The Great Pretender

By the time I went to college, I was done inventing tall tales. I wasn’t telling people that I had eaten a cat because I wanted someone—anyone—to be interested in me, but I still didn’t believe that telling the truth about myself would make anyone want to know more, so I continued lying, only my lies became slightly more nuanced, and slightly more complicated. I had a boyfriend who wrote fiction and who told me that maybe, one day, I might be as good as him. Instead of saying what I actually thought, which was, Hey asshole, more like one day you might be as good as me, I said, “I really want that to happen.” I pretended exuberance when what I really felt was irrepressible depression. When I couldn’t contain my depression any longer and allowed a tiny, tiny part of myself to emerge, my friends would tell me that seeing me sad was unsettling for them. That I was supposed to be the rock, the stable one.

“You’re never sad,” one friend told me when I didn’t laugh at her jokes one night.

“I know,” I said, continuing to lie.

I laughed at jokes that were sexist and racist.

When I started having sex, I faked all of my orgasms, which, by the way, is not something that teenage boys whose previous exposure to sex has consisted mainly of internet porn are likely to pick up on. As I got older and my partners grew more experienced, I realized that I couldn’t keep faking orgasms, so instead I faked apathy. I told every new boyfriend that I happened to be one of those women who prefer giving to receiving, which is pretty much the general narrative affirmed by most mainstream depictions of sex, so most dudes were like, “OK, cool.” The one or two real orgasms I had took so long and required so much patience and trial and error on both my part and my partner’s that I feared it would drive them away. I was certain that if I was too demanding, if I kept asking for things, someday someone would tell me, “No, you’re not worth it.”

When other people told me that I was a doll, that I was precious, that I was cute, that I was just so nice, I nodded and affirmed these little lies because I felt that the truth of my being was too monstrous to reveal. I had to lie. I had to pass as a nice girl, a nonthreatening girl. I had to pass as the kind of girl who could hang with dudes and listen to their sexist tirades about how girls were such nags, that girls whined all the time, that girls always wanted dudes to spend money on them, that girls spent too much time putting on makeup that didn’t even look good. I had to pass as the kind of girl who didn’t take anything seriously, especially not the bigoted humor that I had been subjected to my entire life. I had to pass as all of those things because if my friends saw the real me—the me that was scarily angry, and who took things very seriously, and that was so, so far from nice—they would surely abandon me.


Right at this moment, as I write this, I am fighting the urge to lie. I want very much to lie to you, my dear dear Rookie hearts, to give this article the happy resolution that my real life doesn’t yet have. I want to say I’ve stopped lying, that I no longer feel the need to protect the people in my life from the parts of myself that are difficult to admit. I want to say I no longer fear that my loved ones will abandon me if they learn that I’m not a happy person, I’m not an easygoing person, I’m not a confident person, that I don’t always feel attractive or particularly sexual, that I do things that I’m not proud of, that most of the time I feel wildly lost and confused and scared and angry and sad.

But I won’t lie to you. I will be honest, even if honesty is not always charming, even if being honest means risking rejection, risking disgust. Let’s start with this confession: When I attended the first Rookie party ever (!!!!) a year ago when Rookie was just a fledgling baby of a thing, I felt out of place and awkward and unable to think of anything, like literally anything, to say in conversations. Instead of enjoying myself, I panicked about every little thing: Is there a circle forming and am I now outside of it? Wait, do I have anything funny related to gym teachers that I can say right now? Oh my god, people are talking about tampons! Tell your tampon sex story now before someone else jumps in. Oh god, you dummy, someone already jumped in! I went to the bathroom so many times just because I didn’t know what else to do with my body.

When it was all over, I felt like a failure of a social creature. And instead of owning up to that, I decided to publicly post on Facebook how I had met one of my idols, Miranda July, and that I could die happy now.

“Miranda July?????” my friends wrote me. “I’m jealous!”

I still laugh at jokes that I don’t think are funny. I still don’t speak up because I’m afraid to take up space. I still fear that my friends will abandon me if I am not completely entertaining and captivating and cheerful all the time. Recently, I was really let down by a friend, and instead of telling her that, I kept it inside, afraid that just by acknowledging my feelings, I might seem too demanding.

When I graduated from college and started working and paying my own bills, my mother asked me, “Do you miss being a teenager? Do you wish you could go back to high school?”

