Are You Feeling Empty Inside?

Article Summary: 

Many people feel empty inside, even if it’s hard to admit for some. This article contains the signs and causes of feeling empty—and what to do about it.


The feeling may be virtually undetectable, but if we’d pause to notice we may discover an inner emptiness sometimes. A silent question about whether all we’re doing is really worth it.

We may be feeling hollow or numb, or living without passion or joy. Are we racing quickly but getting nowhere in a hurry.

“Part of the problem… is that everyone is in such a hurry…. People haven’t found meaning in their lives, so they’re running all the time looking for it. They think the next car, the next house, the next job. Then they find these things are empty, too, and they keep running.” -Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie

Such a feeling may be hard to admit. We may pride ourselves on being a go-getter, a producer. Maybe we’re a committed spouse or parent. Or a hard-charging professional or executive. But the feeling is what it is, regardless of whether we acknowledge or resist it.

We all feel empty sometimes. That’s common. The problem comes when it’s a persistent feeling that gnaws at us and that inhibits healthy relationships and our productive functioning in the world.

In our age of plenty, with grand technological advancements and material comforts for so many, many have warned about a crisis of meaning. The pandemic called the question about our relationship to work and our priorities.


The Signs of Feeling Empty

What are the signs of feeling empty inside? Here are eight of the most common signs:

  1. lacking motivation or enthusiasm for our life and work
  2. feeling disconnected from ourselves or our feelings
  3. feeling distant from others, with a tendency to withdraw from others or an inability to form close relationships
  4. feeling unfulfilled and purposeless
  5. lacking energy
  6. losing interest in activities that we once found enjoyable
  7. feeling like we’re a spectator to our life and not a full and active participant in it
  8. having a sense of dissatisfaction with our lives

Such feelings may get scrambled in cognitive dissonance because we don’t like to think of ourselves as the kind of person who has them. We may feel ashamed of such feelings, as if they’re beneath us, even though they’re natural and common.

We may also be trying to cover up feelings of emptiness with other things—things like entertainment, social media, gaming, overwork, shopping, gambling, food, sugar, alcohol, etc. These, of course, are only temporary salves. They may work for a while, but then the emptiness returns.

At a deeper level, feeling empty can be a defense mechanism keeping us from re-experiencing trauma, or it can be a sign of depression. (If you suspect it may be one of these, check out the mental health and emotional support resources listed at the end of this article.)

Quality of Life Assessment

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Different Kinds of Emptiness

We should also distinguish between an inner emptiness stemming from disconnection and a kind of spiritual emptiness praised in Taoism and Zen Buddhism that allows us to free ourselves from unhealthy attachments to things like success, wealth, beauty, and certain desired outcomes. The idea is that even such good things can cause us suffering because they’re fleeting and beyond our control.

“Become totally empty / Quiet the restlessness of the mind / Only then will you witness everything unfolding from emptiness” -Lao Tzu (Laozi), ancient Chinese philosopher

We may want to empty ourselves of the illusion that painful things are permanent and fixed versus fluid and in flux.

We can also empty ourselves of our attachments to our thoughts. With mindfulness practice, we can merely observe our thoughts and let them come and go instead of conflating ourselves with our thoughts. (So it very much depends on the kind of emptiness we’re talking about, whether it’s an emptiness of distress or enlightenment.)


The Causes of Feeling Empty

There are many things that can cause the distressing feeling of emptiness. One of the most common causes is physical and mental exhaustion. This can come from many thing—often a combination of things—including insufficient sleep, poor self-care (e.g., neglecting regular movement and good nutrition and sleep habits), racing around to family activities, or a stressful job with a demanding boss. Such things can snowball into burnout.

