Handling reactions to facial disfigurement

Changing Faces awareness campaign posters

Learning how to be confident in social situations and handle people’s reactions is an important skill for anyone with a disfigurement.

If you have an unusual appearance, it can be common for people to look at you in a way that you don't necessarily appreciate.

“The individual can feel as if they’re on display or on show. Other people’s stares or questions can feel intrusive,” says Helen Smith of the charity Changing Faces, which supports people living with facial disfigurements. "That can be hard to deal with."

It’s understandable that you may want to avoid situations that make you feel anxious. However, by not facing challenging situations, your fears about them can never be disproved and your anxiety may grow. This will undermine your confidence further and stop you from getting the most out of life.

“It’s important to learn effective skills to help you feel more confident and self-assured in social situations of all kinds, and handle other people’s reactions to your disfigurement," says Helen.

“There are strategies you can use to appear more confident. The more confident you are, the more positive responses you will get back."

Having a set of responses ready to use when people stare at you or ask about your appearance can be helpful. Read on for tips.

Positive body language

In person, a lot of our interaction doesn't even involve speaking. Think about what your body language is saying.

Maintaining eye contact with someone, a firm handshake, remembering people's names, speaking in a confident tone, standing tall and keeping your shoulders down are all positive forms of communication.

Learning some coping skills and practising them could help you feel more confident in social situations.

“It’s important to have a range of ways to respond to questions, depending on the situation and your mood. Sometimes you don’t want to have to explain your birthmark for the third time that morning,” says Smith.

Think about previous times when you handled a situation well and times when it would have been better to react differently.

Fielding questions about your appearance

Work out in advance different ways to respond to people. Then, if someone asks you about your disfigurement, you can use the response that seems most suitable at the time.

In some situations, you might find it helps to bring up the subject of your disfigurement, to put people at ease or if they seem curious. This gives you more control over the situation and can stop the anxiety of waiting for others to raise it.

Clare Cox, 32, found this approach helped her at the hairdresser. "I always wear my hair down and usually it covers up a lot of my disfigurement and scarring," she explains. "So I used to find going to a new hairdresser very stressful, because I didn't know how they were going to react when they pulled my hair back and saw what was underneath. This made me feel really tense, and they probably felt uncomfortable too."

"One day, about 10 years ago, I thought 'this has got to stop'. I decided I needed a strategy, so I came up with a line that I could say, with a confident smile, to any new hairdresser at the start of the appointment. 

"The line was: 'I just want to let you know that I have quite a lot of scarring on the left side of my face, but don't worry, it isn't recent or painful for me. I just wanted to warn you so it doesn't come as a surprise.'"

Clare found that this simple strategy really worked, and that taking the initiative removed any anxiety from the situation. "The responses I got were always reassuring, and I never had to deal with any further questions about my face. Going to the hairdresser is now a treat, not an ordeal."

How you react to staring

When people ask about your face, try not to assume that they're being hostile. Most are only curious or even concerned, as you might be yourself.

If someone stares and you want them to stop, look back, smile and hold the other person’s gaze momentarily. They will hopefully smile back at you and then look away.

If the staring continues, look back and hold their gaze, while raising your eyebrows to show them that you’ve noticed their staring.

If you decide to say something, you could use a number of different approaches:

  • "Hello." (This lets them know you have noticed them looking at you.)
  • "I would prefer it if you didn't stare at me." (A firm yet straightforward response.)
  • "My appearance seems to be bothering you. It doesn’t bother me." (Confident, firm and clearly labelling the person staring as the one with the problem.)
  • "Your admiring glances are beginning to embarrass me!" (The confident and humorous approach.)
  • "We have clearly met before, because you can’t seem to take your eyes off me." (Humorous, but making the point that their behaviour is intrusive and inappropriate.)

“It’s probably better to have a quick and effective reply ready, rather than something that could start a discussion or even an argument,” says Helen.

Keep practising your coping skills

“If you’re worried about forgetting your responses, write them down and keep them in your wallet or bag, so you can refresh your memory from time to time,” says Helen.

You may find it helpful to think about different ways of answering the same question and either closing the subject or moving the conversation on. For example:

  • “I was burned when I was younger. It was a long time ago. I don’t talk about it now.” (This is clear and brief.)
  • “I was burned when I was younger, but fortunately smoke alarms have reduced the number of injuries like mine.” (This shows that you're confident and at ease talking about it, but encourages a more general discussion rather than purely personal.)
  • “I was burned when I was younger and I’m going in for more plastic surgery soon. They're going to take a graft from my leg…” (This shows that you're confident and happy to discuss personal details.)

As you get more comfortable with these responses, you’ll feel increasingly relaxed in social situations and become less self-conscious in public.

"Learning strategies like these is a skill in itself," says Helen. "It takes time and effort before it begins to feel really natural.

"Things don’t always work how you want them to straight away. Take time to find what works for you and what doesn’t." 

Talk to friends or family about difficult or challenging times, and listen to their support and advice.

If you keep at it, you'll increase your chances of having more positive social experiences, and these will enhance your confidence and self-esteem.

Facial disfigurement at work

The Equality Act 2010 protects people with "severe" disfigurements from discrimination at job interviews and in the workplace.

But when Changing Faces asked people about their working lives, the responses showed that: 

  • 43% said they’d decided not to apply for a job because they believed their face wouldn’t fit, compared with 4% of people who did not have unusual facial features
  • more than a fifth (22%) had been told by an interviewer that they wouldn’t get a job because of the way they looked
  • nearly half (46%) said an interviewer seemed uncomfortable with the way they looked
  • 55% thought that their colleagues treated them differently

The research led to the launch of Changing Faces' "What success looks like" campaign in 2014, which aims to provide employers with best practice guidance, and advice to people with disfigurements who may be struggling to find work. 

Find out more about "What Success Looks Like" on the Changing Faces website.

There is also general advice on NHS Choices for people who are experiencing bullying at work.

Page last reviewed: 02/10/2014

Next review due: 02/10/2016

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