emptiness / narcissism

From White by Kenya Hara (thanks Jason!)

Emptiness. Is there anything more terrifying to the Western psyche? You cram your life full of work, friends, parties, and workout classes to avoid it, and yet on Sunday night, nursing a glass of orange wine in your living room, you hear it like a familiar knock on the door. Five months into a new relationship, you roll over one day and think, This is it? You achieve something you’ve been chasing after for years, and two days later you’re marveling at how numb you feel once the thrill has settled, how absolutely the same. It’s there again, the emptiness: patient, ghostly, yawning open like an abyss.

Emptiness is our sense of what’s missing: the nagging feeling of insufficiency, of anxiety, of a void that can never be filled. It’s the space between us and our lovers, us and our family, that can never be bridged.

What causes it? In psychoanalytic terms, you could say that we spend our lives chasing after an original feeling of perfection, a pre-anxious state of total union with our parents, that we never successfully recreate again. The gap between that desired ideal and the imperfection of all adult relationships is the emptiness we feel. Our attempt to fill the void is what Mark Epstein calls the “desperate longing for inexhaustible abundance.”

The anxiety we experience as infants translates to a persistent sense of instability as adults, especially when it comes to our identities. We don’t feel fully real. And the more we scramble to get rid of our uncertainty, the more obvious it becomes. We create false selves, ego-constructions, to solidify our sense of identity in the world. But the gap between the self we portray and who we actually are is always profound.

Winnicott came up with the concept of the “False Self” and the “Real Self.” According to him, the “False Self” is a facade we create to comply with other people’s expectations:

Winnicott thought that the “False Self” developed through a process of introjection, (a concept developed early on by Freud) in or internalising one’s experience of others. Instead of basing his personality on his own unforced feelings, thoughts, and initiatives, the person with a “False Self” disorder would essentially be imitating and internalising other people’s behaviour – a mode in which he could outwardly come to seem “just like” his mother, father, brother, nurse, or whoever had dominated his world, but inwardly he would feel bored, empty, dead, or “phoney.” Winnicott saw this as an unconscious process: not only others but also the person himself would mistake his False Self for his real personality. But even with the appearance of success, and of social gains, he would feel unreal and lack the sense of really being alive or happy.

You’ve heard the myth of Narcissus, right? Mark Epstein: “The Buddha sees us all as Narcissus, gazing at and captivated by our own reflections, languishing in our attempted self-sufficiency, desperately struggling against all that would remind us of our own fleeting and relative natures.”

When all we care about is our False Selves, we forget how to be real. Let’s say for a moment that narcissism is just a spectrum of how wedded you are to your constructed self. Where do you think you fall? Have you been too busy staring at your reflection to pay attention to the world? Do you think your reflection will ever love you back?

Emptiness, seen this way, is a signpost. Emptiness is the only meaningful antidote to narcissistic craving. Emptiness reminds us that the glass is already broken.

When we were toddlers we saw our parents as all-knowing and omniscient. No relationship after that point will ever offer us that level of security. What if instead of desperately seeking reassurance or turning away from love altogether, we accepted the essential instability of every relationship in our lives?

Winnicott thought that only “the true self can be creative and only the true self can feel real.” When we see the world and ourselves without pretense, we stop being Pinocchio and turn into real boys and girls.

Listen, our story is about endurance. It’s about everything staying in flux all the time. It’s about how we want to eradicate space when we need to learn how to coexist with it. It’s about learning how to love and lose people without idealizing or demonizing them. Because people were not put on Earth to plug the void within us. We long to possess them and absorb them, but they remain fundamentally separate.

If the ephemeral nature of the world is acceptable to us, we can live without grasping at certainty. We don’t need to construct a false self that’s impervious to pain and loss. Some of us cling to loss for years, while others eagerly assert how okay they are in the face of grief—I don’t even care, I’ll be okay tomorrow. But both are corrosive. Both deny the reality of transience.

We want to be beautiful and admired and strong; we want to be the protagonist of the movie; we want to be held and never lonely; we want to replicate and persist forever. When we think we can outrun the humiliation of being human we start living in narratives and rejecting reality. But every narrative you take up residence in will be haunted until you learn that the ability to acknowledge emptiness is what makes us real.

When we pay attention to emptiness instead of running away from it, we transform lack into open space.