The question of what is real vs what is true may seem like a strange one to ask – they’re both the same thing, right? In the English language, we use these words interchangeably for convenience and usually, there isn’t much of an issue with that. However, there is a small but distinct difference between the two. The next question you might ask is: Who cares? Well, it turns out that the difference influences how you see yourself, how you see the world, your internal narrative and much more. It’s time to strap in and put your philosophy hat on…
According to many philosophers, something is real if it has actual existence and substance. Something that is real does not need to be proven. Your computer is real. Your chair is real. Your table is real. These are things that are there, don’t need explaining and most people agree are real. It is reality.
On the other hand, something that is true has to derive from evidence and reason – however good or bad that evidence and reason is. Mathematics is a concept that is true but not real. The number ten doesn’t exist in the real world. The only way you can explain the concept of the number ten is by using real things (line ten bottles up and say “look, ten!”) or by explaining the concept of the number ten. Something that is true attempts to reflect and interpret reality.
Where it gets interesting though is when ‘what is real vs what is true’ enters our daily lives.
Real but Not True
There are many things in your life that are real but not true. The main ones are the stories in your head and the feelings in your body.
Most people at one time have felt a cascade of thoughts (often negative ones) falling through their heads about themselves, other people or some specific thing that seem to spiral out of control. All of this while you feel like the bystander in your own head – helpless as you wait for the storm to eventually subside on its own.
Most people have felt some sort of anxiety in the physical form. Nausea, gut-wrenching pains, headaches or even trembling.
Your thoughts, your feelings, your emotions and the physical sensations in your body are all real, but they are not true. An article from Psychology Today explains this well:
What this means is that, while thoughts are really happening and there is a real biochemistry that accompanies them, they are only representations in our mind. They are not the experience of this living moment. Just like a map is not the territory that it represents, our thoughts are not reality.
Our thoughts and feelings – more often than not – create a veil between us and reality. This veil prevents us from seeing the truth and most of the time, we don’t even know the veil is there. This is what happens when you call yourself a bad person for a fleeting thought that you had. It’s what happens when natural gurgles in the stomach before a big performance turn into a mini breakdown. The real and the true frequently get mixed up in a hot mess.
Our thoughts and emotions are real – they exist inside of us – but they don’t tell us anything about who we are or what truth actually is. We tend to think of thoughts and emotions as both real and true, but they are only real.
In other words, things are true only to the extent that we believe them to be – whether that be belief in a capitalist or socialist system, belief in what our weight means or belief in the type of person that we are.
Things that are real are set in stone but when it comes to our own minds and bodies, it is up to us to discover what the truth actually is.