“You,” he said, “are a terribly real thing in a terribly false world, and that, I believe, is why you are in so much pain.”

That quote belongs in Emilie Autumn’s psychological thriller, The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls. I used it to describe Robin Williams when he died.

The comedian’s brave living inspired me to be real, as well — resisting the temptation to photoshop my blemishes and hide my insecurities from the world. I believe that powerful writing and living requires vulnerability. But being real is not for the weary. It comes with considerable risks. Especially in our happy culture that views any kind of discontentment as a symptom of neurosis or maladjustment.

To pull off being real, we need always be working toward knowing ourselves and loving ourselves. We continue to evolve, so this job is like laundry – never-ending. There is always another layer of ourselves to explore and to accept. Some unsightly, and others pretty cool. Being real means holding our core self like we would an infant – relaxed and yet firm.

Being real doesn’t mean spilling your guts to everyone. You are allowed to keep parts of your story to yourself. The late Henri Nouwen wrote, “Never allow yourself to become public property, where anyone can walk in and out at will. You might think you are being generous in giving access to anyone who wants to enter or leave, but you will soon find yourself losing your soul.”

Nor does it mean shutting everyone out of your life so that you can throw away your filter. That may feel liberating at first, but it inevitably leads to resentment and loneliness. It’s a delicate and complicated dance – constructing just enough boundaries in conversations with others to protect yourself while remaining true to who you really are.

Being real demands a kind of comfort with oneself whereby you can be authentic even though you face criticism. Think Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther king, Dorothy Day. Your faith and values become an anchor of stability in the shifting currents of popular culture and trendy opinions. You are not immune to negative feedback, but you rise above it knowing who you are – a child of God who is deeply loved by the Father and by a few others here on earth.

It’s not a cognitive exercise. You can’t GET real by taking a class or doing a thought log or practicing mindfulness techniques. It’s a matter of the heart. The only way you get brave enough to bare your soul in a way that is uninsured is by trusting a few people in your life to love you unconditionally. This means letting them be around you in your ugliest moments. Not everyone. Not your neighbor’s brother who is being polite by asking you how you are. Just a few souls who you think are up for the job.

Their love, in turn, builds the foundation for a stronger self, so that you know how to be simultaneously authentic and self-compassionate . You are not a smiley-faced phony, but you do what you need to do in any given moment to honor yourself.

We can’t become real on our own. It’s impossible. Other people make us real by loving us.

Margery Williams describes the process better than anyone in her classic, The Velveteen Rabbit.

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Being real isn’t glamorous.

Sometimes it can be a drag.

But a real person is undoubtedly beautiful.

Because she is genuine and strong.

Photo Credit: Alyssa L. Miller, Flickr, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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14 Responses
  1. Doing What I Can

    What an amazingly, beautiful, touching post, Therese. Thank you so much for being real with us. You have touched and blessed thousands of lives, if not more.

    I wish you all the love, peace and joy possible even in the midst of all you experience.

    Thank you for blessing us with your honesty and courage, even when I know you probably don’t feel it inside.

    You’re a blessing!

    God bless you and your family!

  2. nessa3

    Wow, I wish I could be tbat honest to those around me. Growing up in a home when negative emotions were not allowed. And in christain circle o hell no…only one I can be honest with is my therapist.

  3. Lisa

    I, too, am fortunate enough to have a husband that I can be real with. After being with him for 25 years I still struggle some with believing that he could truly love me that much, but he does.

  4. Therese…keep being real and sharing..I am very glad that you have a husband that loves you unconditionally… I am sorry for your pain but know you are such a blessing to many people..may God bless you and heal you…and take away your pain.Sincerely.. Jan

  5. Pat

    I am deeply touched by this reflection. I continue to keep a brave face because I have a family of hyper critics. I have been blessed with a good therapist and good friends. The cognitive therapies of Dr David Burns in the book Feeling Good have been a big help on difficult days, after sleepless nights. Be well

  6. Mary Devitt

    Beautifully said. Your realness is your gift, for which so many of us are deeply grateful. A gift back to you, this quote I found — “A friend once told me that each of us and our unique fingerprints hold up the universe. And any missing fingerprint is a loss that the universe can neither regain nor afford to lose. As a mental health advocate, I have shared this with people often, as well as another: ‘Allow yourself morning.’ It means that today may have been a rolling ball of anxiety and trembling, it may have been a face wet and slick with tears; but if you can get to morning – if you can allow a new day to encourage change – then do it: allow yourself morning.” Keep allowing yourself morning, Therese.

  7. Theresa

    This “because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” Made me cry.

  8. Pinkpinkpink

    Therese, your writing style is so wonderful. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. It is so comforting to know that we are not alone in this struggle. Your writings are my main place to go for ‘remembering that it will be all right”. Love you girl.

  9. Jaye

    This was beautifully written; true, authentic, and real. And I tracked right along with you. Though I don’t have debilitating depression, I have the capacity to truly understand what your journey must be like. I do have dysthymia and anxiety.
    The words: “it is painful to be real in a false world” so resonate with me. It’s true; most people just can’t go there. So I’ve chosen to still be real, but also discerning in who I choose to be “real real” with.

  10. This is such a tender and beautiful blog, Theresa. Thanks for being so honest and vulnerable in expressing something we depression sufferers feel and experience so often.

  11. Ruth

    Thank you for expressing your truth — it’s helping me, right now, come to terms with my own possible depression. It’s mixed up with ADD — depression is often part of a cocktail, isn’t it? Maybe I should give it a clever name, like other cocktail, like “I’ll have a Blue Spacy, please”

  12. Cindy Romeo

    This is EXACTLY what I needed to hear! Thank you and God Bless You for being real in this somewhat fake world. I too, strive to be real. It is not easy with people telling you something is God’s will for you so you should be happy about it BUT I can still be real and feel down about that very thing. Yes prayer and positive thoughts work but there are still times when I am still fighting to stay above the water. No matter what, I will be the best me and stay real, even if it means speaking my mind and saying, sorry but I am having a difficult time today. Being real, seems to be a rarity today in this “Don’t worry, be happy” kind of world. Thank you Theresa and share away.

  13. Diane Smelser

    I just found you and this is the second post of yours that I have read. Just like that (snap) you have touched me to my core and my weeping is not just from sadness but from pure selfish joy for finding complete understanding. I sneak around smiling and pretending not to have problems until someone says “Are you donating all those books in your car?”…things like that… I have problems. You get me. I love you already.