Real but Not True

Have you ever wanted to believe a lie so much that it hurts, even when you knew it to be untrue? About a month ago, while ranting to my therapist about my most recent crush – did he ever like me, did he ever mean what he wrote to me – she told me that maybe his words were real, but not true. At the time, I nodded and went along with it, but I thought to myself, okay, what the heck does that actually mean, just tell me if he liked me even if it’s like, clearly impossible for you to do that.

Over the past week, I did more research about real but not true, an idea coined by Buddhist teacher Tsoknyi Rinpoche. The phrase captures how sometimes when we encounter powerful or challenging feelings, we often experience these very real emotions and thoughts, even though the conclusions we draw from those emotions and thoughts are not true. An example Rinpoche often uses includes crossing a high glass bridge in Malaysia, how even though the fear and anxiety he felt was real, once he honored those emotions, he recognized the truth, that he could indeed cross the bridge safely.

tsoknyi rinpoche an icon we had to stan

Tsoknyi Rinpoche, the icon who coined real but not true. We had to stan. Image via

Because two of my hobbies include relentless introspection and over disclosing that introspection on the internet, I wanted to write about three instances of real but not true in my own life. The first instance that comes to mind includes my experience with anorexia. When I starved myself about a decade ago, the feelings of relief that accompanied that starvation were so real: the control, the power, the capacity to cut out all my so so so intense feelings and focus on my ribcage, my shoulder fat, my weight on the scale.

But that power was never true. Starving myself never fixed anything. True power looked like escaping my abusive home and going to college and then therapy, with my iconic therapist L. True power looked like learning how to take care of myself, how to feed my own soul with good coping strategies, good friends, and good food. True power looked like taking my experience with anorexia and using it as a launching pad to propel my fight against eating disorders through my social justice-oriented therapy, research, and teaching.

Fast forward to this past year, with my most recent crush, a guy who said he liked me and then refused to talk to me. I have so many questions about him: did he ever actually like me? Did I come on too strong? Did we have the potential to work out? These questions all feel real, like little ping pong balls tumbling around in my brain with no exit in sight.

But I have to center myself on what is true, that no matter the answer to any of these questions, he cannot give me what I want, someone with consistency and communicativeness, someone who honors my worth and my power. So I focus on my closest friends instead, the people who give me true affection: the close friend who sat down with me in her aunt’s house and said she felt “very protective of me” and wants to see me happy and safe, the close friend who shares her joy of writing with me and also made over ten memes trashing my crush for his lack of communication, the close friend who inspires me to be more radical, who went dancing with me at a Philly gay bar this past weekend until 3am on a Saturday night. I remember dancing with her and thinking to myself, as “Clarity” by Zedd and “Sandstorm” by Darude and “Starships” by Nicki Minaj played: this feels real and it is true. Real and true. Real and true.

As I get older, I also think a lot about how we often promote self-care and individual empowerment over collective action. While the feelings that accompany self-care are real, the warmth toward oneself, the rest and the rejuvenation, what will truly bring us liberation is community care, organizing, and fighting the cisheteronormative white supremacist patriarchal system. As someone whose life’s work is centered on mental health, I have to remind myself to honor the importance of providing compassionate care for individuals as well as the importance of tearing down systems of oppression that create so much suffering in the first place.

James Baldwin once wrote that “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” It takes courage to look your life in the eye and figure out what’s real but not true, to face your ineffective coping strategies and unhelpful fantasies. I’m still working through it, and I suspect I will work through it all my life. I hope you join me.

real but not true selfie

Here is a selfie of me upon finishing this post, staring into distance, trying to discern what is real but not true.

What are feelings, thoughts, and experiences that you have had that remind you of the concept of real but not true? What do you make of the concept overall? Looking forward to reading your thoughts! Also, I set up a PayPal page on this blog, so please feel free to check it out and support my writing. I will potentially write a post about the monetizing of hobbies soon but whatever, I want Jeni’s ice cream, books by queer authors of color, and rent money. Until next time!



Filed under Personal

12 responses to “Real but Not True

  1. I have learned that people are often impulsive and that things don’t necessarily seem the same at different times. Also, that are perceptions are shaped by what else is going on. So, for example, at the time he said those things, he felt it, but later he may have felt differently. He may have had warm feelings for you at the moment because he wanted something and saw you as likely to give it. His expectation of reward may have created a positive glow. It sounds cynical to say he wanted something, but we don’t necessarily want selfish or bad things. A sense of connection is something we regularly want.

    • Thanks for this thoughtful comment, Ashana. Yes, I appreciate your interpretation, that sometimes people say things that are real and genuine in the moment even if their feelings may shift. For this guy, who knows: maybe he wanted me to say I liked him back because he had just broken up with his boyfriend, maybe he said what he said because he felt it genuinely and then later on became afraid of emotional intimacy as he further processed his breakup. Who knows! In the end, it was his responsibility to communicate and if not I’ll keep living my best life. Thank you again for your thoughtfulness.

