As a psychotherapist, I encounter many people who have everything they think they’re looking for but no peace of mind. Their lives look exactly as they feel they should, yet they’re unhappy. Some have all the things that money can buy, but they aren’t content—they can’t shake the overwhelming sense that something is missing.
According to Dr. Tibor Agoston, people experience feelings of emptiness in two different ways, often described as inner and outer. Inner emptiness is a void felt in the organs or occupying the mind. Outer emptiness is more concrete: financial or material shortcomings would qualify.
Often, my patients have searched for quick ways to fill the void but found only temporary relief. They’ve tried to quiet their internal noise from the outside, shopping excessively, overeating, overworking, and the like. For some, it can even become addictive—drugs, alcohol, sex, plastic surgery. Some turn to hoarding or collecting to fill their emptiness; like squirrels with their nuts, they take comfort in the idea of protecting themselves against running out of supplies. Others have found comfort in geographical cures, literally running away from their pain. Unfortunately, each of these approaches can only provide a superficial sense of fullness. The emptiness always comes back.
Feelings of emptiness aren’t always straightforward, though. I’ve seen couples struggle to get pregnant and create a family, only to feel trapped rather than fulfilled when they finally do. They’re confused by the paradox of getting what they want and then feeling ambivalent about it. The same type of thing can happen in the workplace: Patients obtain promotions they have longed for only to realize that they still feel unfulfilled. We think that big life changes will fix our feelings of emptiness, but divorcing, changing careers, moving, or having children will only bring temporary relief if we don’t address the roots of our emptiness through understanding.
That’s much easier said than done, particularly in today’s world. Everywhere I go, I see people on their phones. It’s so commonplace that I’m no longer surprised to see everyone focused on little hand-held devices in places once reserved for relaxation, quiet, or socializing. Restaurants are filled with people playing with phones instead of interacting with each other. Out at dinner with friends, I’ve almost stopped feeling surprised when I get pushed aside for a text or phone call that they claim just can’t wait—though it certainly still feels dismissive. Instead of being emotionally with the people who surround us, we’re all conversing electronically with people who aren’t there.
Trying to understand this behavior is important. Perhaps it shows us how much trouble we have being alone or really connecting with other people, since so many of us find it easier and even more appealing to connect electronically across vast distances. I suspect that these devices manage our intimacy—no app can substitute for true connectedness, but if true connectedness makes us uncomfortable, perhaps that’s why we turn to technology.
Smartphones are wonderful distractions that help us avoid sitting quietly, actually feeling the emptiness inside us. Today, most people jump in the car and get on the phone immediately in lieu of sitting quietly with their thoughts while driving. Being a psychotherapist, I know better than to do this, and yet I, too, find myself looking for distractions from the quiet of my time in the car. The silence of being alone with feelings and thoughts can be uncomfortable even for me.
The fact that our world never requires us to wait and be patient—after all, we can have anything we want with the click of a button—makes us even more anxious when potential quiet times present themselves. And rather than try to embrace them, we fill them up.
Recently, I went to see a movie, only to find myself bombarded by advertisements for other movies. Even at theaters, it seems, there’s no space to settle into the experience for which we’ve come. Similarly, lulls in action at sporting events are so filled with entertainment, either live or displayed on big screens, that when the game resumes, there’s almost less going on than during the breaks.
If we look at our own schedules, we’ll find that we overstimulate ourselves this same way. None of us are just sitting and thinking in the few minutes between meetings—we’re always trying to fit something else in. In my practice, I see parents who over-schedule their children and themselves this way. They leave no room for reflection on their thoughts and feelings, as that would open their minds up to intrusive thoughts or even loneliness. And on the rare occasion that these people would like some time alone, it’s impossible to find—every space is overcrowded and every day too busy. So what do we do?
First, it’s time to look inside for answers.
People often define their value by what they have and how they believe they appear to the outside world, and there is a great deal of societal pressure to do so. But this type of attitude prompts us to attribute our problems to our circumstances. If I had a better job, a better relationship, a better body, or a bigger house, we think, happiness would follow naturally. This kind of thinking comes from not understanding the real causes of our unhappiness. And if we don’t address the actual roots of our feelings, we have no hope of changing them. We need to realize that much of our behavior comes from the unconscious realm of our mind, and only once we make sense of the unconscious and connect it to our conscious mind can we grow.
There are many ways of understanding feelings of emptiness, but two important factors seem to me like the most regular contributors. The first is a lack of connectedness. With modern technology offering a constant flow of opportunities to connect, we expect closeness to be more easily experienced, but I think that our contant use of technology to build and maintain relationships actually removes the intimacy of simply bonding with other people. Technology does not provide an opportunity to truly be seen, heard, or even held. It affords us opportunities to connect more frequently, but these connections are superficial, and they leave us feeling emptier.
Second and more complicated is a phenomenon referred to in my profession as repetition compulsion—the unconscious desire to repeat history in an effort to correct what went wrong the first time, hoping for a different. If we think of our lives as plays, we might think of this compulsion as the need to come up with better endings. People who have grown up in neglectful families, for example, often feel they were never heard or understood by their parents. When they have kids of their own, they might give them constant attention in order to make the kids feel valued, but ironically, this can create the outcome they are trying to avoid. In hovering, they can make their kids feel suffocated or controlled—still neither heard nor understood.
Fully grasping these quandaries can be difficult alone. And that’s where psychotherapy can offer relief.
In my practice I see all the time how much more satisfied people feel once they’re heard and understood. I get asked constantly what psychotherapy and psychoanalysis are, and I’m always disappointed to know how few people have a grasp on what mental health feels like and how psychotherapy and psychoanalysis can help.
A psychotherapist/psychoanalyst help patients to gain a deeper understanding of themselves and the ways they contribute to their own unhappiness. When patients understand what causes their emptiness, they become better equipped to avoid behaviors that contributes to it.
Though psychoanalysis and psychotherapy are often thought of in cartoonish ways—the therapist falling asleep in her chair as the patient blathers on from the couch—studies have concluded that people who have had psychoanalytic psychotherapy or psychoanalysis maintain their progress over many years. This is because they develop the capacity to understand themselves better and to analyze new difficulties as they arise.
In my experience, true peace of mind and contentment come from connectedness and understanding oneself. I believe in the power of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis firmly enough to have dedicated my life to it, but even those who don’t could really benefit from remembering to stay engaged in their own lives—to really connect with friend and reflect on experiences—and from putting their phones away.
Lisa Teitel Schlesinger has practiced psychotherapy in the area for 16 years and is currently in private practice in Rockville. She lives in Montgomery County.