“Are you kidding me?” I cried. “I hated high school. Those were the worst years of my life.” I felt smug, condescending, knowing my mother would not understand. How could she? My mother had always been happy. She had always been popular—she was president of her class through middle school and high school—and was still popular now, as an adult. Everyone who met her adored her; strangers routinely stopped her on the street to tell her how stunning she was. My mother once told me that she was a generally trusting, happy person and even though she knew deep down that it was impossible, she truly believed that she had never been lied to by anyone, ever, in her entire life. My mother basically gleamed with health and well-adjustment with every waking breath, and could never figure out how her own flesh-and-blood daughter ended up so sulky and unlikeable as an adolescent. My mother could never, ever understand me—or so I thought.

“Me too,” she said. “I hated high school. Those were the worst years of my life too.”

That’s when I realized that I wasn’t the only one who made up stories to protect my loved ones from the ugly truth. If my mom does it, everyone does. We hide behind these characters we’ve invented for ourselves—the happy partygoer, the “low-maintenance” girlfriend—because it seems easier than asking everyone all the time to confront the truth, which can be as boring as “I have nothing to say,” or as simple as “I feel insecure.” That even in this article, I have taken on the role of Adult Who Has Some Hard-Won Advice That You Should Listen To, though I don’t know why you should listen to me, and I don’t know if what I have is advice so much as a story.

I wish I could say that I’m done lying, but I’m not. I’m not even done telling tall tales. I still make up shit all the time in my fiction and my poetry. But I can’t keep making up stories about who I am, and playing this imaginary character who is never vulnerable, never disappointing, never difficult, never too much.

All I can say now is that I’m trying to stop lying. And that’s not a lie. ♦

Published by

Jenny Zhang

Jenny Zhang is a poet, writer, and performer living in New York. She's the author of the poetry collection Dear Jenny, We Are All Find. You can find her at and on Twitter.

44 thoughts on “The Great Pretender”

  1. Jenny,
    I love you so much.
    This makes me cry; it’s so relavent and raw, devastating, hopeful and powerful.

  2. I think everyone does this and feels this way. You just have to remind yourself once in a while not to be too hard on yourself and not to take life too seriously (except for the serious bits).

  3. Jenny, this was beautiful.

    I just realized that I lie a lot about how I feel. I don’t want to be “too-high maintenance”, but I constantly feel really insecure because of my past friendships. It would be really easy to say “I feel insecure” or sad or anything like that, but I fear that no one will like me because I’m not always fun to be around.
    In my old friendships, if you weren’t happy and always smiling, you were ignored. I would yell at them, tell them I was ignored and unhappy and… I was still ignored. I think that’s what I’m really scared of now: will all my new friends leave me if I’m not always “fun” or a ray of sunshine? I’m a human being who has feelings, not a freakin’ toy. It’s really hard, and this was a incredible and helped me so much <3

    1. I really always thought it would be best to be “low maintenance” especially in relationships, and it was something I strived for in all my past relationships. One day I asked my current bf if I was low-maintenance and he bluntly said “no, but you’re not a fucking car. you’re a human being. when you care about someone their ‘maintenance level’ should be the last thing on your mind”

      it’s good advice to keep in mind and really changed my perspective on myself and my interactions with other people.

  4. Oh my god, this article is so REAL and good and i am incredibly glad I’m not the only person like that.

    Thank you Jenny, this was lovely.

  5. I just lost my Rookie-crying virginity. This is beautiful, Jenny, thank you so, so much. You’re an amazing writer and I can’t tell you how much I’ve struggled with some of the issues you’ve described here. Your honesty about lying gives me hope and makes me feel strong. You’re amazing.


    i’m also an asian-american, was born + raised in america and share your feelings of inferiority and pain. they come and go, sometimes i feel as if they will be perpetually present throughout my entire life. i’m not sure what hopeful/reflective thought i can insert here but it’s always good to know you’re not alone. <3

  7. This was truly beutiful.
    I exactly feel this way. And also that part about learning a new language, it’s terrible. After switching schools I tried everything just to look happy and non-demanding so that people would accept me and not abandon me.
    Thank you very much for sharing this.

  8. This is a beautiful piece of writing Jenny, I always love your work! There were honestly tears in my eyes as I read this.

    I hate high school too, I’m so insecure and have such little confidence and it really gets me down. I’m awkward and useless in social situations and I’m never open about my feelings. It’s so reassuring to see that other people feel similar to me and that you’re getting back to normal now :) Thanks <3

  9. this is an beautiful piece and I really loved reading like all of the writing you do.