  2. A very good post and an important point. I’m not sure how I can apply it in my life right now but I’ll have a think. Not that i have the perfect life. Oh, OK, so I’m struggling with the fact that I have had to go onto anti-anxiety meds again after about 18 years unmedicated. What’s real is that I do feel sad about going on them and a failure. But it’s not true that I’m a failure: I saw I had a need, I went to the doctor and said to her (and her student that was there observing) that I needed help and I got help. So it’s not true that I’m weak, it’s truer that I’m strong to seek help.

    What’s real and true is my running ladies and my other friends, all checking in on me (and indeed on husband).

    • Awwww Liz thank you for sharing this, I’m sending a lot of love and warmth from across the ocean! I’m glad you can recognize, even if it’s hard, that you seeking support and getting help is a sign of strength and resourcefulness, not of failure. It’s great that you have such a solid support system, though I wouldn’t expect less from someone as kind and thoughtful as you. I’m thinking of you and cheering you on.

      • Thank you so much. And of course, because family, I can’t be as honest about all this on my blog as I would like to be, hence talking about it in the corners of other people’s blogs. At least mirtazapine is BRILLIANT at giving me a good night’s sleep …

  3. Lovely writing, personal and affecting. I will continue to ponder this concept of real but not true… (got no money to support you with, but hopefully the like+comment triggers a tiny chemical rush of fulfillment, which is, if barely anything, at least something.) Keep at it.

    • Thank you so much for this compassionate comment, it means so much to me! The warmth of your support means more to me than money ever could. 🙂 Hope your writing prospers too and thanks again for your help in motivating me to continue writing and sharing.

  4. I wonder, with you, if sometimes the increasing emphasis on self-management (this may be something we, as therapists, are more aware of than others) is a response to the equally increasing desperate helpless of seeing our democracy and our planet circling the drain. Can’t manage your sense of dread and helplessness? Focus on your inner state since you can’t save the glaciers or the democracy.

    But it’s equally true that we can be helped by knowing what is real. Sometimes I tell myself, “I am having the feeling that… [these women don’t like me, I am too fat, I don’t belong here, whatever]” and just that phrase, which I think I got from Buddhism but could also be DBT, is helpful to lower my distress.

    • Such important insights! Yes, I can imagine how we may try to focus on controlling what’s closer to us when so much of the world feels so out of control (which may parallel how we focus more on individual empowerment than collective change). I love the naming of feeling and thoughts, reminds me a lot of cognitive defusion from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. (: Though that does also remind me of DBT, and I think DBT and ACT do draw a lot from Buddhist/eastern teachings, so it’s important that we give credit where it’s due and not appropriate the practice out of context. Thank you for stopping by here and blessing me with your wisdom and hope we can get Thai again soon. (:

  5. x.w.

    Hi Thomas,
    This is such a good question. I remembered once I asked my therapist the same question as you did, after some not so good dating experience. she gave me her opinion, which was a yes. but i felt the opposite. And we talked about when thinking about the past, the question of “did they care or not, liked or not” is often very exhausting. but i thought about those questions a lot. But I am glad I talked about it with my therapist, and several years later, i have some new perspective now.
    First, I think when related to emotions, many times it’s hard to define what’s true or real. like, if going back time, i would say my ex didn’t care about me, but he would say he did. (but why he still did this and that and hurt my feelings?…) I’m glad I feel nothing about that person anymore, and that experience made me realized people can have their “own truth”.
    But also, I realized I should honor my feelings, and respect my experience. If I don’t feel respected and cared, then that is my own truth, I have the right to take care myself and make my own decisions, no matter what other people say.
    And like you, I’ve learned to always know my value, and now I only give my time to people who know my values, especially in dating. it makes such a great change in my life. Someone can be interested in me, have affections towards me– those feelings can be true and real,but if they don’t make effort to show them: through communication, and make time for me, then I will not invest my time and energy to those situations. Because like and interest without actions, are not good enough for me anymore.
    Look forward to your new post. 🙂

    • Xin, this is such a beautiful and self-aware and emotionally intelligent comment! I’m so grateful that we’ve had similar experiences, even if they’ve been painful, as we can relate to one another and I can listen to you share the wisdom your therapist shared with you and that you’ve developed within yourself. I agree and resonate with so much of what you write here, about how people can have multiple interpretations of the same situation and what matters is that you’re able to honor your own emotional truth. I’m glad you’re able to hear you’re at the place where your ex doesn’t matter to you anymore and that you are recognizing your value! You’re iconic, and from what I can tell, wise and mature and fun and thoughtful. Action is so important and I’m so glad you state that because that’s the reason why I’m pretty much done with my most recent crush, as he could say nice things or whatever but had no action or even plan of action to back anything up. Boy byeeeeeeee. Thank you for your warmth and sharing, it’s so appreciated, and I hope you’re doing well. (:

  6. Pingback: The State of Friendship Affairs | the quiet voice

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