On Feeling Emptiness and Difficult Emotions



In his book Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart, psychiatrist Mark Epstein tells the story of his first roommate in college, a guy named Steve, who signed up for the five hardest courses at Harvard and became obsessed with being the perfect student. He stopped playing his guitar, going out with friends, even stopped bathing. Every waking moment went to studying. On his way to his first final exam, Steve fell down several flights of stairs, had amnesia for the rest of the semester, and was forced to take the rest of the year off.

As a result, he fell apart.

Epstein uses that story to introduce the topic of embracing emptiness — how we can fall apart in a such way that we keep our integrity and move toward a place of self-awareness and inner peace. His book discusses how psychotherapy and Buddhist wisdom can be used together to process difficult emotions. The combination of Eastern and Western thought provided several key insights for me since I’ve been wrestling myself with feelings of emptiness.

Exhale underwater

Many of us are like Steve. We tightly clutch the helm of life, steering it with deliberation. We try our best to have some control over the persons, places, things, situations, and events that are part of our days. Until we can’t. Life throws us a curveball that we didn’t anticipate, and we become unhinged. Afraid to let go of our grip, we try to fix the situation, obsess about solutions, and apply different psychological patches to the holes, only to feel more despondent.

“Often we are afraid of falling apart, but the problem is that we have not learned how to give up control of ourselves,” writes Epstein. “We are looking for a way to feel more real, but we do not realize that to feel more real we have to push ourselves further into the unknown.”

Epstein talks about his initial fear of swimming and the process of learning to exhale underwater. It’s counterintuitive to open your mouth in a bunch of liquid that could fill your lungs and kill you. But in order to swim, you have to do just that. Even floating requires that you relax, trust the process, give up some of control. Let fear take over and you’ll sink.

Our emotions, like water, are not our enemy but our backdrop. Instead of avoiding them, tensing up when they surface, we would do better to relax into them, to exhale underwater.

Just feel it

When hit with difficult emotions, my first inclination is always to analyze them: Where did you come from? Childhood baggage? Faulty brain wiring? Low self-esteem? I treat them like a 500-piece puzzle that needs to be assembled in the next half-hour. By finding their origin, I am positive that I can pluck out their roots and eliminate them for good. This method has yet to work.

“Our aversion to emptiness is such that we have become experts at explaining it away, distancing ourselves from it, or assigning blame for its existence on the past or on the fault of others,” writes Epstein. “We contaminate it with our personal histories and expect that it will disappear when we have resolved our personal problems.”

His first medication instructors told him, “Stop trying to understand what you are feeling and just feel…. Just pay attention to everything exactly as it appears and do not judge.”

Tolerate, don’t eliminate

Uncovering our difficult emotions won’t make them go away. They’re still bloody painful. However, by sitting with them in awareness, we can get better at tolerating them, just like I’ve adapted to the odor of teenage boy socks in my house. By touching the truth of our emptiness, we discover ourselves in a new way, and this can lead to transformation. The trick is to relax into that truth and stop fighting the feelings, resisting the urge to want to change them.

“Only then can we have access to the still, silent center of our own awareness that has been hiding, unbeknownst to our caretaker selves, behind our own embarrassment and shame,” explains Epstein. “When we tap in to this secret storehouse, we begin to appreciate the two-faced nature of emptiness – it fills us with dissatisfaction as it opens us to our own mystery.”

Relief isn’t found outside of ourselves. Our strategies to fix and patch will only lead to more disappointment. We must “touch the ground of our own emptiness” to feel whole again.

Embrace impermanence

According to the Buddhist tradition, much of our suffering is born in clinging to relationships and material items in our lives, attaching ourselves to their permanent status. If we can get comfortable with the idea that everything in life is transient, we free ourselves to experience people, places, and things more fully and spare ourselves the pain associated with attachment.

According to Epstein, intimacy puts us in touch with fragility and the acceptance of fragility opens us to intimacy. To love means to appreciate the fleetingness of a relationship, to be able to embrace impermanence. Per Epstein, “When we take loved objects into our egos with the hope or expectation of having them forever, we are deluding ourselves and postponing an inevitable grief. The solution is not to deny attachment but to become less controlling in how we love.”

Gaze outward

There is a well-known parable in the Buddhist tradition about a young woman who lost her only child to illness. She begged the Buddha for medicine to revive him. He agreed to her request, but said that she would need to bring him a handful of mustard seeds from a house where no child, husband, parent, or servant has died. She visited each house in her village and inquired, but realized death had touched everyone, that pain is a universal experience.

I experienced the wisdom of this parable the other day. I had been up all night with painful ruminations. By four in the morning, the obsessions had turned to panic and I could hardly breathe. I reached out to the members of Group Beyond Blue, an online depression support group I started a few years ago. Within two hours, I received over 50 supportive comments chock full of wise, practical suggestions on how to quiet ruminations. Suddenly I wasn’t alone with my uncooperative brain. There was a group of warriors surrounding me, reminding me that what I was experiencing was hardly unique, that emptiness is a universal experience.

