How to prevent my self-harm scars making people uncomfortable?
July 9, 2008 9:44 AM   Subscribe

How do I let people know that I'm comfortable talking (or not talking) about my self-harm scars?

I have a lot of very obvious self-harm scars on my arms. I'm fairly comfortable having these visible when I'm out with friends or out alone. My friends know why my scars are there and that they don't have to be careful with me because of them; questions from strangers aren't generally welcome or expected. I find it more difficult when I'm around people who I don't know well, but will have ongoing contact with. Specifically, these are people I'll be doing voluntary work with.

I'm not interested in hiding them, so my scars will be visible sometimes. I don't want them to be a Big Scary Topic that must be avoided because nobody's said anything and eventually it gets to be a year later and they're a little uncomfortable with me because there's this obvious thing that seems to be out-of-bounds and I'm uncomfortable with them because there's this thing I know they must think about... etc. Equally, I don't want to bring them up in conversation myself and sound as if want to burden these people with harrowing tales of My Terrible Years of Anguish and Pain. I don't mind talking about it if people are curious, but I have a therapist, so my look-how-awful-my-life-is needs are pretty much fulfilled at this point.

How do I let people know that I'm OK with any questions they have about my scars without making them uncomfortable? Bonus points if you've actually been in this situation either as the scarred or the un-scarred party.

(I've read this thread, which covers similar ground, but I'm not looking for ways to cover-up my self-injury, so much as the best way to be open about it.)
posted by xchmp to Human Relations (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
How do I let people know that I'm OK with any questions they have about my scars without making them uncomfortable?

Answer their question with the understanding that what you are doing to yourself is not normal behavior. They have a right to be curious about it especially if you are displaying it openly. And so long as the query is done in a respectful way, just answer them and maybe enlighten them to your condition. Cutting is difficult for lay people to wrap their arms around and some face cringing is to be expected.

I find it odd though that you say you are comfortable your scars showing but uncomfortable with the questions from strangers. Honestly, if you don't want others to be uncomfortable, cover your arms. But it sounds like you want to share this illness with others so...
posted by j.p. Hung at 10:01 AM on July 9, 2008

While different certainly, I can sympathize a bit. When I was 19 I got REALLY heavily tattooed, had a pal in the business and thought I was a tough guy. They are largely covered by a long shirt, but now I am 36 and a lawyer and have had lots of odd moments when I have been questioned about them. By clients etc.

Most people are just curious and I have the stock answer in my head which I rattle off which goes something like:

Q: Do you have tattoos?

A: Yes, lots of them. Well we all do some interesting things in our lives, and when I was 19 I thought I was a bad-ass, and got lots of tattoos. The person you are when you are 19 versus the person you are when you are 36 is a gulf, but I have them and don't honestly think about them a whole lot.

Q: Do you regret getting them

A: No, honestly they are part of my history, I don't really notice them very often, it's just part of my body.

Q: Oh, interesting.

and we get on with things.

I think people are inherently curious and I would simply be frank, brief, and honest. Most people are satisfied, hopefully won't judge you by what you did in the past, and you can move on the the business at hand. Some will, but most won't.
posted by Ponderance at 10:04 AM on July 9, 2008

Letting them show already lets people know that they're fair game, so the better time to be any more open is once someone's actually asked. Just answer simply and truthfully, if that's what you want to do (simply, to show that it's not a big deal). Not everyone will ask, because not everyone will want to know or even care in the first place.
posted by peachfuzz at 10:07 AM on July 9, 2008

While I agree with peachfuzz, you are right that there are people who want to ask about them but feel uncomfortable and aren't sure if they should. My fiance works with a man who has a significant scar on his neck, but no one seems to have the guts to ask him about it. But he has to know that they stare and wonder, so I would think it would be easier if they either knew what it was from, or at least knew for sure he was uncomfortable talking about it.

Just announcing to everyone in the group that you're okay talking about it is just going to make everyone uncomfortable. My advice would be to find someone in the group that you are comfortable chatting with, who you think has a pretty good relationship with the other people as well. Talk to that individual in private, and let them know that you're cool with questions and if anyone brings it up he/she can let people know that. I'm thinking they will probably talk amongst themselves before they talk to you, and this will let them know it's okay to ask without forcing a conversation.
posted by thejanna at 10:16 AM on July 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Use them as an opportunity to tell a story; if the subject comes up that can be related to one of them, you could say, "That reminds me of what caused this scar" with you pointing to it and then telling the story.

You are the one initiating the conversation and referencing it which makes it less awkward for everyone and may lead to people feeling more free about asking questions.

Just don't constantly be referencing them or you run the risk of making the situation awkward for entirely different reasons.
posted by quin at 10:19 AM on July 9, 2008

Response by poster: I find it odd though that you say you are comfortable your scars showing but uncomfortable with the questions from strangers.

Just to clarify - I'm not uncomfortable with questions from strangers. I don't want random people on the bus suddenly asking me about them, but if I'm having a conversation with someone then I'm fine with them asking about the scars.

My problem is that people often don't ask, and so the topic either remains hovering in the air like a very persistent mosquito or I have to bring it up myself. So my question is how I can do this without making them even more uncomfortable about the whole thing.
posted by xchmp at 10:21 AM on July 9, 2008

I'm not sure if this will help, but I have a visible scar on my wrist that I am asked about often. I reply that I burned myself, which is true, but most people assume it happened when I was cooking, which it did not. If I am asked further questions and it isn't in a professional situation, I elaborate honestly, but keep it succinct. Meaning I usually don't get into what was going on that triggered it (which is where an uncomfortable amount of oversharing could come in), but am pretty matter of fact about it being self-inflicted and how it was a coping mechanism at the time. Whether the conversation goes deeper than that depends on the person and our relationship, but I usually mention that people are welcome to ask me questions or discuss it further.

