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6 Things to Keep in Mind When Someone Asks About Your Self-Harm Scars

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Article updated July 22, 2019.

The first day I came to school with a little scratch on my arm, I was terrified that someone might ask about it. As the scratches grew and multiplied, I was filled with this intense shame that I felt would never go away. Four years later, I am covered in scar tissue from numerous cuts and burns over the years, but I can completely forget about them. I will wear shorts and short dresses, and short-sleeves and feel comfortable in my own skin with little or no awareness of how others perceive me. That is, until someone says something.

“What happened to your legs?” is the most common thing I hear, followed by, “Did you do that to yourself?” I never mind if little children are the ones asking, even if their parents are mortified, but with adults and young adults I’ve never met before, it’s simply uncalled for and it’s often uncomfortable to address.

Personally, I have never let these comments or questions hinder me from wearing clothes I like. Not only have negative reactions ceased to bother me anymore, but I realize now that I can affect others in a positive way. It makes a difference for other teenagers who have hid their self-inflicted injuries for years and years, to see someone who managed to (mostly) get past the stigma. To be honest, if someone respectfully asks out of concern for my well-being, I gladly answer any questions they have. I’m very open. But as I’ve learned, some people are just nosy and awful. If you have self-harm scars and you aren’t sure how to deal with the “real world’s” reaction to them, here are a few tips.

1. If a counselor or doctor is making you uncomfortable, you are not obligated to answer their questions.

You are paying them, not the other way around. I’ve had therapists try and touch my scars, and more than a few have asked oddly specific questions that were triggering or even just awkward. Yes, it’s their job to get you out of your comfort zone, but you don’t need to tell them specific things that make you uncomfortable. And if they are triggering you, let them know; if they’re any good at all, they’ll stop.

2. If it’s not their job to ask, you don’t owe anybody an explanation.

Therapists, doctors and parents aside, you don’t need to explain healed scars to anybody, ever. It is not your job to tell anyone why or how the wounds were inflicted. In my opinion, some people should not be humored, ever. Phrases like “You didn’t do that to yourself, did you?” or “Why did you cut yourself?” can be signs that the asker is already making judgments and assumptions and should be shut down as soon as possible. In my experience, engaging with them will leave you exhausted and ashamed, and will reaffirm the idea that it’s OK for them to be overly nosy. Don’t ever feel guilt over defending your body from unwanted attention, in any circumstance (not just this one). If a friend or family member asks about them out of concern for your well-being, that might be different. However, especially with complete strangers, it’s absolutely fine to tell them it’s not their business. On that note:

3. It’s OK to tell people that it’s not their business.

I’ve learned that the most effective way to battle deliberate embarrassment or shame is to turn the tables on whoever is causing it, letting them know that their actions are not OK. In my opinion, the easiest way to do this is to tell them as politely, but firmly, as possible: “That’s really none of your business.” Is it awkward? Yes. But as awkward as it might be for you, it will be much more awkward for the other person. There’s no harm done here, because if they meant well, they will respectfully take it as a no; and if they were just being nosy, it can be one of the most efficient ways to shut them down.

4. Nobody should be touching your scars without your explicit permission.

I once had a therapist who wanted to touch my scars and that was weird, but friends and family often think it’s alright for them to touch without asking. It’s not. No matter how close you are with somebody, they do not get to touch your body without your explicit consent. That’s a rule. Parents especially sometimes need a reminder of personal space and boundaries, which doesn’t need to be dramatic or awkward. Just say, “I’d prefer if you didn’t touch my scars.” It’s OK — you have every right to your own body.

5. The choice to reveal or keep scars hidden is personal and is yours to make and re-make any time you like.

Your feelings are not invalid, no matter what you choose to do with your body. When I was first adjusting to showing healed scars in public, I would go through some days where I felt completely comfortable wearing shorts and short sleeves, and others where all I wanted to do was cover myself. You don’t need to feel like after a certain amount of time, you should behave and feel differently than you did before. If you want to push yourself past your comfort zone, that’s awesome, but that’s your decision and no one else’s. Day to day and hour to hour, you and only you may choose what’s OK for you at that moment.

6. Children don’t judge.

Children are overly curious, blunt, nose-picking blessings to us all. Like anyone else, they don’t get to touch you without your permission, but keep in mind that no toddling child is going to judge you for your scars. Be gentle and kind with them, because unlike adults and young adults, they don’t know better. They usually just want to make sure you’re OK, in the most innocent way they possibly could, and that’s a sentiment that we should always nurture and encourage. I have found it’s also an opportunity to turn something sad into something positive. If I have enough energy, I will explain to little children, “I got hurt a long time ago, but now it’s all healed!” or “I had some boo-boos, but now they’re all better! Have you ever gotten a boo-boo?” If I’m feeling a little less spritely, a simple “It’s OK, they’re better now,” and a quick change in topic will suffice. In the end, everyone can learn from the innocence of a 4-year-old, and maybe one day we can look at our own scars and see something positive in the fact that yes, we were hurt, but we also healed.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

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Getty image via AntonioGuillem

Originally published: November 24, 2017
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