Human beings are feeling beings. Our emotions infuse life with meaning — without emotions, life would simply be rote happenings that fill up our psychic ledger. Emotions can bring us vibrancy, engagement and direction.
But not all emotions are easily tolerated and integrated into our lives.
When an emotional experience is unsettling, when feeling “X” causes distress, there may be a knee-jerk reaction to turn away from our inner world. It’s no surprise that we want to avoid inner pain. To do so, we might simply think of something else, find the nearest distraction, deny what is occurring, or quickly move into some kind of action, to name a few coping strategies.
But avoidance comes with its own cost. And all too often the behaviors designed to “solve” the problem of emotional distress, the mindless actions that remove us from our inner life, bring their own complications.
Boredom, loneliness and emptiness: the triad of troubling emotions in the modern age
A great deal has been written about the negative impact that resentment, guilt and shame have on our emotional wellbeing. And for good reason. If left unchecked, these feelings can interfere with relationships and erode self-esteem.
Over the years, my clients have increasingly been struggling with another set of emotions that have been taking center stage in their lives. The thread that cuts across these different emotions involves the pain of lack, the experience of something missing:
- In the case of boredom, the experience might be said to arise out of a lack of stimulation or interest or meaningful goals;
- In loneliness, a lack of connection to oneself or a meaningful other may be the cause of distress;
- And for the experience of emptiness, the lack might center around being far removed from our emotional life.
“Every time I end up drinking too much, it’s because I’m bored. For me being bored feels like torture.”
We’re all familiar with boredom. The subjective experience that nothing (of interest) is happening. Time seems to expand when we’re bored; the present moment feels interminable. Life can feel tedious during long stretches of boredom.
And the truth is, when we’re bored, we’re not very good company to ourselves. We don’t pull up a chair and intentionally visit with boredom to see if it can lead us someplace meaningful; or if our boredom is actually a cover story for something else that is going on for us, something we’d rather not face. (For a discussion of the different types of boredom, see Goetz, et. el., 2014; and for a discussion about the potential function of boredom, see Bench & Lench, 2013.)
Rather, we mindlessly jump ship by reaching for our cell phones to text, or we go down an endless number of online rabbit holes or try to fill ourselves by counting the “likes” we’ve accumulated on Facebook; or we may attempt to push out the boredom by eating, or numbing ourselves with alcohol or drugs or pornography.
Without any sense of deliberateness on our part, we move into action, fleeing boredom like it’s the emotional plague. Boredom used to be a part of life; now it’s become a sign of failure. Something to be ashamed of rather than acknowledged and tolerated. It’s become commonplace to hear people describe boredom as the trigger for doing something they later wish they hadn’t done.
“For me loneliness is like falling down into a ditch and no one can hear my cries for help. I end up feeling panicky.”
Loneliness is ubiquitous, a part of life that cannot easily be erased by the opportunities for connection that technology offers.
Loneliness is both an interpersonal and intra-psychic experience. You can exist in a sea of others and feel completely alone. Interpersonally, we may miss those we’ve lost. The ache of loneliness is part of grieving the loss of our loved ones. Loneliness can also result from missing someone we haven’t seen in a while.
When longing and missing intensifies, loneliness may settle over us.
Then there is the intra-psychic dynamic that leads to loneliness, an inner estrangement from our emotional life. Inner disconnection can feel numbing, an internal barrenness that makes us feel increasingly isolated. If we are walled off from our emotions, meaningful contact with others becomes difficult. In these instances, it’s as if we are hidden within us, unreachable and alone.
There is the loneliness we know is temporary, even if our knowing is easily forgotten. Loneliness is more bearable when it has an expiration date attached to it.
“It was like the me that was familiar was vanishing and there was nothing to grab onto.”
We use words to capture our subjective experiences. Like a sculptor with formless clay, language helps us shape the amorphous (the felt sense of inner experience) into the identifiable — we feel more grounded, more solid when we name our subjective experiences. We become more recognizable to ourselves.
Self-ownership is stabilizing: i.e., this is who I am, this is my body, these are my thoughts, my feelings, my motivations, my preferences.
But for some of us, attending to our inner life brings us face-to-face with the frightening experience of emptiness. In these instances, our words may feel too small, too inadequate to fill this inner void.
We are faced with the dread of not finding any internal solidity — adrift within ourselves, unable to find our way back to the homeland of selfhood. To compensate, we may cling to others and take on their thoughts, opinions and feelings as our own (in an effort to moor ourselves). Or we may act out in destructive ways in an effort to keep our inner pain in the far distance.
Numerous explanations have been given for why we might experience this inner emptiness (see Epstein, 1989; Levy, 1984) — the deprivations of childhood that leave us emotionally unfulfilled as adults; the result of traumatic events that have torn apart a coherent sense of self (dissociating from painful self-experiences); emptiness as a secondary reaction, a numbing vapor that extinguishes what we do not want to see.
While boredom, loneliness and emptiness are distinct experiences, it’s easy to see how they may overlap at times. When in the throes of boredom, you might also feel painfully isolated from others; and when lonely, it’s easy to imagine feeling ungrounded and emotionally empty.
Any one of these experiences is painful. The emotional cocktail of boredom, loneliness and emptiness together, however, can easily overwhelm us. And it’s easy to misidentify these experiences, to equate any one of them with depression or anxiety. And while depression and anxiety may be a part of the overall experience, each as a generic label doesn’t do justice to what is happening to us.
The question becomes: what do we do when faced with these distressing emotions?
Do we take the time and energy needed to find words or symbols that attempt to reflect our inner world, or do we let the urge to erase our discomfort move us into some kind of acting-out?
When feeling lost and unable to find anything emotionally substantial within us to hold onto, it’s easy to flounder and turn against ourselves in these moments of heightened vulnerability.
But what would it be like to work toward changing our relationship with boredom, loneliness and emptiness?
One client who struggled with an addiction that was used to eradicate painful isolation and feelings of emptiness learned to reach out when in need, and if no one was available (which was often the case), he resisted the urge to use drugs. Rather, while he was in emotional pain, he called up the memory of his third grade teacher who had been kind and attentive to him despite his behavioral problems.
“I remember she would ask me to help her with some task in the classroom and it would soothe me emotionally. That was one of the few times I ever felt special in my life. And I could tell she was being genuine. Kids know when just it’s BS…”
While these positive events occurred long ago, his memory of her was a present moment experience. He could evoke her image and the gift of feeling special that she gave him.
If the face of great pain, having access to an inner world of caring others (or even just one caring other) can make all the difference. This might be a person currently in your life or someone from your past; someone you can reach out to or someone you can think about; someone you knew or someone you wish you had known; a person or a pet or your personal version of God.
Someone who makes the inevitable pain of life more bearable.
It’s important to remember that experiencing one or all of the emotions discussed above is not an indication that something is psychologically wrong with you. Rather, it’s evidence that you are human and that you are living in our modern age.
Richard Nicastro, Ph.D.
Psychologist, Georgetown, Texas
Bench, S.W. & Lench, H.C. (2013). On the function of boredom. Behavioral Sci., 3, 459-472.
Epstein, M. (1989). Forms of emptiness: Psychodynamic, meditative and clinical perspectives. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, Vol. 2: 61-71.
Goetz, T., Frenzel, A.C., Hall, N.C., Nett, U.El, Pekrun, R., & Lipenevich, A.A. (2014). Types of boredom: An experience sampling approach. Motivation and Emotion, 38: 401-419.
Levy, S.T. (1984). Psychoanalytic perspectives on emptiness. Journal of the American Psychoanal. Assoc. 32: 387-404.