It seems to me that awareness about self-mutilation and specifically cutting has greatly increased in recent years. I imagine most people put two and two together these days, but also digest that information in the context of how they know you now. I'd like to think that most folks would not be judgmental or disrespectful.
posted by katemcd at 10:23 AM on July 9, 2008

q: "What about those scars??"

a: "Well you know, when you're young you can do some stupid things. that was part of growing up!"
posted by PowerCat at 10:26 AM on July 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

People really like to talk about injuries and scars as a sort of "getting to know you thing." During one of those conversations you could join in with an innocuous comment of your own along the lines of "Oh, this one itched so badly for the longest time," or, "This scar on my leg needed 20 stitches!" or, "These scars on my arms were really purple for a while, but I think they are less noticeable now." Then you have opened the door for them to ask you follow-up questions if they have been curious.
posted by JennyK at 10:27 AM on July 9, 2008

In my experience, scars and things are not the elephant in the room you think they are when you're self-conscious about them. I have (extensive, and fairly hideous) scarring up and down both arms that I don't bother to hide, but the times I catch people looking or find the air tense are really not that frequent. Most people just aren't that observant, or just don't care. thejanna's idea is good - it's probably the most comfortable way for the curious to find out, it cuts off rumor or crazy speculation, and it lets those who are still curious ask without feeling weird.
posted by peachfuzz at 10:29 AM on July 9, 2008

Just be a nice guy and try your best to seem approachable. If a nice, approachable person has some sort of curiosity-inducing physical feature, people won't feel too awkward asking about it. If somebody is staring noticeably, a "hey, if you're wondering about these, it's no big deal" should do the job.

Being anxious about whether people want to ask questions can transmit as being anxious because you don't want questions.
posted by Shepherd at 10:32 AM on July 9, 2008

I certainly wouldn't bring it up on your own unless there is some really obvious staring going on. Your telling me that they were self-inflicted (if we were just acquaintances) would make me really uncomfortable. My advice? Wait till people are comfortable enough with you to ask for themselves; that way they will know you a little better, will know that you're really ok now and a great guy, and be better prepared to accept your history.

You may feel that because you're used to the origin of the scars it's okay to bring them up and talk about them, but I'm betting that a lot of people (not your friends) really would rather not know, self-harm being such a taboo subject.

Meanwhile, yeah, wear whatever you want! No need to cover up.
posted by GardenGal at 11:09 AM on July 9, 2008

They probably don't notice them, and if they do, don't think about them. The only people who notice and think about them are people who've had self-injury in their lives (either by doing it themselves or through close friends & family). It's a big deal to you, because it's your life, and it was a big deal. But mostly your acquaintances don't care, and it's not any sort of elephant in the room unless you're putting your attention onto the scars.

Go ahead and wear short sleeves and forget about it. People will ask, maybe, but mostly they won't, and they won't be awkward about it. You're not responsible for other people's morbid curiosity.

Caveat: people will be uncomfortable if you have fresh cuts, not just healed scars, no matter what you do, and you should take pains to hide those in the same area as your healed scars, even if they're from something entirely innocuous.
posted by jeather at 11:19 AM on July 9, 2008

You could get a tattoo - a dotted line surrounding the scarred areas, and the caption "feel free to ask about these scars".

But me, I'd cover them and keep My Terrible Years of Anguish and Pain between me and my therapist.
posted by Meatbomb at 12:30 PM on July 9, 2008

Sorry, just to clarify: seeing them will make people uncomfortable. Hearing about your self-destructive behavior is uncomfortable, as is avoiding the questions about the uncomfortable topic. Taking the issue off the public agenda is the only way to be sure you will avoid making people uncomfortable.
posted by Meatbomb at 12:34 PM on July 9, 2008

My problem is that people often don't ask, and so the topic either remains hovering in the air like a very persistent mosquito or I have to bring it up myself.

I would say you can only be as certain of this as you can of a random woman with a large midsection being pregnant; in other words, don't bring it up unless you for sure that someone's curious to the point of distraction. My speculative answer would be to wait until some loudmouth asks you to your face, reply truthfully and matter-of-factly, and let the gossip mill do the rest.
posted by kittyprecious at 1:18 PM on July 9, 2008

The only time I notice my discomfort at someone else's discomfort WRT my scars is when nurses take my pulse during doctor visits or when the Red Cross nurses out of nosiness and/or boredom (or maybe they're genuinely trying to be nice though I have reservations) want to know "where did those marks come from?" when I'm in for apheresis donations.

Were we to have a closer relationship I'd likely explain, as I have to my family and friends. But chances are slim that the RN and I will be sharing a meal, ever, so my response is usually 'I was injured several years ago'. Seems to satisfy their curiosity and so far people seem to deduce that my indirect explanation is a polite way of saying yes, i see that you see this, now can we get on with the business at hand now.

I try not to be dismissive of others' curiosity but I really do prefer to choose when and with whom I'm going to talk about them.
posted by mcbeth at 2:35 AM on July 10, 2008

I have friends with very obvious self-harm scars. It never made me uncomfortable, I knew what they were and that if we ever got close and they wanted to tell me about them I would be there to listen.
posted by thebrokenmuse at 4:06 AM on July 10, 2008

Also- know that many people might not be curious at all, most likely they understand why and what caused the scars. They do not need to ask.
posted by thebrokenmuse at 4:09 AM on July 10, 2008

I agree with those who say people probably don't notice/care. When I work with clients who have interesting scares or tattoos it never occurs to me to ask about it. It's not relevant to what we're doing, and i've got other things to think about. Your scars are important to you because of the memories you associate with them, but that doesn't make them important to anyone else.
posted by French Fry at 9:59 AM on July 10, 2008

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