In his wonderful little book, Let Your Life Speak, author and educator Parker Palmer describes a deeper form of burnout:

“Though usually regarded as the result of trying to give too much, burnout in my experience results from trying to give what I do not possess—the ultimate in giving too little! Burnout is a state of emptiness, to be sure, but it does not result from giving all I have: it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place.” -Parker Palmer

Feeling empty can also be caused by many other things, including:

  1. loneliness
  2. repressing our emotions
  3. losing ourselves in an all-consuming relationship that leaves precious little time for ourselves
  4. spending too much time on social media, streaming sites, or gaming
  5. feeling exhausted from mental rumination about painful thoughts and the associated negative self-talk
  6. suspecting that we may need a different job or career, or that we’re settling for something that’s just okay
  7. lack of clarity about our purpose, values, vision, or goals (see my related articles, “The Problem of Not Being Clear About Our Purpose” and “The Problem of Not Being Clear About Our Values”)
  8. losing touch with ourselves and our inner life
  9. living a divided life, with a lack of coherence between our inner and outer self, or living in ways that violate our core values or that don’t center us in our purpose
  10. lacking self-awareness (e.g., about our purpose, values, strengths, passions, and the traps we’re in)
  11. not having enough clarity about or movement toward our goals and dreams

At a deeper level, feeling emptiness can also come from experiencing trauma, with our mind and body wanting us to emotionally detach from the pain, thereby making us feel empty inside as we struggle to access our feelings.

According to Dr. Margaret Paul, psychologist and author, ultimately there’s only one root cause of feeling inner emptiness: a lack of love. She notes that it’s not a lack of someone else’s love, but rather a lack of love of ourselves, or what she calls “self-abandonment.” This often comes from an ego that draws the wrong conclusion from our experiences in the world, making us believe that we’re not worthy of love when in fact we are.

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.


What to Do About It

Fortunately, there are many things we can do to address prolonged feelings of emptiness that inhibit our quality of life. Here are some practices and mindset shifts:

  1. stop ignoring the feeling of emptiness and acknowledge it, giving ourselves grace and not judging ourselves harshly for feeling that way, instead allowing the feelings to flow through us and then letting go
  2. resolve to identify and address the root causes of our pain and anxiety, since avoiding them only brings a temporary reprieve and ends up harming our emotional well-being over time
  3. notice when we feel empty and what we’re doing and with whom, so we can avoid these emptiness triggers
  4. reframe our mindset toward the feeling of emptiness from a sense of dread that we’re flawed to a helpful signal that there’s something in our life that needs attention
  5. figure out what self-care practices work best for us and double down on those
  6. make a list of fun, engaging, and fulfilling activities and people and build them into our schedule
  7. reinvest in learning and growing (e.g., via courses, books, podcasts, TED talks, etc.)
  8. learn a new skill or develop a current skill further
  9. engage in a creative practice such as songwriting or dance
  10. limit our time on social media, email, streaming, gaming, etc.
  11. reach out to family, friends, and loved ones, or make new friends
  12. get clarity about our purpose and core values, then creatively building them into our life and work
  13. write down our goals, aspirations, and vision of the good life to give us a sense of where we’d like to go in our life
  14. seek people and situations that help us feel loved, supported, and whole (and avoid people and situations that make us feel empty)
  15. recruit an accountability partner to help us do things that fill us up or challenge us
  16. form a small group where we can be open and vulnerable and lean on each other for support
  17. establish a daily spiritual practice, such as prayer, worship, contemplation, reading, meditation, or yoga
  18. stop avoiding responsibility for our current situation
  19. get in the habit of journaling for self-expression and self-awareness or writing a gratitude journal (see also this list from Lifehack of 32 things to be grateful for)
  20. seek professional help from a therapist our counselor, if needed (see the resources listed at the end of this article)

The point is not to do all, or even most, of these things. Rather, the point is to start with one or two that seem most promising or intriguing and build from there, paying attention to what’s most helpful and what isn’t.

Ultimately, feeling empty may signal that we’re becoming more aware and conscious of what’s important in our lives—and the deeper experiences we may be missing. That can be a very good thing if we have the foresight and courage to do something about it.


Reflection Questions

  1. Are you feeling empty inside?
  2. Is it an occasional feeling or something that’s been persistent and that has started to detract from your life and work?
  3. If the latter, what will you do about it?


