On Mushy Feelings + Embracing Softness


It was a huge step, but a step I had to take nonetheless. I knew it wouldn't hurt if I tried it, yet I still had some reservations. Inside that cold fitting room at The Gap, I grunted and scrunched my face at the baby pink cotton button-up blouse on the hanger.

I know, I know. Super dramatic over a stupid shirt right? But this was no simple shirt. It was a pink shirt.

I never really liked the color pink, unless it was in a steak cooked medium. When clothes shopping I would always say, "Ew, pink," while browsing through color choices. I didn't think it looked good against my brown skin tone. Pink always seemed to clash against my complexion.

Aside from what I believed to be an incompatibility with my pigmentation, pink appeared to symbolize everything I thought I wasn't. It's such a soft, vulnerable, and warm color. So girly, so feminine. So seemingly not me.

Whether intentionally or not I avoided becoming the embodiment of pink. Rather than be powdery pink, I once preferred to be gray like stone; incapable of being penetrated.

While in school, I often used being buried in my studies as an excuse for being closed off. But now that I’ve already crossed the stage at graduation, that excuse is no longer valid. And now that I’m (kinda) gainfully employed, being a broke college student was also no longer an excuse.

For my personality quiz fanatics, I’m an ENFP— I get my energy from both fellowship with others and the comforts of alone time. But I was crossing the fine line between solitude and isolation, which I knew deep down was not healthy for me. The idea of any kind of social life, especially dating, was intimidating to me. Beyond the anxiety of the awkward small talk were nerves around having to let my guard down. To be vulnerable, to be soft.

I once joked with a friend that my later 20s were making me "OD soft." I would hate crying in front of people, pouring out emotions, and sharing my low-points. But ever since the scale tipped from my early to late 20s I've done all three more times than I tend to be comfortable with. I have experienced so much from loss (with the passing of my grandmother this year) to gain (with starting my career). I could not function emotionally or spiritually without letting someone in to the inner workings of this pink fleshy heart of mine.

I needed to have my feelings affirmed. I needed to hear that my fears and anxieties were normal. I needed to let my guard down in the presence of those I’d be safe with emotionally. And as a mental health counselor I know now more than ever that even caretakers need care-taking.

Not only has this change impacted me on the inside but also on the outside as my body has changed. Once a size 2, I’ve since gained nearly 20 pounds. This was something I was once ashamed of, as the parts of my body that were once rather boney and cut have instead become a little fluffy. My insecurities would quickly show if I was asked “Did you gain weight?”, or “Are you getting thicker?” I once even tried to punish myself into losing weight by declaring that I would no longer buy any jeans until I could fit my smaller size.

What was the fear behind being softer—both emotionally or physically— and vulnerable? It wasn’t so much the actual act of sharing mushy feelings, whether it was those of love or sadness. I can formulate a sentence or two to express my sentiments. Instead the real challenge was facing the aftermath.

Will I be accepted?

The fear of rejection can drive us into isolation and inauthentic relationships where the connections are about as deep as a puddle. Because we’d rather feel “safe” than take a risk on what could be meaningful and impactful relationships. Out of the many theories crammed in my head during school, psychologist Erik Erikson’s stages of development stands out the most. He argued that from age 20 to 39, we struggle with the inner conflict of choosing intimacy or isolation. Am I capable of love? Am I ready to be vulnerable? Or would it be safe to retreat back to my bubble? One comes at the cost of vulnerability, the other comes at the cost of loneliness.

At this stage in my life, I’m ready to take the risk and choose the mush. Even if it’s just a small jump in a overly air conditioned fitting room at The Gap.

As I buttoned the final button, I gave myself a smirk in the mirror. I twisted and I turned, looking at how the pink blouse laid against my body from different angles. “Is this what I was so afraid of? Was this really that bad?”

--Tara Pook

Say It With Your Actions

One of my favorite Chrisette Michele songs begins with, “Say it with your actions. Saying those words to me doesn’t mean anything.”

Though she's singing about a boyfriend who says but doesn't show that he loves her, I’ve taken this as one of my favorite lessons on life in general.

Say it with your actions.

Why? Because sometimes word isn’t bond.

Now before you write this off as the laments of a jaded, distrusting individual, I state this disclaimer: I don't mean that we should never believe a single word that comes out of someone’s mouth. Instead I've learned how important it is in relationships— whether a friend, acquaintance, or lover— to determine if their words and actions are in agreement. 

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The late great Maya Angelou once said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them." Discovering the character of those close to us involves more than just our sense of hearing. And yet so many times I chose to believe what I heard even when it contradicted what I saw – whether I was promised dependability, only to find them undependable; or a promise of support to find them nowhere to be found. Sometimes our hearts want to hope for the best even when our brains really know what's up. 

