that sometimes I would have even preferred the anxiety because at least I knew I had to work on it! The “calmness” that a lot of people experience is dull, and it’s really only a break from our anxious minds. I think we just want answers to quickly and want some reassurance about where we’re at that we jump to conclusions. Sometimes we just have to embrace that empty feeling so that we can learn to move forward. I think right now I am at that stage, but learning to understand the emptiness is hard. I have to keep my faith and trust that once I learn to understand my emptiness better, I can come alive again and reawaken my love for my boyfriend.

    Sorry for rambling, but thanks for sharing this article, Sheryl. I think it’s a really great one for others to read.

  • sarah

    I love this, Sheryl. As I was reading, an image of the Earth half in darkness and half in light popped into my mind. In the darkness (without the glow of lights from Earth), one could assume there’s nothing there. The bending rivers are invisible, the mountains unknown to the viewer. And yet, with the light of the Sun, wonders beyond wonder reveal themselves. I was at my parents’ this weekend thinking similar thoughts you express here – I was looking out the window at the view of the trees and Lake Michigan and just thought, “How does anyone go to war when there’s just so much natural beauty in the world. The fact that we’re even on this planet is astonishing.” I really think if people stopped long enough to take that in, there wouldn’t be so much fighting and anger and hatred. What would it be to really let love rule the land?

  • I love your articles, Sheryl! 🙂 Each one speaks honestly about the truths and fact. You do really a great job at explaining the misconceptions. I can’t stress this enough but your articles have helped me a great deal into handling my rOCD issues and I can’t thank you enough!

    Keep up the good work!

    Stay healthy and happy.

    Regards,
    Shivani Sharma.

  • Dona

    This helps me understand so well how I can move past my fear of emptiness and enjoy connecting with it with more confidence that everything will be alright, that, in essence, all is well! Thanks so much for helping me find my way to peace:)

  • Brianna

    This explains me so well! It is so hard to not listen to this emptiness inside me 🙁 a few weeks ago I did really good, but it only lasted two days. It might be emptiness, but it takes up so much space in my heart and head 🙁

  • Barry John

    This speaks to the power of suppression as a habit of social conditioning when true full expression is not allowed. I was just writing about this topic and started with the latin root of the word emotion which not so cryptically means to move out – they are to be expressed, not be stored or contained. The closer an emotion is expressed as to when it is felt, the better. And the more honest it is, within boundaries of not harming others, or becoming totally unfiltered, not examining our emotional experiences at all.

  • Rae

    I was not taught that big, intense feelings were natural, normal, or healthy. As a result, I spent years trying to squash feelings which meant I inevitably squashed my true Self. When the emptiness from despair set in, I walled myself up and convinced myself that my “quiet” reflected an inner calm/peace. Really I had just lost my zest and my voice.

    When I look back with non-judgment, I see that it was a clever way to avoid the real work I’m doing now. I may have been taking Yoga, but judging all the imperfections of my body every time I looked in the mirror rather than feeling what it was like to move my body wasn’t a place of peace. I may have been journaling daily, but the constant negative tone of the wounded self with no loving adult to gently confront and soothe her was not coming from a place of peace. I was always immersed in spiritual reading of some sort, but walked away with an even bigger list of what I needed to perfect in myself. No – not a place of peace at all. I dug quite a big hole for myself, and I didn’t start to crawl out until imperfect, messy love started knocking down the walls. It is raw and vulnerable and slow and sometimes scary as crap….all this looking and peeling and grieving.

    Your distinction between calm and emptiness is so important Sheryl, and I am thankful that you always hold us gently accountable.

    • Thank you, Rae, for yet another insightful, beautiful comment. I LOVE THIS:

      ” I dug quite a big hole for myself, and I didn’t start to crawl out until imperfect, messy love started knocking down the walls. It is raw and vulnerable and slow and sometimes scary as crap….all this looking and peeling and grieving.”

  • Isabella

    I’m just wondering when someone asks us how we feel, or when we question it ourselves,especially when I feel empty (which is everyday 🙁 ) why is it that we automatically believe we are not in love? Why do things feel so different with my boyfriend and I? 🙁

  • Maria

    Hi Sheryl,

    Thank you for this article – emptiness is something I have struggled with for years. I often feel like I am watching the world through a pane of glass, unable to participate or feel what everyone else is feeling.

    It’s just so difficult to learn how to ‘turn the feelings back on’ so to speak. I try, but I think it has been so long that my brain and body go into automatic shut down!

    Is there anything you can recommend for me to maybe read or maybe some of the other posters can recommend some specific exercises they did to help themselves?

  • Giovanna

    Beautiful article, Sheryl. Your work is amazing. I feel like I am in this stage and am moving through it.

    Isabella – It is easy to believe we are not in love when we feel numb, because we don’t feel anything at all, so we automatically assume “Well, I must not be in love.” That couldn’t be farther from the truth.