Tools for You


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We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.


Tools for You


Postscript: Inspirations on Emptiness

  • “Formerly, his heart had been as a locked casket with its treasure inside; but now the casket was empty, and the lock was broken.” -George Eliot, English novelist
  • “Feeling empty is often a sign that you’re disconnected from something—whether that be your soul, a lack of meaning/purpose, or your emotions.” -Aletheia Luna, writer and educator
  • “You’re an interesting species. An interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other.” -Carl Sagan
  • “The hard work of sowing seed in what looks like perfectly empty earth has, as every farmer knows, a time of harvest. All suffering, all pain, all emptiness, all disappointment is seed: sow it in God and he will, finally, bring a crop of joy from it.” -Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction
“I have met too many people who suffer from an empty self. They have a bottomless pit where their identity should be—an inner void they try to fill with competitive success, consumerism, sexism, racism, or anything that might give them the illusion of being better than others. We embrace attitudes and practices such as these not because we regard ourselves superior but because we have no sense of self at all. Putting others down becomes a path to identity, a path we would not need to walk if we knew who we were…. as community is torn apart by various political and economic forces, more and more people suffer from the empty self syndrome.” -Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness


Resources for Mental Health and Crisis Prevention

Consult a mental health professional if you believe it may be depression or if your feelings are debilitating and not merely occasional. Here are some support resources:

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Guard Your Heart

A year into the pandemic, we’re reminded of how important it is to guard your heart.

Here we mean our metaphysical heart, our sacred center. Parker Palmer said it beautifully:

“I’m using the word ‘heart’ as they did in ancient times, when it didn’t merely mean the emotions, as it tends to mean today. It meant that center in the human self where everything comes together—where will and intellect and values and feeling and intuition and vision all converge. It meant the source of one’s integrity.”

So many of us these days have suffered anxieties, losses, hardship, or tragedies. All added on a baseline of busyness and burnout. With frazzled days and heavy loads. With negative self-talk judging harshly. With fear and uncertainty.

This year, our hearts have taken a beating.

The effects on our health, relationships, and work can be devastating.

So we must guard our hearts, preserving every ounce of hope, wonder, awe, gratitude, and love we can muster.

“Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” -Proverbs 4:23 (King Solomon)


Why does heart matter so much?

We need it in our lives. We need it to stay grounded and faithful that we can survive, that we can learn the lessons life is offering.

We need it in our relationships, often frayed or neglected during hard times.

We need it at work, with opportunities to connect with colleagues also facing ghosts or demons.

We need it in our leadership, especially during hard times. In his adaptive leadership framework, Ron Heifetz of Harvard University encourages us to maintain a “sacred heart” and avoid numbing our soul with cynicism or defeatism.


How to guard your heart?

For starters, develop resilience through disciplined self-care. There are many possibilities, so choose the ones that resonate with you:

  • Breaks
  • Conversations
  • Exercise
  • Fun
  • Games
  • Gratitude
  • Hobbies
  • Meditation
  • Mindfulness
  • Music
  • Nature
  • Relationships
  • Savoring
  • Serving
  • Sleep
  • Stargazing
  • Writing or journaling
  • Yoga

Some of the most powerful heart defenses come bottled in larger themes: Live purposefully. Preserve your vitality. Stay connected to people. Serve others. Take time for renewal.

If your heart is asleep, dormant from years of neglect, reawaken it.

If your heart is closed, crack it open.

If your heart is cold, bring it warmth.

If your path forward is hazy, ask your heart to light the way. We see things with our heart that we can’t see otherwise.

Guard your heart.


Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.


More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living

Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great“). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Personal Resilience and Self-Care in Hard Times

In times of great upheaval and uncertainty, we struggle to find ways to thrive despite the challenges. Much of this comes down to self-talk, self-regulation, and self-leadership—navigating our reactions to external events and ensuring that our inner voice does not undermine us amidst the difficulties. How are we doing with self-care and personal resilience?

