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RE-LEARNING RADICAL SOFTNESS AND MY CAPACITY TO LOVE

I used to believe that displaying any kind of vulnerability—particularly love, which I believe to be the pinnacle of radical softness—meant getting hurt.

By Clarkisha Kent

Trauma has made me a cold bitch. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it.

Being raised by ultra-strict [Nigerian] parents meant that no iteration of softness was rewarded and that obedience was the real prize. This meant that I learned to lie very well to get what I want. And that I learned to manipulate equally well while appearing like a naive or unassuming child. Being raised by a narcissist meant I had to learn certain tactics for dealing with them to survive and that exposing my soft underbelly to one—particularly to my abusive, narc-ass father—was ill-advised. This produced a lot of anger and rage issues. And I wore a lot of masks. And it made me highly calculated, particularly with the information I shared about myself and how much I was willing to share. And getting good enough to spot them in the wild (I.e particularly through my platonic relationships) meant that I learned very quickly than any amount of softness or empathy was a weakness that would be exploited. Not a strength. And that nearly no one deserved to see that side of me, because they would immediately crush it.

And that’s just my experience with life discouraging any cultivation of softness. But it goes beyond my own experiences.

In fact, societal messaging about softness is no better.

Particularly in a Western [*cough* American *cough*] context. Everything about living in this capitalistic shithole is about being “rugged”. Having a “hard” or “strong” work ethic. Bootstrapper shit. We measure people and their value to us (and greater society) by how “sturdy” they are character-wise or how “badass” they are or if they are “tough as nails”. Everybody’s worth eventually comes down to how much terrible shit they can withstand, shoulder, carry, or accept without a single complaint. Without a single tear.

And of course, this messaging can intensify… depending on who you are. Depending on the type of dynamics (gendered, racial, or otherwise) that you’re dealing with. And considering that I am a darkskinned, fat and queer Black woman… I will let you use your imagination on how this kind of messaging plays out in my larger life.

That said, something weird has happened to me as of late. Something scary… but liberating. And what is that thing, you ask?

Well, I’m learning to be soft again. Re-discovering it, if you will.

It all started when I began seeing someone the second right before Miss Rona started to kick our shit in over in the states. I’m not going to go into excessive detail, but let’s just say that it seemed entirely too good to be true. Like, I have dated other people before, but this was very different. I technically met this person without leaving my house (which is such a DREAM for a homebody + introvert like me). They had all the physical traits and personality traits that had I always hoped for in a singular person… down to their fucking astrological sign. They were opened-minded and demonstrated an incredible capacity for learning—and if necessary—change. And, most importantly, there was an immediate softness to the way they engaged me. From the look of captivation they gave me when I was ranting about, say, Kenya Barris and his Beige-sponsored terrorism, to their own radical openness when it came to sharing their own history. The way they never arrived empty-handed whenever they got a chance to see me. The way they liked to absentmindedly touch me. The way they would steal glances at me when they thought I wasn’t looking. How they would playfully reach over my average-heighted self to grab things for me even when I was too stubborn to ask. Or wash my dishes and take out my trash when I wasn’t looking. Or voluntarily trying food (à la dense-ass banana bread) I had just learned how to make two seconds ago despite the risk.

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I was so drawn to them. So, of course, I was immediately fucking suspicious.

My former and beloved therapist for about two years always used to check me about this shit. She would tell me that I had a tendency to completely stonewall the fuck out of people (you know, to protect what is an extremely soft underbelly. The real me, essentially) until the last possible second. Until they damn near couldn’t take that distance, that coldness anymore. Until they had all but given up on my “tough” ass. And then, only then, would I reveal, maybe, 10% of that softness. Enough so that they knew, at the very least, that this is something that I’m capable of. It was incredibly toxic, yes, and something—as she pointed out—that I used to various extremes to simultaneously sabotage any potential in platonic or romantic relationships and protect myself from any potential [emotional] danger from these same relationships.

But the odd and ironic thing about that type of self-protection is that it comes at great personal cost and means that you must bring yourself to a place where you are nearly devoid of all feeling.

And existing without feeling is not living. It’s barely even survival.

Hell, I’d argue that it is in fact the opposite. A slow death if you will. But one that you actually have control over. Which is why it’s an incredibly alluring and addicting method of self-sabotage and self-destruction. Like…. if you must be hurt… at least you’re the one doing the hurting, right? This was my thinking. Or, I guess, my former line of thinking. In my mind, displaying any kind of softness—particularly love, which I believe to be the pinnacle of radical softness—meant that I would be cruising for a bruising. And it meant that it was going to cost me something. That there would be some kind of catch. That the “shoe-drop” syndrome was real and I would be completely asinine to let myself be consumed by my burgeoning affection for my newest paramour.

My trauma had made it so that I had mistaken hardness for “true strength” and completely ignored the fact that it does in fact take a lot of strength and vulnerability to be soft enough to not only give love… but receive it fully, gleefully, and truthfully without expecting some sort of ulterior motive to be attached in tandem.

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So. What’s a girl to do when she finally recognizes this self-destructive pattern and has STILL been given an extraordinary opportunity by the universe to try her hand at love again?

Well, while the alarm bells of survival are ringing in her head and identify these new feelings to be “danger”, she ignores them for once and lets this person into her barren-ass heart. It’s dry. And it’s cracked. And it’s been hardened to the point that it looks like it won’t ever be able to be tilled again. That it’s probably going to take an act of God to be fertile again.

And she lets this person water it. With love. With joy. With affection. And with abandon.

And make no mistake. I am still incredibly wary of this delightful place that I have found myself in with this new person. I am still so cautious about this safe place that I’m able to exist in as my true and softest self and how they are the same way with me. And I do occasionally worry that I’m going to wake up one day and discover that it was all, in fact, a dream.

But at this point? I don’t fucking care. Because being soft… feels so damn good. 

Clarkisha Kent is a Nigerian-American writer, culture critic, former columnist, and up and coming author. Committed to telling inclusive stories via unique viewpoints from nigh-infancy, she is fascinated with using storytelling and cultural criticism not as a way to “overcome” or “transcend” her unique identities (as a fat and queer Black African woman), but as a way to explore them, celebrate them, affirm them, and most importantly, normalize them and make the world safe enough for people who share them to exist. As a University of Chicago graduate with a B.A. in Cinema and Media Studies and English, she brings with her over five years of pop culture analysis experience, four years of film theory training, and a healthy appetite for change. Her writing has been featured in outlets like Entertainment Weekly, Essence, The Root, BET, HuffPost, Wear Your Voice Magazine, and more. She is also the creator of #TheKentTest, a media litmus test designed to evaluate the quality of representation that exists for women of color in film and other media. Currently, Kent is working on finishing a novel about a Black female outlaw and a TV comedy pilot about an immortal familiar.

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