6 Minute Read
It was summer, 2002. I was 19. A customer had come over to me while I was work. “I have to know: did you create those scars yourself?” she asked aggressively, a strange smirk on her sunlit face. Inside of myself I felt a tangling; a threshold of frustration breaking, a flurry of stomach knots. I sighed, and begrudgingly told her the story behind my scars. She brushed it off with more questions about intimate details; I used an excuse to get away from her. I had had it.
The background is this: at an early age, I faced an accident that nearly left me unable to walk; the large scars and reconstructed muscles from yearly surgeries serve as the evidence on my skin. But this article is not just for those who are routinely asked questions based on their appearance (although this happens at alarming and unacceptable rates)—it’s also for anyone who struggles with boundary setting, especially when it comes to communication.
So. In that moment when the tactless customer demanded that I tell a deeply personal part of my history, I knew something had to change.
For years, I had encountered strangers coming up to me—at the beach, in the store, at school, at work, asking me straight out “What happened to you?”
While I am grateful that I grew up in an environment of sharing and truth-telling, I had never been taught that revealing my story was, indeed, an option—so I obliged anyone that cared to ask.
My personal theory is that besides morose curiosity, many people asked because somewhere deep inside of them, they were afraid that something tragic or unexpected could happen to them too—something that would render them helpless and vulnerable.
In a society that rewards outward manifestations of “strength” and “vitality”—and actively avoids death and ageing, a differently-abled person signals alarm bells. Big time.
The truth is that everyone is vulnerable—but society and individuals offload their profound fear of fragility onto others in weird ways.
Like going up to a stranger and asking about their scars.
Like avoiding people when they get sick or hurt.
Like telling people that their misfortune is a manifestation of their negative thoughts.
Like voting to deny people healthcare.
The fact that I’m a woman is not lost on me in this equation. Why wouldn’t people, mainly men, approach me and blatantly ask me about my body—when women’s bodies are subconsciously still seen as property? #justsaying
And there was also the matter of my face, too: a pretty face coupled with a body that reminded others of their own mortality…look, it drove people totally nuts. It was and still is, to some, disturbing—this reminder that nobody is safe from vulnerability, no matter how fortunate they are.
This reminder that’s written all over me, written in plain site.
For the record, I’m crazy proud of all that I am—scars, skin, face. Proud in the sense that I hold it all with integrity now, with wholeness. I’ve seen some scary, dark shit— and it doesn’t frighten me the way it might someone who’s been spared life’s cruelty. But for all those years, I told my story in a way that felt disempowering—and most of all, I told it to others before I had made sense and meaning out of it for myself.
In Don Miguel Ruiz’s book “The Four Agreements”, the first agreement is to be impeccable with your word:
The word is a force; it is the power you have to express and communicate, to think, and thereby to create the events in your life.
Being impeccable with your word is the correct use of your energy; it means to use your energy in the direction of truth and love for yourself.
Looking back, I see how telling my story long before I was ready, to those whose intentions were dishonorable and unexamined, was not being impeccable with my word. It was being careless with my word—and myself.
Moreover, it did not help me harness authentic vulnerability—it only added to the hurt that I felt, and it allowed others to infiltrate a part of me that hadn’t fully healed yet.
And that, dear reader, brings me to you.
My experience is that each individual is a cosmos of complexities, the likes of which are never expressible in one small reply to “What happened to you?”
Nobody should ever be treated like they are that simple.
And because I wish I had one of these ten years ago, here’s a list of ten scripts to elegantly respond to intrusive questions. Some of them seem fairly obvious, but can be surprisingly difficult to say when the moment presents itself—even for the most articulate people.
Practicing in the mirror or with a dear friend helps.
1.) I’d prefer not to talk about that (or it).
2.) This really isn’t the time or the place for me to share that with you.
3.) That’s a topic best saved for when we know one another better.
4.) It’s a long story that deserves more time then I (or we) currently have right now.
5.) I can appreciate your curiosity, but I’d rather not talk about it.
6.) Sure, I’ll divulge my deeply personal story to you—in fact, let’s trade. You go first.
7.) I don’t normally talk about that with strangers—by the way, what’s your name?
8.) That’s not something I’m comfortable talking about right now.
9.) I would like to share with you, but right now I’m not ready.
10.) Pardon me for being so blunt, but it’s really not your business.
If you’re afraid of being rude (I’m a sucker for social graces, myself), I always find that leading with gratitude helps. For that approach, I highly recommend adding the following simple line: “Thanks for your concern, but.” This is really great because it allows for a quick getaway if need be.
Here’s some next level scripts for when you’re in a pinch in very specific situations:
Thanks for your concern, but that’s not something I’d like to discuss right now.
Thanks for your concern, but I’d prefer not to talk about it.
Changing the Topic Smoothly:
Thanks for concern, but I’d rather talk about climate change/the newest episode of Game of Thrones/my new podcast.
Thanks for your concern, but I’d rather focus on what you’re going through right now.
The Quick Getaway:
Thanks for your concern, but oh look! there’s my friend Rebecca and I’ve gotta go catch up with her.
Thanks for your concern, but I’m starving/thirsty/late/tired/gotta pee and need to run right now.
Thanks for your concern, but I really need to focus on my emails right now.
Thanks for your concern, but I was just on my way out.
Thanks for your concern, but if I’ve got to focus on meeting this deadline.
Thanks for your concern, but I think it’s best if we focus on this (other work-related issue) right now.
When Your Stuck in an Elevator:
Thanks for your concern, but I’m not really in a talking space right now.
Thanks for concern, but I’m working something out in my head right now and can’t talk to anyone until I write it down.
Thanks for your concern but—shit—I forgot to check my email this morning (swiftly grab phone and check your email).
Remember: You don’t owe anyone the details of your story.
In love, pride and solidarity,