Don’t be Steve

Emptiness isn’t supposed to feel good. But it doesn’t have to disable us either. By resisting the urge to address difficult emotions like a tantruming toddler — analyzing them, changing them, escaping them — we can use our experience of emptiness as a teacher of truth, guiding us to a place of inner peace and transformation. Then if we fall down the stairs on the way to our exams – or the equivalent in our lives – we can go to pieces without falling apart.





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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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8 Responses
  1. Having lived in New Orleans all of my life we decided to move about an hour away to a more country type atmosphere. The house we lived in for 32 years was filled with tons of memories. My daughter born and raised there. Beloved husky dogs loved and lost. The house was and had been way too small for us and I thought I was ready to say good bye. The house we bought is on two acres and much bigger and nicer. The area is really beautiful and much safer so what was wrong with me? I could not stop crying . Everyday after the act of sale I cried. I couldn’t get myself together to get any real packing up of boxes completed. Thank goodness my daughter finished packing the kitchen up. I had done most of it but then just stopped. Just sitting thinking and feeling so incredibly sad it hurt to breathe. Moving day came more tears. I cried so much my stomach muscles were sore. My poor husband was doing everything he could think of to help me. It’s been a year now and only once did I drive past the old house looking at changes the new owner had made. I just stopped and told myself over and over through tears streaming “this is not your house anymore…the memories are in your heart…you are not leaving anything behind…its with you ” I feel like I am about 75% better but then there are those little weak moments when I think about my little house…but it isn’t mine and I am slowly releasing the tight white knuckle grip I had ever so slowly but it has been hard.

  2. Rose

    I was just told about this blog today by a good friend of mine. I’ve struggled with addictions to various things including drugs, sex, alcohol to try and fill that emptiness or numb it until it goes away. That hasn’t worked yet. After a relapse a couple days ago, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I come across this page today, of all days. Thank you for sharing your experience and encouragement with us.

  3. Lizzie

    Another amazing article Therese. After writing in response to another article you wrote I said I was for the first time in my life I had a quiet mind.
    The other morning like you I had a massive panic attack. It came out of the blue. Panic set in and I tried to fight it. The more I fought the worse it got.
    I went to buy paint and couldn’t find the right color and this became an obsession. One hour later I left the paint shop in such a state.
    I drove to see my husband where he was clearing out his late mother’s flat. Took the wrong road
    Even though I had driven there many times.
    By the time I arrive I was in a real state. My husband wasn’t there he had gone somewhere that a few weeks before he wouldn’t take me.
    A row followed as my thoughts feelings turned into anger as I couldn’t control events.
    I drove home a different way with no comfort from my husband ( obviously as hard to comfort someone who is lashing out)
    I passed a cemetery. It was a beautiful day . So I parked the car and went inside the cemetery and sat on a seat finding peace.
    In my mind I wanted to lay down on the grass and sleep but wasn’t sure if someone came how it would have been perceived.
    At last I found some peace. Sitting with the dead who had left this world.
    Sometimes when we try too hard to overcome things it turns against us. It’s learning to understand this too will pass and having the courage to reach out to get the help you need to overcome a horrid experience of panic attacks and knowing we are allowed to ask for help.
    Once again Therese thankful . Lizzie

  4. Debbie

    Therese, I’ve always admired you and your coping strategies!! I’m having another terrible bout with suicidal depression. I feel so alone…. and isolating and past ruminating again! I also have gallbladder surgery next week. I’ve had digestive issues since this depression/anxiety has descended upon me and not let up for 5 years now. I hate my living situation with some family…. and need to feel strong enough again to change it. Been hospitalized twice in past 5 years. I’ve always been able to come back, feel “normal” all my life with all the tools. But, now I feel like everyone is just tired of me….. I feel like a complete failure and burden. Even on disability for depression, which is extremely hard for me. A pride thing, I know! I miss the old me …. most anyway. But my therapist keeps telling me…. that I can become the new, better me and to keep the faith. But, I’m so tired Therese. And, no medications are helping…. they used to. ECT and TMS failed. I have one son ( he’s married and has two sons- 16 and 18) I’ve been divorced for years. All of a sudden, I lost so much…. so many losses and changes…. so fast. But, to lose myself….. I’m terrified!!! I feel nothing. And, I used to feel so, so deeply. My therapist says I do feel…… like crap!! And, I hate myself for the jealousy and envy I have toward others.. I was never like that. But, I had trouble speaking up for myself. My only sister isn’t talking to me…. she’s frustrated with me! My past …. growing up is a lot like yours! Any suggestions? Thx, Debbie

  5. Janie Chisholm

    I have been struggling with depression and loneliness. I had just asked for a sign that He was there …I went to close my computer and I was drawn to this! I was one of the 50 that commented…YOU continue to give me hope with your heartfelt words of wisdom and true compassion! God uses people to help others. I thank Him for you!

  6. Professor Julio Varela

    Thank you for the courage, honesty, and clarity you bring to a devastating reality whose symptomological manifestations are so difficult to convey to someone who has not experienced them.

  7. I love all of your posts and look up to you as a writer. I am fairly new to the blogging community, and am a recreational therapist in a psychiatric setting. I aim to advocate for mental health by posting resources, tips, statistics, and other pick-me-ups for people to read, including resources I have used in group at the hospital. Thank you for the detail you put into your posts to bring the realness and importance to life!

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