by May Bleeker, 3 August 2009
It can be difficult to act with self esteem when you have scars, disabilities or a physical appearance that makes you feel self conscious.
In awkward or threatening situations, it's natural to want to retreat to somewhere safe, usually away from people.
If your physical appearance makes you feel shy or awkward, and affects your self esteem, you can get used to not going out or doing things because it feels more comfortable to stay home.
Fear, shame or anxiety about dealing with embarrassing situations, or just being self conscious about your appearance can make you stick to the people and things you know, instead of exploring the world and having fun.
But there are ways of handling these kinds of difficult situations and sometimes just knowing what to say can make all the difference.
Here are some things I've tried that have worked for me, some things people have taught me, and some tips for how to handle looking different in a way that builds your self esteem:
When someone stares at you because you look different - don't assume its because they are horrified by what they see or because they think badly of you. As human beings we are curious. Being curious is what helps us survive. Part of being curious is that you look at things that are different, and maybe they catch your attention for a little longer than the usual things around you.
If you have something different about your physical appearance, there may be people who have not come across it before. They might look at you for longer than is normally polite, out of simple curiosity.
But still, someone staring at you can be difficult to handle, especially if it makes you feel embarrassed, ashamed or self conscious.
When someone is staring, if you catch their eye quite boldly, but in a friendly way, they usually look away. Sometimes they feel a little embarrassed for staring and look away quickly. Don't let this bother you.
People don't always know how to handle someone who looks very different to what they are used to. And if they look away: mission accomplished. You wanted to stop them staring and you have.
Sometimes, if you catch their eye and smile, they might smile back, which relaxes everybody. Smiling gives the message that you are aware of their curiosity and that you are not intimidated. It might make them feel a bit more at ease, as well as you.
What if someone keeps on staring even when you've tried catching their eye?
If they are far away from you - say some yards away on a bus or train, or in the street, just turn away and forget about them. What they think about you is none of your business :). Be determined not to give other people's opinions the power to upset you.
If its in a lift (elevator), or somewhere close enough for you to say something to them - you could try this:
Smile, and say:
Is there something you would like to ask me?
Usually, people just smile back in an embarrassed way and say 'no', and look away. Smiling is important, so that you give the message that you are not angry or hostile or looking for an argument. Your aim is to reduce your own and other people's discomfort as much as possible. Your aim is also to handle the situation in a way that makes you feel good about yourself. These success experiences help build self esteem.
If you're dealing with someone quite outspoken, they might take the opportunity you have given them and ask what happened to you. Then you have a choice. You choose your answer according to how much information you want to give, or whether you want to talk at all.
To make this choice you have to know what you are comfortable talking about. If you don't yet know this, the only way to find out is by trying. Building self awareness in this way can also contribute to stronger self esteem, because it allows you to make the choices you need to make to take good care of your emotional well-being.
For example, if you don't feel like sharing much you could just say:
I had an accident, but I don't like to talk about it.
I was born this way, but I don't like to talk about it. (depending on what your circumstances are).
This usually shuts them up:)
They might say 'I'm sorry', or 'that's a shame' or nod or say nothing at all.
Or, you could say:
I had an accident, but I'm fine now, thanks.
I've always looked this way, but I'm fine, thanks.
Both of these sentences are closed at the end. In other words, they end in a way that doesn't invite further questions and this makes it difficult for the other person to continue the conversation.
Saying it like this gives you some control of the conversation, which is good, especially if you feel a little nervous or self conscious about your appearance. Having these things to say can make you feel more comfortable about being around people, because you know you have a response ready for when they ask that awkward question.
Of course, if you want to talk about it, that is up to you.
Open-ended answers might invite more questions.
For example, if you say:
I had an accident some time ago.
The person might feel even more curious and ask: What happened? or How old were you? or something like this. If you don't want them to have the opportunity to ask, you have to take control of the conversation, give only the information you want and then end it.
Your body language can also help you end the conversation. For example if you say: I had an accident, but I'm fine now, thanks, and then turn away or open a magazine or a book this gives the other person the signal that the conversation is over. Of course, you have to have a magazine or book handy to do this - but there's no harm in being prepared!
Here are some general guidelines for assertive body language in the workplace that can be generalized to any situation. Expressing your self esteem through your body language is a powerful way of reinforcing positive beliefs about yourself. Somehow, the effects work both from the inside out (positive thoughts and feelings about yourself affect how you behave) and from the outside in (behaving in a confident/self-assertive way also results in you feeling more confident and thinking more positive thoughts about yourself).
Its very useful to practice saying these things before you go out. Being comfortable saying the words will help you be ready to deal with the situation when it happens with other people and make you feel more confident. Practice in front of the mirror or with a friend or member of your family. Remember, giving yourself success experiences builds self esteem.
Most of the time, when in a public place, you never even get as far as a conversation. Conversations usually happen when you're in a smaller group and people are starting to get to know you and they feel a bit more confident asking you about your appearance.
So what do you say then?
Well, you can use the sentences I've given you above if that is how you want to handle it. Or you can give them a bit more information if you feel comfortable doing this.
I find its helpful to say a little, but not too much. I like to know a person quite well before I give them personal details about my life. Sometimes people are very forward and think they have the right to ask questions that you really have the right to refuse to answer.
If you are not prepared you might end up giving more information than you want and you might feel a little embarrassed or exposed afterwards. In the early days of learning how to deal with awkward questions this would sometimes happen to me and I'd feel humiliated and even ashamed afterwards (even though I hadn't done anything wrong). Knowing what to say can help you feel prepared and can help protect your self esteem.
Sometimes when people stare or ask a rude question you feel quite irritated that they have put you in a spot. Your natural response might be to give them a dirty look or tell them where they can go (a hot place).
But do you really want to let other people's behaviour to spoil your day or your mood? Do you want to give them this amount of power over how you feel?
Getting angry and upset will only harm you and your health (negative feelings and stress affect our immune systems), not the other person. Feeling happy and comfortable is something you need to protect, especially if you have had trauma in your life that you are recovering from physically or emotionally. You can choose to stay positive, for your own sake.
Approach a situation in a friendly, assertive way, and you are more likely to get a positive result. Positive results will make you feel more confident and comfortable with your unique self in any situation. In this way it helps build self esteem.