The phrase "dead inside" is popular across the internet. Memes, jokes, and popular media have been created around the phrase "dead inside" so we can collectively cry and laugh at the concept of feeling empty inside.
But underneath the humor, what's actually going on?
Why do I feel so empty inside?
The word "empty" may imply that this is just a feeling of nothingness. However, it goes beyond just a lack of feeling.
The researchers also found the feeling of emptiness was closely associated with feelings of purposelessness and unfulfillment, and most people in the study found the feelings to be "distressing."
That impact on your daily life is what mental health professionals are concerned about. Although it's common to feel empty from time to time, it is not a pleasant experience and can negatively affect how you live your life. There may be cause for concern if this feeling of emptiness, paired with a lack of motivation or enthusiasm for life, is persistent across many or all parts of your life.
What causes feeling empty?
There are a few possible root causes for feelings of emptiness:
You just experienced trauma.
A recent experience of trauma can lead to feelings of emptiness, according to Steph Tuazon, LCSW, a licensed therapist who specializes in trauma work.
"A traumatic experience is an experience that threatens safety, sense of self, and causes lasting distress. After a traumatic experience, whether a recent event or a retriggering event reminding you of an event from the past, it can lead to feeling empty," she explains.
Studies have shown that trauma can be stored in your body, so feeling physically empty might be your body's way of telling you that it needs protection.
You use numbing or disconnection as coping mechanisms.
Coping mechanisms like numbing and disconnection can be used to survive through negative life experiences like loss, trauma, or other highly distressing events. Sometimes, it's easier in the moment to emotionally detach yourself from an experience rather than emotionally engaging with the situation.
You're experiencing burnout.
- Overwhelming exhaustion
- Feelings of cynicism
- Sense of ineffectiveness
- Lack of accomplishment
Whether it's related to a personal relationship, caretaking, or professional work, burnout can affect anyone. The feelings of emptiness can be a result of elevated negative emotions for a prolonged period of time.
You're emotionally overwhelmed.
Without the proper tools to navigate complex emotions, it's common for people to push their emotions aside. If you are having trouble identifying sadness from anger or frustration from anxiety, you may become apathetic as a way to deal with your emotions later.
"When we are physically, emotionally, and energetically depleted, we naturally will have difficulty feeling like ourselves and have minimal capacity for the responsibilities in our lives," Tuazon says.
This is why self-care through sleep, especially during times of distress, is crucial to well-being. When our bodies are depleted, they cannot help sustain us through navigating our lives.
You're unhappy with where you are in life.
If you're ruminating on just how unhappy you are, you might be driving yourself to feel empty. (Here are signs you may be unhappy, if you're not sure.) Unhappiness can cause you to feel unmotivated to care for yourself physically, mentally, or emotionally.
What it means when you feel empty inside.
Feelings of emptiness can impact how you move through your days. Emptiness is oftentimes paired with other negative experiences and emotions like:
Living with emptiness can look like just going through the motions. You have a to-do list, you do what needs to get done, but at the end of the day, you have felt no joy, fulfillment, or gratitude from anything you've done.
Since everyone's experience with emptiness is different, it's worth noticing your specific experience by asking:
- When do you feel empty?
- How often do you feel empty?
- Where do you feel emptiness in your body?
- Who's around or not around when you feel empty?
Once you have an idea of where and how your emptiness shows up, you might be able to identify with one of the following scenarios:
Feeling empty all the time:
Persistent feelings of emptiness may be cause for concern. "Emptiness can be a telltale sign that your needs and wants aren't being met," says licensed professional counselor Shani Tran, LPCC. "The first thing is to ask yourself, 'Am I advocating for my needs and wants?'"
Your needs might not be met in more than one area of your life, including work, your marriage, your friendships, or your relationship with yourself.
Feelings of numbness can result from overwhelm or trauma. It could be your body's defense mechanism to protect you against feeling tough emotions and feelings you might not be ready for. Tuazon adds, "Numb is a dulling of emotions. While we don't need every sensation or emotion to be polarizing as something good or bad, feeling numb is a form of apathy and strong disinterest in things we typically have interest or care in."
Feeling tired can be just the physical feeling that you need more sleep. It can also be your body's reaction to a highly emotional or stressful situation or your body's signal that you need to take a few moments to refresh. Feeling tired can also be caused by rumination.
If you're holding on to negative thoughts or situations and repeating them in your mind, you may be exhausting yourself. Just as our bodies need a physical refresh with sleep, your mind and emotional body may need to refresh with a spark of joy or happiness.
Emptiness after sex:
If you have negative feelings or feelings of emptiness after sex, you're not the only one. This experience is known as postcoital dysphoria, and it can present as feeling empty after sex.
"Postcoital dysphoria (PCD) is the experience of negative affect following otherwise satisfactory sexual intercourse," a team of researchers explained in a 2011 study published in the International Journal of Sexual Health. "Individuals who experience PCD may express their immediate feelings after sexual intercourse in terms of melancholy, tearfulness, anxiety, irritability, or psychomotor agitation."
Due to pleasurable highs and postcoital lows, some people may have feelings of emptiness to cope with the extremes in emotion. There may also be underlying relationship issues, or past experiences of trauma, that are surfacing in response to the heightened intimacy experienced during sex.
Emptiness after crying:
Crying is an emotional outlet. Letting yourself cry can be cathartic and a healing experience. After a period of feeling emotional, you may experience a wave of nothing. "Crying takes a lot of energy, and for many of us, while it is a release, it can leave us feeling even more depleted initially," says Tuazon.
