Filling Up the Emotional Void: Who’s Responsible?

A professional therapist told me once that most everybody’s got an emotional void inside, along with some level of drive to fill it. And I suppose this is probably true. At least, it seems consistent with my observations in this world. And people fill it—or try to fill it—with different things—some effective, some ineffective, and some that may temporarily seem effective, but that wear off in time.

Here’s one pitfall, though, that’s worth mentioning. It’s based on this question: Whose responsibility is it to fill up the emotional void that I have inside? The basic choices, of course, are these:

  1. It’s your own responsibility
  2. It’s somebody else’s responsibility

People who believe #1 will generally be active in experimenting—learning what works well and what doesn’t, and altering their life patterns accordingly as they grow.

But what about the people who believe #2?

They will often be dissatisfied, or even angry with those closest to them if they sense that their emotional void is not being filled. They can even lash out, attacking the very people who are closest to them, because they are unfulfilled, and don’t know what to do about it. And this, of course, is sadly ironic, yet it’s a very real scenario that breaks lots of hearts in this messy world.

Now, is this me saying that #1 above is definitely the right answer, and that #2 should be ruled out completely? I’m not sure I’m ready to declare that ! (I’ll tell you why in a minute.) But I’ll say that in my opinion, # 1 is probably mostly the right answer. Now, we’re talking about emotions here, but this is the same guy who, when it comes to cognition (thinking) has declared this Self-Correction Ethic:

Just like I believe we’re responsible for how we think, I believe we’re also ultimately responsible for how we feel. And that’s certainly a hard idea to sell in this culture that’s fond of saying, “I can’t help how I feel!”. While we may not have much immediate control over how something makes us feel in the moment, but we are the ones who set the stage (with our habitual thinking patterns) for what our emotional disposition is like. So, for example, if I never work on patience in my thinking, I may explode when someone interrupts me with an untimely question. And is this their fault? Well, perhaps the interruption is, but whose fault is it that I never work on patience in my own character?

So here we are, each with our own emotional life—our own emotional habit world—our own emotional profile, or disposition. And we must manage it one way or another. So if we try something to fill up our emotional void, and it doesn’t work, shouldn’t it naturally fall to us to figure that out, and to try something else? Why should it be somebody else’s fault that we are trying things that don’t work for us?

What people try to fill up their emotional void differs somewhat, yet any of these sorts of things seem fairly common among humans (in no particular order):

  • Throwing themselves into their work
  • Earning lots of money
  • Romance
  • Marriage
  • Sex
  • The thrill of the hunt in promiscuity
  • Family
  • Friendships
  • Recreational drugs and alcohol
  • Serving others
  • Sports
  • Crafts
  • Hatred of others, bigotry, violence
  • Joining groups, organizations, cliques, etc.
  • Reading
  • Movies
  • Philosophy/thinking
  • Crime and similar thrill-seeking endeavors
  • Study
  • Writing
  • Teaching / Coaching
  • etc.

And let me say that this list is surely not exhaustive. I had hoped only to put together a good-enough sampler for you to bring to mind the sort of activity that I’m talking about in general.

Now, some of these, I typed in boldface because they tend to involve relating to other humans. And that’s where this particular sort of harm I have in mind comes into play. If a guy tries movies to fill up his emotional void, and it doesn’t work, he can get mad or sad about the failure of the movies, and yet not be hurting anybody. But suppose he gets a girlfriend and she realizes that she can’t fill his emotional void? How he handles that realization could be very harmful to his girlfriend. If he takes it out on her, as if his emotional fulfillment is primarily her responsibility, then he’s got her in quite an unfair predicament, because I don’t think any human has the power to provide a rich and permanent fulfillment for someone else’s emotional void. And the girlfriend may have fallen unwittingly into a trap she did not realize was there. He liked her, among other reasons, perhaps, because she provided something new and intriguing, that seemed at first like it might finally fill up his emotional void for good. But now, as long as he considers his emotional fulfillment to be her responsibility, if she doesn’t want to risk a breakup, she’ll have no other choice but to push herself more and more to try to fill up his emotions. She’ll wear herself out, and on top of that, he may well take it out on her in some fashion, whether subtly or by some flagrant attacks.

