Finding Freedom In Sharing My Mess

I used to take pride in having it all together. Or should I say appearing to have it all together. In between replies of “I’m fine” and “I’m doing alright” lied the truth– I was a hot mess waiting to boil over. My pleas for help were so buried and stifled that I found it difficult to cry or even pray in the privacy of my room. “Get it together Tara,” I’d say, as if I were a coach prepping his team after a losing half, “You’re tougher than this.”

But I wasn’t, and yet my lingering struggles with perfectionism and vulnerability served as duct tape over my mouth, preventing the truth from coming out.

That I felt overwhelmed. That I felt frustrated. That I felt alone.

And perhaps worst of all that I wouldn’t be understood.

There was no room on Instagram for the shadowed parts of me. No, only perfect selfie lighting to showcase a seemingly Carrie Bradshaw-esque lifestyle of cute vanilla lattes during the school week and bottomless brunches on the weekend. There was no mention of the sleep-deprived and anxiety-filled Tara who was over-drafting her bank account for textbooks.

That’s not to say that my life was totally in ruins. But when I needed to unload the burdens on my shoulders, my response to questions about my wellbeing were like a good ol’ churchy, “Oh I’m just blessed and highly favored.”

Much like the Alicia Keys poem, I felt like a prisoner of words unsaid:

“Just lonely feelings
Locked away in my head
I trap myself further
Every time I stay quiet
I should start to speak
But I stop and stay silent
And now I’ve made
My own hard bed
Inside a prison of words unsaid”

But little did I know that by opening my mouth I would find liberation in the same circumstances that once held me hostage. Shedding light on the hidden parts of my life is not only freeing, it is biblical. Romans 15 says, “Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves. Each of us is to please his neighbor for his good, to his edification.”

I knew what it meant to build someone up in their time of need, but I couldn’t see myself on the other side. I refused to acknowledge myself as “without strength” although I at times felt that way. In my life I had taken the stance that it was better to always provide help than to always need help. Deeper than this I saw I had underlying issues with pride, and the resulting pressure to live up the “motherly” role I had taken on with friends and even family.

In my Group Process course, which instructs on how to facilitate group therapy sessions, I had the epiphany that I had been subconsciously treating my relationships as clients. I saw myself as able to provide them with insight and an open ear, and yet I wouldn’t be vulnerable and allow them to do the same for me. In order to not only have authentic relationships, but an authentic self, I decided I no longer wanted to be seen as a fraud, struggling to live up to the impossible standards that myself and others had placed on me. And what are the chances that I learned this lesson in community, sharing with others. As my classmate said, “You come to see that I have problems, you have problems, and you have problems. And it’s not as bad when you see you’re not alone.”

It takes a far stronger exertion of energy to keep up a facade than to be open and honest. There is no act to remember. No script to recite. I found freedom in saying “I feel like crap,” because it was the truth. And the truth sets you free, doesn’t it?

I’m still uncomfortable at times with the idea of sharing the shadow parts of myself, but I’ve learned to start small. It begins with:

I feel overwhelmed. I feel frustrated. I feel alone.

But at least I know now that I’m not misunderstood. And perhaps that is where I began to find my liberation. As my professor Dr. MaryBeth Werdel said, “We are relational beings. We are born in relationships; we die in relationships. We are hurt in relationships; we are healed in relationships.”

My physical and spiritual healing would not be found in the closed off quarters of my room. It would not be found in repressing my feelings from even my Creator who knew the burdens of my heart all along. It would be found in that moment after sharing the seemingly embarrassing or shameful details of my life, and hearing from a trusted friend, “Yeah, me too.”

—Tara Pook