The toll of the pandemic is massive, from disease, suffering, death, and mourning to unemployment, financial stress, disruptions, and restrictions. The effects on our quality of life and inner state can be more profound than we realize. Stress, pressure, and fear—for ourselves and our loved ones—exact their price in insidious ways.

But we humans are strong and adaptable, with amazing capabilities—both individually and collectively. Two of our most precious assets in times like these are personal resilience and self-care.


What is resilience? Tony Schwartz, author and founder of The Energy Project, defines resilience as the “capacity to function effectively under intense stress and to recover.” As humans, we can develop different types of resilience, e.g., emotional, mental, physical. Schwartz notes three pillars of resilience:

  1. Self-awareness: naming what you are feeling is a good first step, and sharing it can help build trust
  2. Self-regulation: calming your body in the face of anger, fear, and anxiety (note: slow and deep breathing can help greatly with this)
  3. Self-care: engaging in regular practices to take care of yourself and build up your reserves so they do not get depleted under pressure

How do we build resilience?

Regular Self-Care Practices

We all have different preferences, but most of us are not doing enough on this front. Examples include:

  • Breaks. As humans, we can only go so long before getting depleted. Many professionals and leaders today are quite ambitious, and also attached via ego to success and prestige, causing them to get lost in overwork or burnout. Simple practices of regular breaks (e.g., Pomodoro technique) can be quite helpful and restorative.
  • Exercise. We need to move our bodies, and when we do so we can build strength, endurance, and energy. It causes positive reactions in our bodies that affect our mood, and it helps us sleep well.
  • Gratitude. According to researchers, being grateful for what we have can have powerful effects on our quality of life, including improved well-being, life satisfaction, sense of connectedness, and physical health. Activities such as gratitude journaling each night or writing gratitude letters to those who have helped us can have surprisingly strong and lasting effects.
  • Hobbies. Find something you enjoy and build it into your daily or weekly routine. It could be gardening, puzzles, podcasts, or whatever. Reading is one of my personal favorites, and I have often noticed that times in my life when I feel down have been times when I have neglected reading. Reading can take us into new worlds of imagination and new vistas of learning.
  • Meditation and Mindfulness. Mindfulness has been defined as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally” (Jon Kabat-Zinn). Researchers have found many benefits from mindfulness practices, including improvements in mental and physical health as well as performance.
  • Nature. As physical beings in a dynamic ecosystem, we need to be outside. Fresh air and sunlight are essential. If our days are loaded with Zoom sessions and emails, we need to be sure we are getting outside enough through walks, hikes, runs, bikes, or trips to the park.
  • Nutrition. We’ve all heard that “you are what you eat,” but how many of us take it seriously? Our bodies need good fuel if they are to remain resilient and energized for all that we want to do in life. For great tips on food, check out Dr. Michael Greger’s Nutrition Facts web site and books, starting with How Not to Diet.
  • Reframing. According to researchers, we humans have a negativity bias—over-focusing on negatives and underappreciating positives. It is important to reframe things from setbacks or defeats to challenges or opportunities (e.g., for learning and growth).
  • Sanctuary. Places or practices of peace, allowing us to transcend our ego and connect with something larger than ourselves (e.g., prayer). In a world driven by ego, accumulation, and stress, how powerful is it to step away from our worldly cares and tune into a higher power, recognizing that there is something so much greater than ourselves with our flaws and our brokenness.  
“In life itself, there is a time to seek inner peace, a time to rid oneself of tension and anxiety. The moment comes when the striving must let up, when wisdom says, ‘Be quiet.’ You’ll be surprised how the world keeps on revolving without your pushing it. And you’ll be surprised how much stronger you are the next time you decide to push.” -John W. Gardner
  • Savoring. Given the challenge of the negativity bias noted above, it is essential for us to savor the positives. Savoring means fully feeling and enjoying positive experiences, and thereby extending them.
  • Sleep. Many people today have poor sleep habits. We tend to take sleep for granted, but it turns out to be one of the most essential practices for physical and mental health. Poor sleep has been found to have tremendous deleterious effects on a wide range of factors (e.g., addictive behaviors, anxiety, appetite, attention, concentration, creativity, decision-making, depression, ethical behavior, impulsiveness, irritability, memory, motivation, relationships). A great resource for those struggling with poor sleep is the book, Sleep Smarter, by Shawn Stevenson, with a terrific punch list of simple practices to improve sleep.
  • Writing / Journaling. Research has shown that writing about stressful experiences can help people create meaning from them. I have found that writing can be a creative outlet for emotional catharsis. The same can be true for talking through feelings with others.
  • Yoga. Yoga has been a powerful grounding practice for people for thousands of years. The practice can increase flexibility, strengthen muscles, center thoughts, and relax and calm the mind. At a deeper level, it can unite mind, body, and spirit.


