We 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.