I hadn’t seen James for a year.  When our therapy had finished, his daughter was moving out into a flat of her own and he was going off with his girl friend to tour Indonesia.  I had felt pleased with his progress.  But recently he had suffered a dip. 


‘I’ve just got this awful emptiness inside’, he announced as he sipped his coffee.  ‘Since I retired, I don’t know who I am or what I’m meant to be doing.  Life just seems meaningless.’


It wasn’t the first time James had said that to me, but why had this cropped up now.  I know how much he had struggled with retirement, but he seemed to live such an active life and he and his girl friend had just got engaged.  But James’s difficulties had been there since childhood.  His mother had struggled by herself to bring up her three children under very deprived circumstances.  It was as much as she could do to keep enough food on the table let alone cater for their emotional needs.   



In a paper entitled, ‘On being empty of oneself’, the psychoanalyst, Enid Balint,  explained how children depend on feedback from their parents in order to manage their  their feelings.  So when her little boy falls over and grazes his knee, a mother accepts the pain and the fear and returns it in a more acceptable form.  ‘Oh dear, that’s a bad hurt, but we’ll just wash it, put a plaster on and it will feel a lot better.’   And in a few days it will go.’  Managed in this way, the child can acknowledge the experience and learn from it. 


Children are constantly running to their parents to enlist their help in making sense of the world.  Wilfred Bion, another psychoanalyst, saw this in terms of quantum mechanics.  Children emit alpha particles (of experience), which their mothers take in, transform and returns in the form of more manageable beta particles.  So children learn about their  individual world by a process of projection and introjection.  Through constant reiteration of this process involving more and more complex notions and an increasing range of resources (parents, friends, teachers, lectures, mentors, therapists, books, reference sources) they develop a robust sense of identity.  To put it another way, our identity is shaped by our experience and way in which we learn, through the agency of other people, to understand and manage it. 


Imagine what might happen if that feedback didn’t take place or was insufficient; if parents were absent or, as Susan Greenfield deplored in her latest book on Identity,  if  children spent too much time playing computer games instead of exploring and learning. They would grow up not quite knowing who they were.  They would experience a internal void, a lack of identity and purpose that would need constant replenishment from external sources.. 


Patients with extreme obesity frequently report a great emptiness inside them –  a void that they fill up with food, the hunger that is never satisfied.  The image of a fat child sitting in front of a computer screen or television has become a cultural stereotype of enormous concern, since they may be condemning themselves to a limited lifespan of debility, infertility and illness.  But dieting (or even exercise) is probably not the solution.  What they really need is the robust sense of their own identity that can only be gained by active engagement with other people.  The Fat Camps, organised by Leeds psychologist, Paul Gately, work, not just because the kids are made to exercise more, but because,   feeling accepted and belonging, they have less need for food.   


But people can replenish their inner emptiness in expressions of need or forms of addition other than food. Many drink too much, some take drugs, some become addicted to sex or romance, some fill their diaries with new experiences, new encounters.  Such external satisfaction is brief and the experience soon needs to be repeated. 


Children with an empty space inside themselves can become adults who cannot bear to be left alone.  They live in what Sandor Ferenzi termed, a world of thinking without feeling and feeling without thinking – in other words, a world with no meaning.    


Some try to compensated by seeking involvement in an interest so all consuming that it takes them over and defines them.  These are our artists, our novelists, playwrights, composers, scientists, politicians,  individuals who dedicate their lives to an idea.   


And some seek out the one true love that will give them that unique feedback they lost in childhood, a quest that is often doomed to disappointment as yet another person they  believed was their prince, the one who would always be there for them,  turns out to be another frog after all. 


But what if they do meet their soul mate, their true love, the one they have been looking for all of their lives?  In her book, ‘The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth’,  Francis Wilson compares the relationship between Dorothy and William Wordsworth to that between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliffe in Wuthering Heights, who were also raised as brother and sister in the same family and evolved from childhood inseparability into a ‘hybrid of self consumption’.  In falling in love with their ‘sibling’, they found  the one person who really understood them and could help replenish what was missing in each other.   When Dorothy felt melancholic and ill, William could restore her to health and vice versa.  This would explain why they seemed to exchange illnesses and why the disappearance of William resulted in Dorothy’s non-existence. 


Frances Wilson argues that  sexual desire is unnecessary in such relationships since they are about a mutual satisfaction of each other’s spiritual needs as if together they were the same person.  ‘I am Heathcliffe’, Catherine explains.  ‘He’s more myself than I am’.   Such relationships are, according to Wilson,  depersonalising, dematerialising and unsexing, not at all conducive to carnal desire, which is more about difference and possession of what one admires in the other.  What Frances Wilson is describing in an enmeshed sibling relationship is similar to that found in some married couples who ‘grow together’. 


Held together by the inability to have any meaningful existence without each other, such relationships allow little scope for personal freedom and development, which might incur  insecurity.  The fear of engulfment which comes from such extreme spiritual intimacy oscillates with the terror of separation and little changes. 


People suffering from emptiness need external validation to ‘live’,  but if that validation comes from somebody with similar experience and requirements, it stifles personal development and smothers the relationship since the couple turn into the same organism.           



The sense of emptiness in Western society is now so prevalent that it might be considered the norm.  We are becoming a narcissistic society, preoccupied with our ‘image’ and our own desperate needs for excitement, material possession, romance and sex.  We consume more food than in healthy for us, drink excessive amounts of alcohol and take drugs to relieve the boredom.  Loneliness and depression are the commonest illnesses in our culture.  Overconsumption is eroding life’s quality and expectancy. 


In order to rectify our social isolation and need, we need to understand the conditions that have generated it; busy parents, paid childminders, nuclear families, single parent families, children given toys instead of attention,  television and computer games instead of ‘play’.  How can anybody develop a strong sense of their own identity if there is so little engagement and play – so little opportunity to learn and try things out?


That should tell us that medicines are unlikely to be useful in treating cultural ailments.  What we need is social solutions to help relieve isolation and build a sense of teamwork and community.   If all the money spent on antidepressants could be reinvested in innovative community projects, it might arrest the current trend and create a more healthy and contented society.  Surely it’s worth a try.