Feeling Empty? Here’s How to Find Joy (and Yourself) Again

“Many people are alive but don’t touch the miracle of being alive.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh 

“Who are you? No, really. Who are you?”

I stood at my bathroom mirror, towel twisted around my head, inspecting my own reflection. A woman I hardly recognized looked back at me with empty eyes. Empty mouth. Empty insides.

“Who are you?”


“What do you want?”


“What are you thinking?”


I sighed and reached for the toothbrush. The truth is, I’d been there before. That empty-sad feeling. The feeling of not quite fitting in. Not quite feeling fulfilled.  

Before, I’d brush it off. Dig deep, push through, move on.

I’d say everything was just fine. It sure looked just “fine.” After all, I was a fully functional adult. Everyone said so.

I had my education, a career, a husband, kids, a house.

I was chipping away at that mortgage and student loan debt. They’re the good kinds of debt, you know.

I’d checked the boxes on life’s to-do list. Isn’t this what we should all be aiming for?

I didn’t know it yet, but this time would be different. That moment would be the turning point after too many years convincing myself that I didn’t know the answer to my questions.

This would be the moment of renewal, reclaiming the missing pieces of me and offering them the loving care they deserved all this time.

Later that day, kneeling down at the washing machine, ruminating about I don’t even know what, it hit me: a full-body NO. This is not what life is meant to be, I thought.

It was a no to this being my everyday experience. No to living on autopilot. No to feeling empty. No to not even recognizing myself.

It was a punch through the chest. My eyes welled with bottled up tears, and I had the distinct feeling of just wanting to go home.

I’d been pushed over the edge of the cliff I’d tiptoed for years.

The real surprise, though, was the laughter that followed. It tickled my throat and escaped through bursts of tears. I reached up to wipe my cheeks and found a smile there.

The relief of seeing all of this and finally saying, “No!” was the most amazing thing.

I spent the next few days in quiet observation, breathing through the pins and needles of waking up.

At first, I didn’t know what to make of the mixed-up, muddy feelings that met me. Was this anguish? Euphoria? Confusion for sure, but I felt I had no choice but to keep going.

So, I walked softly and resisted the urge to define this.

The more intently I listened, the more clearly I started to hear and feel yes and no. They curled through my day, winding themselves around everything I’d just accepted as “the way things are.” 

The no’s felt empty, hallow, fake. It felt like acting. It was resistance and alarm bells and forcing. Even though it had been my usual mode of operation, being in a state of no also started to hurt.

But yes… yes felt alive. It was light, expansive, and exciting. I felt energized and creative whenever I was there. The best part was, it was easy.

Of course, as any of us would, I wanted more of the yes and less of the no. I grabbed a sheet of paper and drew a line down the middle. Two columns: yes and no.

Beside yes, I wrote “lights me up.” Beside no, “drains me.”

Then, I listed all of the yes’s and no’s I felt during the day. It was nothing fancy, just a quick word about what I did and how I felt. By the end of the week, I’d created my personal manual for living.

It was my blueprint for calling my lost parts back.  

There on that sheet of paper, in my own handwriting, were all the things I’d always known but didn’t yet see.

I saw that there are naturally things that will be unpleasant or less than thrilling, but that my being doesn’t need to feel that way. There is so much opportunity for yes if we’ll allow for it. So, I started to follow yes with more intention.

I bought a stack of composition books and carried one with me everywhere.

I started to draw again after almost thirty years.

I wrote a poem, and then another and another.

I started writing children’s stories.

I fed my spirit good music, sunlight, plenty of color, and lots of space.

And I remembered that lightness is like oxygen for your soul.

Now I see that that face, those eyes, those insides, they weren’t empty. They were aching with the kind of deep burn that comes from turning your back on yourself, walking away, and never looking back. I’d just numbed it is all.

I’d let myself get too busy to think of things like who I am, what I dream, and what I believe more than anything.

I retreated into my day-in-and-day-out and identified with the little dramas, whether they were mine to start with or not.

It wasn’t all gloom, mind you.

I was ambitious. Driven, dedicated, motivated. A real go-getter and other fully functional adult-type things.

I was also grateful for life’s many blessings and aware of the countless privileges bestowed upon me that had nothing to do with my work ethic or worth as a person.

Like I said, I was fine. (But not really.)

I was aimless and stuck in a close enough approximation of inner peace and freedom. I existed as a fragment of me.

Looking back, it was on that day that I decided that even if I was fine, fine was not enough.  

Fine is not thriving.

Fine is not complete.

Fine is not what I came here to experience, and I couldn’t face another day of pretending to be here and whole.

My sense of wonder and magic, my awe, my creative spirit, and my light had been calling out to me all this time. Only I couldn’t hear it until then.

I don’t know if I’d been more scared or ashamed of who I was after casting away these important parts of myself. Maybe I didn’t recognize them as my own. Or maybe I thought this was how it’s supposed to feel. It’s just how things are—you can’t be successful and free, whole and at peace.

Yet, there they were this whole time, turning toward me like flowers turning toward the sun. They held tight to the cracks in this facade I’d created.

I suppose they never were lost, just watching and waiting until the day I set down my resistance and welcomed them back home.

Calling my lost parts home didn’t happen in one grand, sweeping gesture. It took a lot of little moments. Awkward, wobbly baby steps that took me sideways and backward just as easily as forward.

It took me a while, but I finally figured out that when you feel a yes, you follow it. And bit by bit, all those little steps coalesced into what from the outside looks like the one moment I “took the leap.”  

If any part of my story resonates with you, then maybe you know what it feels like to pretend to be here and whole. And maybe you’ve had those little moments of clarity and mini-epiphanies that “fine” is not what you came here to experience.

Maybe you’ve heard your lost parts knocking at your door asking to come home. And maybe you’re ready to listen.

It may seem like an impossibly long journey when you’re in the walking sleep of I’m fine, but calling your lost parts back and welcoming them inside is as easy as following what lights you up one baby step at a time.

About Leslie Ralph

Leslie is a psychologist, writer, and artist on a mission to make the world a brighter place. She creates things for people who want to bring the light back into their lives and love themselves unconditionally. She’s the author of How to Have Your Back: Simple Instructions for Loving Yourself Through the Ups and Downs of Life. Download her free ritual for releasing and receiving to let go and create space for more clarity, courage, and compassion in your life.

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