    After reading this I realized ,I do this all the time just in smaller amounts ,all my friends think I’m walking on clouds and I don’t care about anything bad going on but I’m really insecure ,stressed out and sad most of the time
    Cheers from Iceland !xxx

  10. This was really thought-provoking for me. Whenever I’m honest with people about my feelings, I often get embarrassed and regret it later. So it’s hard to coach myself to tell the truth, knowing that later I’ll probably wish I hadn’t. I know honesty is better, but it feels worse. WHAT TO DO

  11. Jenny,
    I relate to this very much. I always try to be the person that everyone thinks I am. If I act the way I really want to, I’m afraid that people will think I’m fake, when the truth is, I was already fake — faking being who they think I am. It’s nice knowing people are going through this too because all my friends seem FREAKING CONFIDENT! And I’m always like, why can’t I be like them?

    Aaaaaah afdhskjafh, life.

  12. Jenny, your stuff is always the best.
    Somehow, over the years I’ve created an image that is partly true to who I am, but there’s a lot I omit.
    So the image people have of me is a lot crazier and absurd and stronger than I actually am.
    It really bothers me sometimes, and I’d like to be more honest with people, but I’m afraid that by telling them the truth, I’ll become too vulnerable. There are some people who know more of who I am, but there are few people I can trust to show some sides of me.
    No one is honest 100% of the time, but who knows, we might be happier if we can trust the people who matter to us.

  13. Seriously thank you so much for this. I love human beings a lot, but I do this all the time without realizing it, sabotaging my own chances of truly getting close to other people. This article just reminded me how important it is to be genuine. If everyone was this real with themselves, AH it’d be so easy to make friends and the world would be so lovely. :’) changin the world, one self-accepting teenage grrl at a time. LOVE YOU 4EVR ROOKIE

  14. I feel as if you took how we all feel and act (from time for some and constantly for others) and put it on paper. Literary.
    Amen for this article.
    (and i am not even lying)

  15. Thank you. I have lied since forever – hardly any of it seemed like it was for my benefit, but in reality it all was.

    My upbringing was english-protestant vs irish-catholic – if you know anything of that system in Northern Ireland, you will understand. However, most people don’t, and my torn allegiances remain unidentified, unsubstantiated. I can’t talk about it, it’s too specific for people to relate to. It makes me feel very alone.

  16. Thank you; I needed this; this kind of reminds me of Potok’s The Chosen; I volunteered at a place where I taught little Chinese immigrants how to read (it helped that I spoke it myself, I guess), and they really did have the worst of both worlds in terms of expressing themselves, but now I have hope; and in my heart of hearts I’ve always tried to write something that evoked as much emotions as this and thanks again.

  17. I started having sex a while into my first and only relationship. After, my boyfriend at the time would keep asking me to have sex with him sometimes, even when I didn’t want to, and I felt bad about that so I lied and said I wanted to as well. When I started feeling neglected towards the end of our relationship, I didn’t say a word because he was always the one mad at me for being inattentive and I thought I didn’t deserve to complain. I was afraid to speak up because I thought he would leave me if I did anything he didn’t like. He ended up leaving me anyway for another girl.

    Now I realize that all this time I should have just stood up for myself, even if I was afraid of being alone. Thank you for this article, Jenny. I always love your writing and this article in particular reminds me that I am not alone.

  18. This applies to me so much at this stage in my life its actually scary. I’m constantly lying about large things and small things, and I do it to protect myself. Unlike you though, I’m not ready to stop. I’m scared to stop. I really liked the article though.

  19. Jenny, this was beautiful, and thank you. I love the way you write.
    I have problems with feeling too boring ans exaggerating a lot when I’m talking to people, even the ones who know me really well. Thanks for reminding me I’m not alone.

  20. Such a relatable piece! I find I’ve been doing this a lot lately, mostly with people I don’t know all that well (which is most people from school). I notice that I try to play up my peppiness so that people don’t think I’m boring and an utter loser and I tend to ask a lot of questions to steer the attention away from myself.

  21. This was so so amazing Jenny <3 All of your articles are absolutely flawless. I legitimately love you. I can so totally relate to this. I feel like I have to exaggerate absolutely EVERYTHING to the point that it becomes a lie, just to try and be more interesting or funny, because I'm kind of scared that I won't be interesting enough for people how I am without the elaborate stories of my life.

