Photo of Laura by Paul Jean
It was summer, 2002. I was 18. 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 courageously 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 I write this not just for those who are asked awkward questions based on their appearance—but for anyone who struggles with boundary setting, especially when it comes to communication.
So. In that moment when that tactless client 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?” Growing up, I had never been taught that revealing my story was, indeed, an option, and 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 (most likely death or change), but if they found out the particulars about my situation, then somehow they were kept safe. This “remedy” probably didn’t work— it only served to placate their own fear. For all those years I told my story, but not in a way that felt good to me, or empowering—and most of all, I told it to others before I even truly 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. As a professional writer and word sorceress, I’m crazy for this agreement; it means being honest: plain and simple. “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,” Ruiz writes. “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 with compassion, I see how telling my story long before I was ready, to those whose intentions were less than honorable, 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.
But here’s the magical part of this: once I began to stand up for my right to not talk about something, people mysteriously stopped asking. It was as though I said “Enough is enough!” and the whole world listened.
Stranger still is that new people in my life take a long time to pick up on my physical differences. I don’t hang out with particularly daft people, and therefore I can only attribute this change (which happened over the course of a few years, I might add) to the type of energy and assertion that I’m emitting. I truly believe that people sense what we will put up with…and what we won’t.
I want to be clear: I’m not encouraging anyone to be overly precious or secretive about his or her story. In fact, this kind of behavior can signify that one is still unhealed—in which case, it’s crucial to express oneself in a safe, secure environment. Your tender, raw experiences needn’t ever be placed for the critical and gaping eyes of the world. Alternatively, if and when it feels right, sharing can be a tremendously healing form of service to the world—and a courageous act of self-love.
I must be transparent and relay a moment when I committed the same frustrating, thoughtless act myself not six months ago, when I asked a Trader Joe’s employee about her tattoos. She sheepishly sighed and said she hated them, wished she could undo them. She seemed ashamed. I instantly felt ashamed too, for asking such a forward question. It totally wasn’t my business: her body and her choices deserved more respect than my bumbling curiosity. It humbled me and helped me make peace with all those who had done the same to me.
My belief is that each individual is a cosmos of complexities, the likes of which are not always expressible in one small reply to “What happened to you?” Even more true? That’s not even the most important question.
Bottom line: you’re under no obligation to share your story with anyone! Because I wish I had had one of these ten years ago, here is a list of ten ways to elegantly respond to intrusive questions. Some of them seem fairly obvious, but can be surprisingly difficult to say when the moment presents itself. Practicing in the mirror or with a dear friend helps.
- I’d prefer not to talk about that (or it).
- This really isn’t the time or the place for me to share that with you.
- That’s a topic best saved for when we know one another better.
- It’s a long story that deserves more time then I (or we) currently have right now.
- Thanks for your interest (or concern), but I’d rather not talk about it.
- Sure, I’ll divulge my deeply personal story to you—in fact, let’s trade. You go first.
- I don’t normally talk about that with strangers—by the way, what’s your name?
- That’s not something I’m comfortable talking about right now.
- I would like to share with you, but right now I’m not ready.
- Excuse me for being blunt, but it’s really not your business.
Laura Viviana is a Words Warrior and Copy Connoisseur over at LauraViviana.com, where she dreams up copy for stellar solopreneurs, super-fly small businesses and larger than life corporations.