Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Child Development

Feeling Empty? 7 Signs You're Disconnected From Your Emotions

For many, it's a vague and uncomfortable feeling that's difficult to identify.

Key points

  • Many people experience a chronic sense of numbness, detachment, or boredom that comes and goes.
  • The feeling that something is missing is a difficult emotion to sense, understand, and process.
  • For many, the feeling that something is missing is a signal that they are disconnected from their own feelings.
nikkimeel/Adobe Stock Images
nikkimeel/Adobe Stock Images

Emptiness is one of the most painful feelings one can experience. Many people describe empty feelings as numbness, detachment, chronic or deep boredom, or a sense of being hollow in their bellies or chest. Like something is missing inside of you.

If you have ever felt this way, it's important to know that you are not alone.

Emptiness is a difficult emotion to understand and process. When you feel empty, there’s seemingly nothing there to identify. You come up blank, confused, and stuck. You may feel alone, incomplete, numb, or like you’re on the outside looking in.

Have you ever wondered what it is that’s missing inside of you? As if you can’t quite put your finger on what you need to feel complete?

Many try to fill their emptiness with things like food, alcohol, drugs, shopping, or romance. But, unfortunately, the more you try to dispel your feelings of emptiness, the more this uncomfortable feeling comes up. It interferes with your ability to feel joy, confidence, and connection. Its insidious nature prevents you from finding what's missing from your body or your life.

7 Signals That You Are Missing Something in Your Life

  1. You sometimes sense a hollow feeling inside.
  2. You sometimes experience a feeling of numbness.
  3. You will do almost anything to avoid appearing needy.
  4. You frequently find yourself questioning your purpose in life.
  5. You feel like you are missing something vital in your life that other people have.
  6. Feelings of loneliness are common for you as if you’re alone in the world.
  7. You feel like you are somehow fundamentally different from other people.

After years of working with folks who have described these signals of emptiness to me, I have seen what, for the vast majority of them, is the missing ingredient. It’s something that allows for happiness, fulfillment, intimacy, and motivation and adds color to your life. It’s something that, when it’s missing, you sense it and you feel it. It’s emotions.

Your Connection to Your Emotions

If you relate to some of the seven signals of emptiness above, you may be one of the many, many people who experienced childhood emotional neglect. This involves growing up in a home that did not respond to, validate, or encourage your emotions enough. It’s the absence of emotional attention, discussion, and care in your childhood home, something you may not have realized was missing.

A child growing up in this environment does not know that there’s an emotional void happening around them. In fact, the child assumes that this is a normal way of living and being. And, so, when their feelings are ignored, invalidated, or minimized by their parents, they begin to copy this way of responding to their emotions as well. This little child innocently and miraculously does what he needs to do to survive in the environment he's in—he walls off his own feelings, treating them as unwanted intruders in his life, just as he was taught.

Perhaps when you were upset, your parents ignored your feelings, pretending they didn’t see what you were feeling. Or, perhaps they attempted to make it better by giving you gifts or food, or perhaps they went the alternative route of punishment or even a scolding. In their attempts to make your upset feelings go away, they, perhaps unknowingly, didn’t provide what you, like all children, desperately needed: emotional acceptance, emotional validation, compassion, and emotional responsiveness.

When you feel empty now as an adult, it may be because you are using those old ways of attempting to “make it better,” just as your parents did. Since you never learned the importance of emotions, and since they are now walled off, ignored, reduced, or minimized, it makes sense if you have been looking for what’s missing in all the wrong places.

If you’re thinking that this doesn’t apply to you because you do have emotions but still feel empty, see if you can answer these few questions:

  1. What is your relationship like with your emotions? Do you see them as valuable messages from your body or view them more as a nuisance?
  2. Do you often feel confused by your feelings, or like they are unmanageable?
  3. How good are you at identifying, naming, validating, and expressing your emotions?

You can have emotions and still feel empty. If you have a difficult relationship with your emotions, feel confused by them, and have trouble identifying and expressing your feelings (all signs that you have them walled off), you are more prone to feeling empty. The effects of childhood emotional neglect set you up to live your life behind your wall. Your feelings are still there, but they’re more like scary strangers than friendly neighbors. You’re not able to fully feel them, use them as they are meant to be used, or manage them in a healthy way.

How to Refuel

The amazing news about this problem is this: You still have your feelings. They are inside you, ready and waiting. They can work with you, not against you, to add meaning, purpose, joy, and color to your life. All you need to do is engage with them differently.

When you begin to accept your feelings as valuable messages from your body, pay attention to them, listen to their messages as they teach you about yourself, and share them with others, your life will be enriched and you will become more fulfilled.

You no longer need to run on empty. Yes, you were set up in childhood with an unfair disadvantage. Sadly, you were not emotionally filled up when you were meant to be. But it’s not too late. I have seen many, many adults, decades past their childhoods, who have learned how to step away from emptiness and toward their inner world of emotions. Even if it's not easy work, it’s monumentally worthwhile work. After all, the fuel of life is feeling. If we’re not filled up in childhood, we must fill ourselves as adults. Otherwise, we will find ourselves running on empty.

© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.


To determine if you might be living with the effects of childhood emotional neglect, you can take the free Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. You'll find the link in my Bio.

More from Jonice Webb Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today