  22. It’s so true what you told about your mother. Although people seem to be confident and honest you never know what’s inside them and how they really feel. I think everyone is often pretending to be someone else without even noticing it. But whe you start noticing it and think about it, you start to be honest to yourself and I think then it’s easier to be honest to other people.

  23. I still lie everyday, to my fiance about my former life and how wonderful it was. I’m scared of being weak. I’ve always thought I was completely insane for doing it. Glad to see I’m not alone and maybe not so crazy.

  24. Jenny, it was so perfect! Really, amazing, I loved it, specially the end, when you say that you’re still trying to stop lying. And I can totally identify with it.

  25. This story is wonderful; not just because it moves every inch of your heart, but because it´s so so brave.

  26. This is beautiful! Jenny, I just wanna let you know that I feel ya, sista! I know the exact feelings you’re describing in this article, and while I don’t have a huge lying problem (I’m pretty bad at it…), I have lied for similar reasons, and I feel so lame for doing it. It’s nice to know that other people feel the same way as me. :’)

  27. This article is amazing, and I relate to so much of it. When I was in preschool, I vividly remember telling everyone in my class (including my teachers) that I was going away to disney world the next day and wouldn’t be back for a week. Everyone was really excited for me and made a big deal of saying goodbye, and then when my mom came to pick me up she had to awkwardly explain that none of it was true. I think I lied because, like you, Jenny, I wanted it to seem like my life was more interesting than I actually believed it to be. Or maybe it was because I was jealous of the kids who did get to do those things while my parents would never in a million years be willing to spend the money. Now I’m 19 years old and I still lie all the time. I pretend to be a “nice” girl, I pretend to be easygoing, I pretend not to care about things that really matter to me. Like you, I fake orgasms and tell the guys I have sex with that I’m more into giving than receiving when really there’s no way I can know that because I’ve never really been on the receiving end of anything sexual, ever. I think the reason why I behave this way is because when I lie and keep quiet about how I really feel and act like someone who deep down, I know I’m not, then no one can criticize the real me. I know that it’s impossible to please everyone and that disagreement and criticism are parts of life, but it’s still so terrifying for me to put myself out there. Jenny, I can’t thank you enough for writing this article. It really helps to know that other people are struggling with these same sorts of issues.

  28. This was so poignant and intense and sad and wonderful and accomplished something pretty amazing – it made a lot of people feel less alone, and that’s all you really need sometimes. Thank you so much for your incredible honesty – if all truths were as lovely as these, I don’t think we’d be so scared to confess them all the time.

  29. I can totally relate. Sometimes I just compulsively lie and I have no idea why. It’s an awful habit…and then I promise myself to be honest but I can’t stop!

  30. Wow, all of your comments are making me feel weepy tonight, but in a really good way, like this way that makes me think we’re all gonna be okay <3

  31. this is really relatable. One time I lied about being violently raped when I was sexually assaulted and just couldn’t muster up the courage to keep saying no. I only said no once, and somehow that makes me feel responsible for what happened to me. I lie about what actually happened because I fear the truth is not scary and violent enough for someone else to empathize with.

    It makes me feel good that someone else feels the same urge as I do to lie. Maybe if I was more truthful, people would start acting like the real them. And we could all be more honest with eachother

  32. There was a TedTalk about lying, which was really revealing. I don’t lie. Everrrrr. I never have been a liar, (but I trust everyone implicitly and that’s a problem too especially when I run into tall tale spinners (but I think I can detect naunced falsifications well…)) ^_^
    But I “lie” in ways like “yeah I’ll go to bed soon” and “I’m straight” and I lie to make things go faster, or move along, like concealing my opinions or agreeing, and these lies are for other people and to make my life better or easier (like when I say “Yeah Mam I had your stew yesterday!(:” when evading being stuffed by my Mammy or “I need to go the orthodontist later gtg :/” when in an awkward social situation) soooooo yeah honesty isn’t so great really… It has it’s uses. It protects us.
    But then saying you’re mam works in NASA and that’s why she doesn’t live with you… well that’s trickery, but idk if that’s bad either… It’s fooling, giving people a false esteem boost of you. But maybe you’re just protecting yourself? It’s risky behaviour! :D But sometimes it can hurt other people and that’s really bad :( It could make you seem cooler than someone else, who’ll then be left out, and you won’t even deserve this new popularity! It’s all fabricated D:
    Anyway, there was no very worthwhile information there I just babbled :(

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