Empty Spaces (and Moving Past Loneliness)

“Periods of recovery are likewise intrinsic to creativity and to intimate connection. Sounds become music in the spaces between notes, just as words are created by the spaces between letters. It is in the spaces between that love, friendship, depth and dimension are nurtured.”

—Jim Loehr

I live a life that I am incredibly grateful for; a life full of activities, work, people and fun. And yet, particularly at times of transition, my life seems overcome by emptiness. Empty spaces that are at first unwelcome, but ultimately absolutely necessary.

How my empty spaces show up
A familiar feeling started sweeping over me yesterday as I dropped my friend off after coffee. I got a lump in my throat, a sense of dread as I drove back to my empty house, where there was no one waiting for me. I love my condo – I bought it two years ago and I live alone. On most days, I am incredibly thankful for my solitude and personal space. But as I drove home yesterday with no plans for Saturday night (intentional because I’ve been sick), a feeling of total emptiness consumed me. I felt taunted by the running to-do list in my mind, of all the projects I could be working on but didn’t want to start.

My eyes welled up with tears and voices started sneering in the back of my mind. “See? You can’t be alone. You say you’re happy by yourself but you’re not. This is proof.” I know that voice is wrong (given that 99 percent of the time I am THRILLED to live alone and have time to myself), but I also know that in those moments of near-panic, if I can just get past them, there are deeper truths waiting.

1. Physical messages: When your body talks, listen.
I got really sick this week. I was extremely fatigued – no amount of sleep seemed to be enough. I saw this coming from a mile away. I know I’ve been running myself into the ground.

On more than one occasion in the last month, I’ve had to stop in the stairwell at work and just breathe. In those moments, my eyes would grow wide and I would get struck with the sudden urge to drop every single project, task and friend I had committed anything to. To completely cancel my schedule, my projects and my to-do lists, because it was all too overwhelming. I didn’t run away and I don’t plan to. But I also can’t continue operate at a pace that makes me feel that way on a regular basis.

I believe our physical health is a reflection of our mental and emotional states of mind. Our bodies are smart. They know what we need. My body demanded this week that I bring my crazy life to a screeching halt and re-adjust. Get my emotional ducks in a row. Re-prioritize and give myself permission to take a time out. And in those time outs, to allow myself to sink into the empty spaces of my life. The spaces that are not filled with activities or people – just me. I tend to avoid them because they can feel lonely – very lonely – at first.

2. Break-ups: Empty on overdrive
When I slow down, particularly after a break-up and when the weekend comes, I notice empty spaces in the day that weren’t there before. Where I was once laughing and smiling, replaying a fun conversation or looking forward to a future one, there is now nothing. Nothing but quiet.

In an effort to avoid the emptiness, I might make phone calls or refresh my email inbox, twitter stream and feed reader. I seek distractions to shove in the empty spaces that I know I am avoiding. But deep down, I know that none of those things are going to bring back the giddy excitement drug that I was so used to taking. I know that the only way out is through — to be quiet, and to let the emptiness exist. To be patient with myself and pay attention to what I truly want and need. And to suffer through the empty spaces instead of stuffing them with temporary relief instead.

3. Big goals: The bigger the project, the bigger the spaces
As you know from recent posts, I am back to working on my giant goal, THE goal of my life. Writing a book is one of the projects that I feel I was born to do.

During the week I fantasize about working on my book on weekends; spending time alone in coffee shops or in front of my fireplace, writing. Oooooh, aahhhh. So romantic. But when the moment comes to sit down and get to work, I feel intimidated by the emptiness. I am reminded that I am working on this project alone. That at the end of the day, its success depends on me – on my ideas and my commitment. The empty spaces return.

What do red flags, break-ups and big goals have in common?
Empty spaces show up when activities stop. They show up when a relationship ends, and when a big, important project is on the horizon. Empty spaces can be scary, lonely, and sad at first. They can feel paralyzing. But when the empty spaces show up – if we let them – that is exactly when our lives get quiet enough to make room for what is next.

