On Being Real – What does it mean to Be Real?

It’s not the result of some outside influences; ‘real’ can only come from the inside.

One of my favourite books on the subject was written for children, but its message is timeless and universal. In The Velveteen Rabbit, the Skinhorse tells the Rabbit:

“Real is what happens when you become your true self…

not a contrived, shiny, pretend thing…and are loved

maybe even because of your imperfections.”

The underlying premise of The Velveteen Rabbit, is that we are all unique, like snowflakes, and we also all want to be accepted. Sometimes this desire for acceptance dominates, and it comes at a price—perhaps we shellac our gut so we no longer hear our inner most knowing, or perhaps we do everything from the outside in—focusing all our energy on our appearance as we attempt to mimic those in the media who fit the narrowly defined, societal mold.

The thing is, when we accept ourselves fully—flaws and all—we can embrace life with more energy and creativity; our energy is not usurped by striving to become a cookie cutter version of ourselves.

During our teen and young adult years, we try on masks.  Part of the process of donning masks is to self-discover and figure out what feels right and what doesn’t, from our values to our wardrobe.  But, too often we get lost in the role we are playing rather than inhabit our own persona, our own narrative.  I remember the first day of junior high.  I came from a culturally mixed middle school, and arrived in a significantly more homogeneous junior high school.

I spent hours preparing for this day.  My hair, my jeans, my top, my shoes—I was convinced a cohesive presentation of my outward self was critical to my survival.  The fact that I valued kindness, rooted for the underdog, loved animals, books, film, running, tennis, and was a vegetarian didn’t seem significant.

I still remember feeling my heart in my throat when I saw the other girls—all sophisticated, sporting boobs and bras, Lacoste, and the right jeans.  What I had thought was right was all wrong.  Being looked at up and down, scrutinized from head to toe, any sense of self vanished. I wanted to disappear with it.

Until the risk I felt (of expressing the self I was working so hard to suppress) grew larger than the risk of staying hidden and costumed, I paraded around a mannequin of me.

I meet adolescents and young adults in my practice where their struggle between expressing uniqueness or melting into the proverbial pot, emerges in a variety of mental health issues.  Disordered eating, drugs, alcohol abuse, rampant anxiety and depression all hijack the creativity, inner strength and self-knowledge of my clients.

A tremendous amount of energy goes into being perfect.  Self-criticism and self-flagellation leaves little room for self-compassion, resilience and growth.

As e.e. Cummings eloquently wrote,

“To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day,

to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any

human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”

For a long time I had resigned myself. Now it’s from the deeply personal perspective of what it was like to diminish oneself, to disappear, that I work with clients to help heal from the pain of not being real, then break away and shine.

As Toni Raiten-D’Antonio writes in her book, The Velveteen Principles,

“Becoming Real, is the purpose of every kind of psychotherapy. 

It is living in the moment with the deepest respect for yourself and for others….

If the loss of being Real were all these people suffered, it would be bad enough…

Many of them had actually devoted themselves to denying, hiding and even

destroying everything that made them different, special and unique.”

The opposite of being Real translates into objectifying oneself.  The internal struggle to let one’s personality shine versus morphing into a world of sameness emerges as self destruction.  We see this tug of war between Real and Object translate into a plethora of mental health issues and addictions.

The insidiousness of self-objectification is evidenced by its normalization in our society—shiny and more become the norm. Happiness, instead of an inside job, is measured from the outside, and relies on constant comparison to unattainable standards.  Not measuring up often translates to living under a cloud of shame.  In the futile attempt to perfect ourselves, our lifestyle, we inevitably “tumble into a never-ending cycle of struggle, self-condemnation and flailing attempts to ease the pain through money, power, drugs, sex, food or purchases.” Velveteen Principles

We feel empty yet we still consume, we override our intuition and our heads spin and buzz with thoughts of inadequacy.

This emptiness may trigger mental health issues from anxiety to depression to addictions and compulsions.  Without awareness and quietude to reflect, the body speaks and the mind becomes caught on a treadmill of rumination and negativity.

Crises, from essentially dropping out of life, to being dominated by anxiety or obsessive compulsive behaviours, to a general malaise and feeling of, ‘is this all there is?’—can be a saving grace.  In Chinese, the word for crisis is comprised of two characters: danger and opportunity.

For me, crisis presented the opportunity of beginning to put myself back together in a new way; building on a foundation of bamboo—bending and forgiving—rather than twigs, brittle and prone to breaking.

For my clients, the path of coming back to life in a new and Real way is through self-compassion and self-acceptance and a practice of developing compassion, compassion for all living things—including yourself.

When I teach self-compassion or loving kindness meditation to my clients, a common remark is how much easier it is to give out kindness to others than to oneself.  This awareness is the beginning of shifting from guilt for practicing more self-care to realizing we must fill our own cup in order to give out fully.

Kristen Neff, a renown researcher in self-compassion.  Offers simple, yet powerful mindfulness meditations to build that self-kindness muscle.


Giving ourselves the equivalent attention and care we offer to others is not narcissistic.  It’s a healthy part of being ‘Real’.  There is enough pie to go around.  Make sure you enjoy your piece.

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