People love me but I can't feel it

Since childhood, I feel only a great emptiness.

By Cary Tennis
March 23, 2006 4:31PM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

I just recently figured some huge, important things out, but I still need your help. I've got two competing problems and at the moment, they're crashing into each other in the most ironic, but laughable, train-wreck kind of way. I actually feel so upset about all of this right now, I feel nauseous. For the sake of my stomach alone, I'm hoping you can help me.


Something that hit me the other day: I usually can't ever feel how much someone loves me in a relationship. They may say it and I may have glimpses of it, but for the most part, I feel numb to it. At some point (and I've done this with a marriage and other long-term relationships), I break up with the other person because I don't feel loved enough, and in the process I realize, through how much I've hurt them, how much they loved me. (Then I feel horribly guilty.)

Pretty twisted, I know. And it sounds cruel to just state it so plainly, but I've never seen it so clearly. Whenever I start dating someone new, I go through so much initial neediness and anxiety that it's almost unbearable. Like now. I'm in a two-month-old relationship, and I'm trying to hide how I feel, but the ache of wanting reassurance and love is so strong that I know it's all skewed and out of balance. This time around, I've deliberately sat through the agony and tried to investigate. It's no surprise that the answer to what used to seem like such a mystery is that I'm longing for what I never got as a child. I still feel so hollow inside. And while I have friends (and children) that love me, I'm stumbling along, doing the best that I can to be happy like everyone else.

The second half of my train wreck has to do with the person I'm dating.


The problem, for me, is this: I have never dated anyone so ... withholding, in terms of verbal reassurances. He looks at me with desire and warmth and affection, he'll do extra things for me out of consideration, he's let me know here and there he enjoys spending time with me and "he really likes me" and "he's hoping for great things between us," but sometimes I feel like it's just one big echo canyon from his end. He never tells me I'm attractive (and I'm lucky enough never to have lacked for male attention in life). Only once has he said something definitive about wanting to see me more, and we have limited time together now as it is. When we first see each other, he's not very physically responsive; he doesn't seem like he needs to touch me, which is how I'm used to things being at the beginning of a relationship. But it's confusing because the sex between us is tender and passionate. He's shared many vulnerable things with me emotionally too.

He's explained that he's been deeply hurt before, he wants to be careful, he's taking things one day at a time. He's completely reluctant to discuss any type of future, which is understandable, at this point. I want to honor his wishes, but I can't help but feel a bit stung by his sense of intermittent reserve with me as described above, especially since I know he fell deeply in love with the last woman he dated, who dumped him.

So my question is this: How do I discern what's healthy for me with this new partner? Sometimes I wonder if I'm being used, but then I don't know if I'm just pressuring him out of that familiar, screwed-up neediness and not letting things unfold on their own timetable.


And then, the flip side of that is, how do I heal this yawning chasm in myself? I know that doesn't happen overnight and that chasm is directly related to how much I can or can't leave someone "alone" in a relationship and see them as a real person, instead of just someone who can, selfishly, do something for me. I also have no earthly idea how to "heal" something so big. Meditation? Therapy? Celibacy? Suicide? (Kidding.) Certainly no one person could ever fulfill that void, nor should they be put in that position, but sadly, that's what I keep doing to people.

I want to finally know what it's like to feel loved. I want to finally be a loving, reliable, trustworthy partner. I want to stop doing this all wrong. I know these are big, stretchy questions, but I figured if anyone could answer them in a way that would make sense to me, you could. I feel a sense of hopelessness, but for the first time, also a new sense of possibility as I sit through the pain. Thank you for your help.


Hurting but Hoping

Dear Hurting but Hoping,

Yes, those are big, stretchy questions. But I am given to big, stretchy answers.

This is about the pendulum. You go from one extreme to the other. How do you slow it down? You disrupt its course. You drain the pendulum of energy.


To speak more plainly: To slow the pendulum, to introduce some friction and wobbling into its course, you call attention to your plight, you talk about it, finding out new things, looking at it in new ways, mending it. Your attention itself introduces drag on the sleek, frictionless motion of this pendulum. Your attention is like a hand jerking its chain; your consciousness is like the weight of a chaotic body on the perfect pendulum; you interrupt its clocklike knifing through time with your rough thoughts.

In other words, to speak even more plainly, I do think therapy is useful -- the weekly hour of directed conversation. While you do not always solve things, you slow the motion of the pendulum.

So there's that, and then there's the emptiness. I know what you are talking about with this emptiness, this feeling that long ago we didn't get what we were supposed to get and now we are aching and lonely and empty. God, how I hate that emptiness! Bad emptiness! Emptiness inside, how I hate you! How I wish I could fill you up! But scolding the emptiness is laughable; our ocean of emptiness! How laughable is our scorn! So what do we do? We make friends with it and try to stop freaking out.


We make friends with the emptiness. We begin filling it up.

Ha! Ha! Ha! We never fill the emptiness! But that's not what I mean. I don't mean we fill it up. We just try to fill it up. In trying to fill it up, we empty ourselves, and thus grow lighter and freer.

It never ends. So we never stop trying to fill it. We don't look for stasis; we look for serenity in the swirl, on the edge of the emptiness where all matter is spiraling down the wormhole, where we're dumping all our couches into the vortex. We seek serenity; we sit there barefoot on the edge.

So one way is to regard this void from your past as something unchangeable, as a condition of existence. Regarding it in this way may help you slow down the panic; there is nothing you can do about it, so why panic? Live with it; sit with it, as you say. Be an adult about the void. Accept it and find things that fill it up.


The other way is to consider this void as something that happened to you, as a narrative of your origins. Here is how this giant hole opened up. It happened when I was young and there was no rain ... or it happened when I was very young and the giant eagle family that adopted me scoured the desert for food and could find nothing and so I lay starving for one whole year during which I developed an insatiable hunger that plagues me with anxiety to this day ... or I was raised by Visigoths who did not recognize what I needed and so could not give it to me and so I grew up crooked and strange...

Two ways of looking at a blackbird: As an unchanging void into which we dump whatever we've got -- couches, chairs, songs, lovers, tears. And as a narrative of loss and the struggle for redemption which is still unfolding.

We hold these truths to be self-evident: That there really is a void at the center of consciousness. That there really is a pendulum-like motion to perceived reality, and the pendulum really is a force of nature. And that there really is a void in the past, that past out of which we scramble desperately like it was a giant swirling drain. That is our fate: to scramble up the side of the whirlpool forever, like Sisyphus reassigned to a more cinematic impossibility.

OK. Enough of that. Prose-wise, I'm overheated. But I am trying to get at something. Remember? Just below this very spot is the howling vortex into which all consciousness and time are rushing toward the void at a million miles a second. Just outside our reach is the howling fusion of the sun. Vast engines are calculating our dimensions millisecond by millisecond, churning out what we need, unfurling the highway before us, constructing the scenery that greets us at the entrance to Yellowstone! Extra dimensions by the bucketful! Grand crumbling eternity of mountains and forest! It's all going on right now, and lucky we're not schizophrenic or we'd have to try and sort it out second by second as it rushes by. If you've ever been on LSD, you may know what I'm talking about. So all hail the void! The void is God!


So, again, enough with the ranting. On the practical side, you are doing the right thing. Sit with it. Sit with it and you begin to know it. As you begin to know it, you begin to change it. Keep at it. Keep talking it through. Yes, see a therapist. Acquire knowledge of your condition. Knowledge won't fix everything, but it puts some friction on that wild pendulum swing. It puts enough drag on the line to tire the beast. It helps you sit serenely on the edge of the vortex.

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