Jesus even speaks similarly of this when He tells us that we will know people by their fruit: "A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit." No, not literal apples and oranges. Instead think of fruit as what our life produces - our character. A person can only produce or act out what's embedded in their roots. To expect otherwise leads to disappointment and frustration.

We owe it to our hearts and emotional wellbeing to hold the people in our lives accountable to their word. Without accountability or consequence, we are only setting ourselves up for continuous disappointment. 

Back in undergrad when I studied journalism, it was stressed that people should be held accountable for what they say. If a politician promised more funding for education and yet two years into his term there was no money to be found, they should be called out on it. One of my professors even made the joke that facts are still necessary to prove your mother’s “claim” that she loves you. Though meant for laughs, there is more truth than humor in this. For instance, if someone calls themselves your friend, the facts proving it should be there. Can you confide in them? Is this person trustworthy? Are they there for you in your time of need? 

Very often in relationships we act like potential employees at a job interview. We build up our qualities and abilities more than we should. And what happens to employees who don't live up to their hype? Well, they tend to become former employees...

Unfortunately I've been guilty of this. As someone who prides herself on being good ol' reliable Tara, I tend to overextend myself. Sometimes at the cost of falling short on promises because I’m just too damn tired. I’m learning to be mindful of the promises I make to others, because they often come at the cost of discrepancies in what I say and do. It also means growing comfortable with saying no if I know I can't do it. As the saying goes, “A promise made is a debt unpaid.” 

It's not enough to mean well; we have to do well too. The words we speak or the promises we make are merely a contract.  Our actions are what truly seals the deal and are the proof of our character. 

Like Ms. Michele crooned, “It’s all in what you do.”

--Tara Pook

The Thief of Joy

The other day I found out that my ex-boyfriend got married. 

What followed in my office cubicle is best described as the Mr. Krabs meme personified. I barely even noticed my co-worker asking to borrow my stapler.

Aside from the expected bittersweet feelings, it was like a new mark of adulthood. Prior to age 25, breakups consisted of overcoming the idea that your ex would date someone else or perhaps go to college across the state. But now, there was overcoming the idea of your ex getting married. Like married, married.

It added new meaning to rapper Mase's lyric, "I wanna see you happy even if it's not with me." There was no mistaking that we both needed to move on. Who knows what kind of trajectory we would have found ourselves on had we tried to make a failing relationship work. 

What was once a teenage love affair grew into two young adults trying to hold on to the nostalgia of the good ol’ days. But they were long gone, I knew that though I struggled against that logic. Learning that your first love is not forever is hard. It was painful letting go and as a result of slowly ripping that band aid, it was perhaps tougher than it should have been. Ultimately the years of on-again, but mostly off-again all came to an end with a prideful and perhaps petty "Ok" text message. Such a dismal conclusion to such a major relationship in my life.

After the shock and reminiscing wore off, what lingered weren't bouts of asking “What if?” Instead, there was an ongoing fight to resist the need to compare. 

What has really changed for me since then?
Have I found my happiness?
Crap, I'm single.

Milestones in the lives of others-- especially those once close to you-- can cause you to doubt your own. And that's exactly what I was doing. Theodore Roosevelt wasn't lying when he said, "Comparison is the thief of joy." Until that moment I was celebrating the last day of my summer internship while preparing for my final year of graduate school. I was also excited about finally receiving paperwork for my upcoming counseling field placement, which would seal the deal for graduation in spring. If you know my testimony, then you know the hurdles I've jumped, the weeks of eating Ramen noodles I swallowed, and the tears I've shed to reach this point. 

My life was not to be in competition with my ex's to see who would win the breakup down the line, but still I was seeing my accomplishments as sub-par or less than.

Our journeys are not to beat our friends or former lovers to degrees, careers, or engagements in order to prevent ourselves from feeling behind. What it comes down to is that everyone wants it all in life, but for each of us that "all" will be different. In her book Can I Have and Do It All Please?, speaker and evangelist Christine Caine wrote, Having it all does not mean we can have anything we want, or that we can have everything simultaneously.”

The fulfillment of that "all" will come in God's timing. I knew that I needed to trust in that and not see my ex or anyone else’s joy as a sign that I was lacking joy in mine. It's easy to be guilty of this when it appears that graduation, wedding, and baby announcements are showing up constantly on Facebook. In reality there are no striking surges in these milestones, instead we hone in on them because they highlight what we feel is a void in our lives. Be mindful that comparisons can often cause us to covet things before we're ready.

The Bible says in 1 Thessalonians 4:11, “Make it your goal to lead a peaceful life, mind your own business, and keep your hands busy in your work.”

