“I had thought one aspect of BPD was feeling too much.”
This was a comment made by Roderick Hart, of ‘Fragmented Mind’ on my previous post, ‘Waiting room of the world’. That post contained a quote from the film ‘Shadowlands’, which described the anticipation of spring as being like a ‘nothing time’, a ‘waiting room of the world’. It reminded me of the difficult state of ‘emptiness’ in between intense emotions. That state which feels like nothing because (metaphorically) it is neither full of the blizzards and storms of winter, nor of the intense heat of the summer sun. If it comes as a surprise to hear that many with BPD can often feel that they experience too little, rather than too much, then I hope that this post will be helpful. It is based on my reply to Roderick Hart, and as he was kind enough to indicate that my explanation was useful, I wanted to share it more widely, and to elaborate a little (okay, a lot!).
‘Chronic feelings of emptiness’ is the seventh of the DSM IV criteria for BPD. I have often wondered what it feels like to have this symptom, and what exactly the criterion means. How do I know if I have experienced it? As with a number of DSM IV criteria, I think that my initial understanding of what it involves, was too narrow. I was defining ‘emptiness’ in a very limited way, which was restricting my ability to see how it applied to me. I had the same experience with how I initially defined anger (‘externally-aimed’ aggression); abandonment (physical abandonment); and black and white thinking (intellectual inflexibility and being very categorical about one’s views). It took me a while to see anger as also involving silence, denial and withdrawal; abandonment as also involving feeling left alone to deal with one’s emotions; and black and white thinking as being more about how one feels about a person, than about how one approaches an intellectual argument. Once I broadened my definitions, it became much easier to how the DSM criteria applied to me.
I used to think of emptiness as being equivalent to ‘nothingness’, and I used to think of that nothingness as being absolute. It was an easy linguistic trap to fall into – I construed ‘feeling empty’ as ‘empty of feeling’. I was forgetting that an empty glass may have no liquid in it, but it is still full of air – it is not true to say that there is nothing at all inside.
Chronic emptiness means a number of different things to me, and the way I experience it changes. I suspect the same may be true of others with BPD, and there may be no single definition of what chronic emptiness entails. But for me, it can be captured by the following four states. Others with BPD may be able to relate to some, all or none of these. Some may be able to relate to them but may not describe these states as ‘emptiness’. For them, it may feel like something else entirely. But I hope that for at least some people, the following descriptions will strike a chord. For me, all of these states are associated with a strong desire to self-harm, and that desire is described in some of the posts that are referenced below.
Feeling cut off. Sometimes I feel as though I have no access to my emotions. I know that there are feelings – quite powerful feelings even – swirling below the surface, but I feel completely separated from them. I know that they are there, but I can’t feel them. I can sense their presence, but it’s almost as if they belong to someone else. When I’m in this state it can feel incredibly frustrating and difficult to cope with, and I wrote about it my post ‘What’s in a name’, although I didn’t think of it as a type of emptiness at the time.
Lack of identity. Although this is a separate BPD criterion in its own right – ‘markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self’ – for me, it is also connected to chronic emptiness. In my post ‘The unbearable insubstantiality of being – BPD and identity’ I described how I may not ‘feel empty’, but I feel that I am empty – that I am devoid of content and have no substance. Therapy has been particularly challenging recently, with a great deal of trying to ‘dig below the surface’ and figure out what’s behind my various behaviours, thoughts and actions. The process is confusing, exhausting and difficult – but it’s also scary. Not just because of what I might find, but because of the fear that I may find that there is nothing there at all. That I’m all surface – and no substance.
Craving intensity. Much as intense emotions may be incredibly, almost unbearably painful, I crave intensity. Sometimes with every ounce of my being. It’s like a drug that I just can’t get enough of and a tiny taste of it leaves me desperate for more. Sometimes I fear its power and the hold it has on me, but I fear its absence, more. It is the single strongest reason why I am not on medication, despite feeling very guilty for not trying it (as, conceivably, it could benefit not just me, but my husband and children too). Intensity makes me ‘feel full’ – full to the brim of emotion. But as a consequence, when I’m not feeling things intensely, I feel empty. I tried to describe this in my post ‘Waiting to fall – BPD and obsessive attachments’. It’s almost as if my scale of emotions is skewed – I am so attuned to high intensity that lower intensity emotions just don’t seem to register very much. They certainly don’t feel satisfying. If I’m not feeling intensely, it’s almost as if I’m not feeling at all. It’s either hugely powerful – or it’s nothing.
Immense longing. Of all the states I am describing, perhaps this is the one that most readers with BPD will be able to relate to as being closest to their own experience of chronic emptiness. And yet it wasn’t until I read an excellent and moving post called ‘Hollow’ by Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers, that the penny finally dropped and I realised that what I was feeling was emptiness. The author described her feelings of ‘profound loneliness and longing’, which her therapist said related to the emptiness which is a symptom of BPD.
‘Hollow’ seemed to perfectly describe the way I feel when I am visited by what I refer to as my ‘pit of need’. Sometimes, it feels as though a giant chasm opens inside me – a bottomless black hole of need that is longing desperately to be filled and made whole. It seems as though I would do almost anything to fill that chasm. It’s frightening how completely without boundaries I feel at those times. Sometimes the pit of need opens up when I’m in the presence of people I feel very vulnerable with; sometimes it comes out of the blue when I’m separated from someone (for example, my therapist). The immense longing is what used to make me hesitate about describing it as ‘emptiness’ – if I was feeling such longing, how could I be empty? But I was falling into that linguistic trap I spoke of earlier. After I read ‘Hollow’ I realised that it’s because I was feeling so very empty of what I needed, that I felt such immense longing. What is it that the ‘pit of need’, needs? Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers says “…..I do not know”. And I’m not sure I do either. That’s what my journey through therapy is all about. But to quote from ‘Hollow’ again, whatever it is, the feelings associated with its lack, are “horrible, and overwhelming”.
The emotions of those with BPD often swing between polar opposites, occupying the extremes, with little room for middle ground. The psychiatrist who diagnosed me said ‘at least you’re able to feel intensely – some people with BPD feel empty all the time’. Although I have no evidence one way or the other, I suspect that most people with BPD are familiar both with feeling too much, and feeling empty. Maybe, however, one mode dominates more than another, and perhaps that is person dependent; but that is purely speculation on my part. What isn’t speculation, is that both modes can be painful, and both can involve emotions of different kinds. Feeling empty does not mean feeling nothing. It means awareness of a gaping hole; but without necessarily knowing what is missing. It means longing to be filled, but without necessarily knowing with what. It means feeling as though you could collapse inwards, because you are without a core. It means feeling like this – a very short poem I wrote when I was right in the middle of the experience.
Looking back over this post, I realise I have linked to a number of my own past posts. It was not intentional; it’s not an attempt at self-promotion. I am genuinely surprised by how much I appear to have already written about emptiness, without realising it. I am surprised at how much a part of my experience it has been, without me until just recently, having been able to give it a name. I thought I was writing this post to help others understand how emptiness could be a facet of BPD. But I think I have ended up teaching myself, most of all.