Emptiness at night or when you wake up:
Feeling empty at the end of the day or when you wake up could be a sign of prolonged emotional processing and your body being depleted. Since feelings of emptiness are oftentimes paired with other negative feelings, it could also mean that you are experiencing a mental health issue that should be explored with a licensed professional.
Is it depression?
Depression is a clinical diagnosis that requires a licensed professional to test for. It's important to note that depression isn't just one thing. It's not just immense feelings of sadness or emptiness. There are many factors that professionals consider before providing a final diagnosis.
"Feeling empty alone does not automatically mean it is depression," says board-certified psychiatrist Pia Quimson-Guevarra, D.O. "However, if you feel empty along with other symptoms such as having a sad or depressed mood, feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate guilt, decreased interest or pleasure in activities, weight changes, fatigue, concentration difficulties, sleeping difficulties, subjective feelings of moving or thinking slower or faster, or thoughts of death or suicide, it could be depression."
If you suspect you may be dealing with depression, consider finding a therapist who can support you in managing your symptoms. If you are considering harming yourself or someone else, call 9-8-8 (in the U.S.) to be connected with confidential support from the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline or text HOME to 741741 to get connected to Crisis Text Line.
How to stop feeling this way:
Examine your life.
"Examine what things you can add to your life to bring more positivity and love," Quimson-Guevarra recommends. "Do you need more connection? Then try reaching out to loved ones or making new connections. Are you feeling like all you do is work? Try to add more time for rest and meaningful hobbies or activities. Work on adding more moments of joy in your life."
Get familiar with your emotions.
There are many reasons you may become disconnected from your emotions such as experiencing trauma, not yet having the right tools for emotional processing, and possibly being emotionally unavailable.
But the more familiar you can get with your emotions, the more accurately you can identify what is causing your feelings of emptiness. For example, getting really specific about how anxiety shows up in your body: This can feel like churning in your stomach followed by shortness of breath, which leads to feelings of overwhelm, then emptiness. Knowing these signals can help you have a deeper understanding of your emotions.
Keep a journal.
Once you know how to describe your experience and emotions, keeping a journal can help you express and track what's going on in your life. Not only is it cathartic to get thoughts and emotions on paper, but you can also look back to try to find patterns and root causes for your feelings.
Lean into action.
Tran suggests doing things that created happiness in the past, such as:
- Going to your favorite coffee shop
- Going outside
- Reconnecting with friends
Reminding yourself of what has worked in the past can help spark some inspiration to get into action. Getting your body, mind, and emotions moving forward is key to getting away from feeling empty.
Build structure around what brings you joy.
Aiming to improve on adding more joy and happiness first takes realization of what joy and happiness means for you, and this may take a bit of work.
Tuazon recommends starting small—even if it's engaging in something that brings you joy for just 30 seconds—and then building up the practice and staying accountable to it.
"Accountability in this sense means being intentional about creating this structure daily versus based only on feeling or convenience," she explains.
"One thing I would try to avoid is consumption without any mindfulness," Tuazon says. "For example, while watching a TV series may bring a sense of joy initially, spending hours without being intentional can often lead to feeling worse." Choosing an activity that you can engage with mindfully and with intention will help alleviate feeling empty.
Give yourself grace if healing doesn't look perfect.
Springing into action may feel like a big jump while feeling empty. So be kind to yourself. "Practicing and feeling joy may be challenging, so please give yourself grace in this and know that this feeling empty is not permanent," Tuazon says.
When to seek help.
Sometimes you are taking action for yourself, but it doesn't feel like it's helping you make meaningful progress. You still feel like your feelings of emptiness are impacting the way you live and negatively affecting your work, home, and relationships.
The biggest sign that it's time to seek help is if your feelings of emptiness are debilitating, causing you to not perform at work, neglect tasks at home, and turn away from your relationships.
The good news is that you don't have to keep moving forward alone. Resources are available. Reaching out to a licensed professional can help get you past chronic feelings of emptiness. A therapist can serve as your guide to get you unstuck and moving forward.
What does it mean when you have an empty feeling inside?
Feelings of emptiness can mean many different things depending on the context of where and when you're experiencing it. Taking a moment to reflect on possible causes for emptiness may be worthwhile to gain a better understanding of what's going on emotionally. Possible reasons for feeling empty are experiencing trauma, rumination on negative emotions, or feeling dissatisfied with life.
Is feeling empty common?
Feeling empty is common. However, the severity and pervasiveness in your life are what you need to look out for. If you feel empty and it's affecting your ability to live your life fully, it may be a more serious situation to get checked by a licensed mental health professional.
What can cause feelings of emptiness?
Feelings of emptiness can be caused by a wide range of things, from sleep deprivation to experiencing trauma to the first warning signs of depression. It's best to work with a licensed professional for a diagnosis.
Feeling empty is a common experience for most of us, which is why the phrase "dead inside" feels so relevant. However, there are certain contexts where this feeling may point to more serious problems than just feeling empty. It may be connected to life dissatisfaction, trauma, depression, or a combination of things. Depending on the severity of the feeling, you may want to take time with a licensed professional to tease out possible root causes and solutions to alleviate your feelings of emptiness.
Stephanie Catahan is a health coach and writer. With a psychology degree from University of California, Berkeley and trained at Duke Integrative Medicine and iPEC, she applies a holistic lens to her wellness writing. She also has experience building corporate wellness initiatives for employee resources groups at companies like Google, encouraging members to build sustainable health strategies to prevent burnout.
Catahan currently runs, writes, and lives in San Francisco.