Broader Mindsets for Resilience

In addition to the above self-care practices, there are other broader mindsets which are important to developing and maintaining personal resilience in good times and bad:

Full Responsibility. 

This is one of the most powerful principles of human development. Life may not be fair. We may be enduring great hardship, as so many are today. But in the end, we must take full responsibility not only for the choices we make but also for the conditions of our lives. No one is coming to save us. We are responsible for our lives and must continue doing the best we can.

Authentic Integrity.

In our book, LIFE EntrepreneursChristopher Gergen and I noted “authentic integrity”—integration of all aspects of our lives in a way that coheres with our true nature—is an essential aspect of intentional life design. This can be thought of as a strong personal foundation. To build it, we can clarify the following and build them into the fabric of our lives:

  • Personal purpose (i.e., what provides us with a sense of meaning or significance)
  • Personal values (what we value most in life)


Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.


Healthy Support Systems. 

When we take time and care to develop relationships based on trust, diversity, reciprocity, commitment, openness, and vulnerability, we can build “healthy support systems” that act like roots that ground us in life. (Source: LIFE Entrepreneurs)

“Connection is why we’re here…. Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen…. True belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world.” Brené Brown


Good Life Buckets. 

In his excellent book, How to Live a Good Life, Jonathan Fields notes that, while we all may have our own unique take on what a good life is for us, for most people a good life includes three “buckets”:

  1. Vitality bucket: energy, nutrition, sleep, exercise, movement, strength, mindfulness, emotional calm, resilience, etc.
  2. Connection bucket: relationships with partner, family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors (e.g., ones based on love, openness, trust, intimacy, commitment, belonging, fun, etc.)
  3. Contribution bucket: service and impact on family, friends, colleagues, community, nation, world, and/or causes or places

I love the good life buckets in part because we can do a quick “bucket test” to determine which buckets may be low and in need of filling.

Hope and Faith. 

Faith can be defined as complete trust or confidence in someone or something. Regardless of your beliefs, faith can be an essential aspect of remaining resilient during hard times. Do we spiral down into resignation and assume the worst, or do we maintain a powerful and abiding hope and faith that, despite hard times, things can get better if we stay the course and give our very best?

Strength through Suffering. 

Since suffering is part of life, we need to learn how to deal with it in such a way that it does not break us. Sometimes suffering can help us break out of mindless routines, drifting, or complacency—or taking important things for granted. The pain somehow invites growth.

“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning…. When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Viktor FranklMan’s Search for Meaning


How Adversity Can Lead to Growth

According to Scott Barry Kaufman, adversity can lead to growth in several areas:

  • Greater appreciation of life
  • Greater appreciation and strengthening of close relationships
  • Increased compassion and altruism
  • The identification of new possibilities or a purpose in life
  • Greater awareness and utilization of personal strengths
  • Enhanced spiritual development
  • Creative growth

We do not wish for adversity and suffering, but when it arrives, as it will, we must figure out how to respond. Sometimes it is there that we find humanity at its best. In fighting for ourselves, we build our capacity to fight for others, and to endure this together.


Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!



Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), do his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!