So make the hard choices. Walk through the fire. Sit with your empty spaces and see what happens.


P.S. What did I end up doing with my Saturday night? I lit a fire in the fireplace; bought a delicious salad, dark chocolate and a mocha (with whip!) for dinner; put Sex and the City on in the background; cleaned-up an old pile of clutter (clear space, clear mind) and yes – worked on my book. Empty space – SURVIVED. And you know what? After I panicked and wrote this blog post – I really started enjoying it. :)

  • http://www.lifeaftercollege.org jennyblake

    Katie – thank you so much for your comment! I feel so honored that you took the time to write after just landing here :)

    I love what you said about embracing the emptiness as exactly what you might need at any given moment, rather than beating yourself up. I'm learning that facing those empty spaces doesn't always feel good, but I usually feel proud of myself once I've made it through them and let my emotions be just as they are.

    Thanks again for your comment – hang in there through those lonely moments, and know that you will be stronger because of them.

  • http://www.costingagreenfuture.com/blog/ Eric Novinson

    Empty space is one of the major differences in life after college. I'm feeling this way right now, so it's encouraging to hear that this experience makes it easier to achieve goals. Embracing the empty space is an interesting idea, since it seems like fighting it would just make it worse.

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  • http://profile.yahoo.com/MBMEDHSWPUE4YKOIRASFVUASIQ KlineB

    I am really glad I had the opportunity to read this blog today. I can relate to pretty much 99% of what you said and have had my own feelings of emptiness and isolation. Thank you for the admission and good luck with your book.

  • Erica Brown

    I am new to your site and just happened to stumble across this post. Even though it was posted in 2010, I couldn’t have found it at a better time. Recently I went through a similar experience. You make some great points and it’s nice to know that I am not the only one that has felt this way.

    It looks like you have completed your book. I will be graduating from college in May so I will have to check it out. It seems like something that would be very helpful for me as I begin to experience life after college.

    • http://www.lifeaftercollege.org jennyblake

      Welcome, Erica! So glad this post resonated with you — the empty spaces can be incredibly challenging, but also such rich periods of growth too. Very exciting that you are graduating soon — congrats!

  • Charlie

    Wow, this totally resonated with me. I feel exactly the same way. Almost all the time I’m happy being by myself, doing my own thing, and seeing friends every few days. But if I go one week without some real social interaction (whether it’s because I’m sick, or scheduling doesn’t work, or what have you) those times alone stop being relaxing and start feeling ominous.

    When I’m in good moods, I look forward to working on new projects, but when I have the alone time to do it, that mood goes away and is replaced by the desire to fill my time with immediate gratification (usually TV).

    Great post!

  • Kristin

    Thank you for this post. You have no idea how much this has helped me.

    I have went through many changes in my life over the past couple of years. In 2011, I graduated from college in accounting & finance but I’m still having trouble getting a jump start on my career. In 2012, I went through a dreadful divorce and I am still feeling the aftershocks of that traumatic experience. This year, I was dating this guy but to sum it all up, he has left me with a broken heart.

    There are a lot days that I struggle to even get out of bed which is really weird for me because most people would say that I’m an ambitious person. The only reason I do most days is because I have to get my son to school.

    I think that the reason I struggle daily is because I just don’t want to face the reality of the situation… and that is I’m unemployed, broke!, and the only special person I have in my life is my son. I feel like I don’t have anything to look forward to and that really sucks! And it really sucks when I sit in my house day after day with nothing to do but look for a job.

    But now, I see that “empty spaces show up when a relationship ends, and when a big important project is on the horizon.” This means that something big is going to be coming my way very soon & that I need to be prepared.

    Thank you for helping me to reignite my inner fire. Now maybe tomorrow, I’ll be able to get my ass outta bed! & make some sh*t happen!!!

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