God’s “all” for me won’t be found in expectations from Instagram memes detailing #RelationshipGoals or Thought Catalog articles telling me what I need to accomplish by 30. And it certainly won’t be found in the act of comparing my life to others. In short, my “all” will be found in minding my own business and my own journey. Keeping your eye on someone else's lane can cause you to see your life through a filter of inadequacy. 

For the times we do fall into this trap, confess those feelings to God whether it's jealousy, frustration, impatience, or upset. Ask Him to give you joy during whatever season of life you're in. Comparison is the thief of joy, but God is able to restore.

—Tara Pook

That Time I Was Mad at God

I was mad at God. Perhaps not cursing-the-sky-with-clenched-fists mad, but still mad.

There was a time I thought this was a sin punishable by His wrath, but there were no lightning bolts from the sky and I obviously wasn’t struck down to the fiery pits of hell.

What happened instead was a revelation. I realized that honesty in my walk with God is crucial. How could I hide my emotions from the one who gave me the capacity to feel? If He knows my innermost being, as well as my thoughts before I even think them, then why not state the obvious? Open communication is key to any loving and effective relationship.

But at this particular moment, I wasn’t feeling very loving toward God. The past seven days or so were hard in several aspects of my life. I was fighting disappointment and a growing weariness while waiting for circumstances to change in my work, school, and family life. Trying to juggle these areas came to crash as the waves of tragedy filled the social media and news timelines.

The deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the Dallas police officers hit close to home as an African American and the daughter of a retired police sergeant who grew up around police officers. The complexity of my feelings had me at a loss for words as I saw that tragedy could have struck my family on either side. All I could cry out was Jesus. Not as a churchy programmed response, but because I saw the desperate need for a savior.

By Saturday I felt so drained emotionally and spiritually that I spent most of the day in bed. As my professor often says, "Good self-care is good ethics," and my body was crying out for rest. I could no longer put up a ‘front’ at work or at my summer internship as if everything was ok.

While I stared at the ceiling in bed I wondered, “Where are you God? Where are you in all of this?” The prayers of Diamond Reynolds, Philando Castile’s girlfriend, were also in my thoughts. “Please Lord, you know our rights. We are innocent people.”

In the midst of those cries, it seemed like God was silent. Were my prayers only hitting the ceiling? As I began to challenge God, I felt my anger boiling within me until I finally spewed the only prayer I could muster:

God I don’t know what other words to pray. I don’t know what other scriptures to quote. If You are who You say You are, then do something.

 Well, maybe I should have done a quick duck in case a lightning bolt came my way.

I kid, I kid.

But in the days that followed I had to come to grips with some of the flaws in my relationship with God. The pain that life can bring often clouds our vision of God’s inherent goodness. It was as if I saw God sitting high upon His heavenly throne, capable of fixing my life with just the wave of His mighty hand… and yet He does nothing.

Sure I believe God is powerful, but did I also believe Him to truly be good in the midst of hard times? Did I believe that God was active and effectively listening to the cries of His people?

During Sunday service at the Bridge Church in Brooklyn, a pastor gave me a timely reminder that God is on the side of the hurting and the oppressed. “God is not deaf to the cries of the hurting,” he said, “If anyone understands, it’s Jesus.”

Though Jesus willingly took on His fate, He too died at the hands of an unjust system. I don’t know of any other god from any other faith to be this close and empathetic to the pain of his people. This resonated with me in the midst of my personal struggles and those of black people in this country.

I came to see that what I was experiencing wasn’t quite anger toward God. It was a feeling of abandonment. On the cross Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And perhaps that is how many of us have been feeling. We are wondering where God is, and why He seems to have let us down.

But even after His body was beaten down and broken, Jesus knew His pain was not punishment and that God never left His side. “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit,” He ultimately said before taking His last breath on earth. Just like Jesus, our life is always in God's hands.

In one of my favorite books, The Shack by William P. Young, God poses a question to the story's protagonist who had suffered a great loss, "When all you can see is your pain, perhaps then you lose sight of me?" It was as if the question was posed directly to me. All I saw was the lack and the disappointment in my life. I lost sight of God and the promise of abundant life, and instead saw Him as the target of my angst.

The story line in The Shack continued when God speaks of Jesus, "Don't forget, the story didn't end in his sense of forsakenness. He found his way through it to put himself completely into my hands."

And that was the key to the answer of my sense of abandonment. I had to find my way through displaced anger at God to find His peace and reassurance on the other end. My feelings of abandonment were not on God's part, but on me. Which is why I believe I knew deep down to bring those harsh emotions to him.

We'll never truly understand the complexities of life's tests and tragedies on this side of eternity, but there is one truth that I can hold onto to sustain me. In spite of frightening and changing times, God is immutable. And as my favorite Psalm says, his lovingkindness is everlasting. Though I may feel abandoned or angry, He is always waiting for me to recommit my spirit into His hands.

Tara Pook