If I’m right about what’s at the core of this classic unfortunate scenario, it’s in how the man answers the question I posted above: Whose responsibility is it to fill up the emotional void that I have inside?

If he truly thinks its his own responsibility, then he won’t have to get mad at other humans when he realizes that he has emotional needs/deficits/wishes beyond the ones they seem to be able to meet. And even if they do disappoint him, he can realize that it’s just a simple disappointment of life, and that it’s not a personal attack or an insult aimed at him. He’ll see that it’s not something to launch counterattacks over.

And though I’ve used romance as an example here, please don’t think that this is only about romance, because it’s simply not. To give another example, a fear years back, I founded a nonprofit school to help facilitate homeschoolers with some subjects that I’m pretty good at teaching. As it turns out, there was not enough interest in my small market area to make the school thrive. But along the way, I saw that while I truly had some authentic altruistic motives, and enjoyed the emotional high that it gave me sometimes, I was also frequently disappointed by the poor behavior of some of the students and/or parents. And I’m pretty sure that I discovered at least some occasions in which I was pinning responsibility for my emotional well-being on them.

So, there’s a difference between reasoning that it’s my responsibility, and being fully persuaded in my beliefs and emotions that it is indeed my responsibility, and mine only. And it makes me wonder whether I’ll ever get all the vestiges of that trained out of myself in this lifetime!

Is No One Else Responsible for My Emotions?

I said above that I wasn’t ready to declare that self-responsibility for emotions is 100% the right and only way to go. And here’s why the hesitation. Other people can be immensely helpful in this life. They can teach you things, correct you, inspire you, challenge you, and set a great example for you in ways your life can still use some building up. And this often gives you an external boost—something you couldn’t (or wouldn’t) have done for yourself. They can build you up cognitively or emotionally, or even with help on some chore, or with financial help. And this is quite a blessing when you can find it (if you’re the sort to enjoy that sort of thing).

Sometimes, we get emotionally stuck. We reach a plateau, or get in a rut. Or we even get into a funk or depression. And sometimes we can pull ourselves out of it. But sometimes, the help of other people can pull us out—or help us out—even if they weren’t trying to help us with our funk. Just the good-faith interaction can be emotionally uplifting.

And so, the question is whether other people are responsible for being kind and helpful to us. And that answer to that one depends on whom we’re asking. If you ask the world in general, you may well hear that no one owes you anything. But if you ask the wisdom of the ages, you’ll hear teachings like the Golden Rule come up often:

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The Golden rule

If everyone were doing this, the world would be so different as to be unrecognizable to us, I imagine! Indeed, if even 10% were doing it, I’m not sure we could imagine the difference it would make in this beautiful/ugly world.

And we certainly could stop and pout that more people are not Golden Ruling us with all kinds of kind and helpful behaviors. And we might have a point. But whether other people are Golden Ruling us has nothing to do with whether we ourselves are Golden Ruling them!

And here’s a bonus that I see hard at work in my kindest friends. When they love and serve others in various ways, they find that it is an emotional blessing to themselves. It gives them a boost. And I’ve even seen this (rarely) in people who live with substantial difficulties in life—as with strained relationships or financial hardship. Even when life is hard, they almost always seem to have something to give, and some interest in giving it. And even if they are mourning about their troubles, they’re still emotionally free to rejoice with you about your blessings.

So this all makes me wonder if this very world were designed such that the more we give unselfishly—simply because it is the right thing to do—the more we are personally enriched emotionally. For many, this may seem an oversimplified approach, but if we are responsible for loving others—and if loving others tends to fill up our own emotional void somewhat—then maybe it’s reasonable, anytime we’re feeling empty, to start trying to fill the void by loving others more, as we’d like to be loved ourselves.

Perhaps this was the very plan for how to make happy humans!

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