Psychoanalysis has attempted to put forward answers to this particular question for decades. The contemporary psychoanalytic attachment theories of Paul Verhaeghe and Peter Fonagy throw up interesting perspectives, but to discuss this one has to touch on the pioneering literature on attachment.
Take Balint’s ‘basic fault’, this describes an experience felt by some that something universal and essential is missing inside. He theorises that it stems from a ‘failure of fit’ between a babies needs and the primary caregivers responsivity to these cues (crying, smiling, yawning, etc). Winnicott and Balint both stress the importance of a holding environment (a secure, safe and loving environment where emotions can be safely expressed in a reliable and trustworthy relationship) without which there may be an experience of an internal/external black hole.
If there is a ‘failure of fit’ and the child is unable to form a secure attachment it sets the child up for a higher risk of suffering in later life, as Winnicott states in one of his earliest works:
‘I find it useful to divide the world of people into two classes. There are those who were never ‘let down’ as babies and who are to that extent candidates for the enjoyment of life and of living. There are also those who did suffer traumatic experiences of the kind that result from environmental letdown, and who must carry with them all their lives the memories of the state they were in at moments of disaster. These are candidates for lives of storm and stress and perhaps illness.’
We know that around 60% of people have a secure attachment style. Does that mean 40% of us are walking around with a painfully empty chasm in our chest, feeling not quite ‘real’ inside and desperately trying to fill our lack? Or is this phenomena to a lesser extent an intrinsic part of being a human subject?