How To Tell Others About Your IBS

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Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) differs from most other health conditions in one key way -- its symptoms are bodily processes that we have been conditioned to think of as embarrassing. Since early childhood we have been taught to hide any signs or noises relating to our bowels and that it is in bad taste to discuss these things in public. Unfortunately, IBS puts these "taboo" things front and center in one's life.

Because of our early conditioning, most IBS sufferers experience feelings of shame regarding their bowel problems. If you are a private person, or a person who is sensitive as to how you appear to others, these feelings of shame are further intensified. It is also not uncommon for IBS sufferers to become even more focused on "perfectionism" as a way to make up for their self-perceived bowel failings. And, in a frustrating Catch-22, trying to prevent embarrassment by hiding your IBS from others can create its own stress, stress that then makes your IBS symptoms worse. You may find that it brings about a great sense of relief when you begin to tell others about the health problem that you are struggling with. Here are some things to think about and some strategies for breaking your silence.

Step One: Overcome Your Own Feelings of Shame and Embarrassment

Keep in mind that the "taboo" designation that has been attached to bowel symptoms is an arbitrary one.

Thus, it doesn't have to be a mind-set that you continue to buy into. Work to see that your bowel symptoms are just as much a part of the body functioning as a sneeze or a yawn. Granted, most people do not make jokes or laugh when we sneeze! And yes, the possibility exists that people may laugh if you pass an audible noise, but that is because they also have been conditioned to do so.

Keep in mind that every person on this planet experiences bowel symptoms! Therefore, they are not laughing at you, they are sympathizing with you.

It doesn't matter if you suffer from IBS-D and have to make multiple trips to the bathroom, or if your IBS-C results in lengthy times spent on the loo. No one is going to judge you harshly, because everyone has been in your shoes at one point or another. It is essential to understand that your bowel problems are not a reflection of you as a person and that most people will be sympathetic. Those who don't are individuals of poor character and therefore you don't need to pay any attention to what they say.

Learning to view your own symptoms in a more matter-of-fact way will not only help to ease the self-imposed stress of feeling embarrassed, it will also make it easier to talk openly with others about your diagnosis.

Step Two: Assess the Trustworthiness of the Other Person

Remember that in any human interaction it "takes two to tango." Although you may do a wonderful job of clearly and effectively asserting yourself, it is the personality of the other person that will determine how the message is received.

Ultimately, you will want to be as free as the allergy sufferer to tell anyone about your IBS, but in the beginning, start with individuals that are likely to be supportive and non-judgmental. Also, assess the ability of the other person to keep the information confidential. This is your personal business and it is your right to decide who will be informed and who will not. So, if you don't want the whole office or neighborhood to know, don't tell a blabbermouth! If you want the other person to keep the information to themselves, be sure to ask them for confidentiality.

Step Three: Figure Out if You Should Tell

Your primary question here should always be, "Is it in my best interests to tell?" Ideally, the answer to this should always be "Yes" as it will reduce stress to no longer have to put energy into hiding your symptoms from others. However, in actuality, the answer to this will depend on your circumstances. If you are a teenage girl and are dealing with mean girl issues, you may not want to share your digestive problem with this week's best friend. Similarly, you may choose not to tell your employer if you feel that it may put your job in jeopardy (This would be illegal according to the Americans With Disabilities Act, but sadly, still likely in the real world.) Timing is also important - you may not want to mention it on a first date, but if the relationship is moving along nicely, it would be best to be upfront about your IBS fairly early on. If the person goes running, you can comfort yourself with the knowledge that you "dodged the bullet" and did not spend more time investing in a relationship with an unworthy person.

Step Four: Plan Out What You Will Say

When telling others about your IBS, keep it simple and discuss your digestive issues in a matter-of-fact way. Here are some examples:

  • "I would like to tell you something about myself. I have IBS? Do you know what that is? It is a digestive disorder and for me it means that I have to be close to a bathroom at all times."
  • "I have IBS. Because of that it makes it hard for me to commit myself to things. I try, but I never know until the last minute if I will be well enough to attend something."
  • "I suffer from IBS and therefore I need to be very careful about what I eat. Things that other people can eat without a problem, can result in my having to deal with a great deal of pain or stomach upset. Thanks for your concern, but I do best when I can just manage my food on my own."
  • "Thank you for your ideas about my IBS, but I know my body best. What works for others may not work for me. I have learned what things help and what things make it worse."
  • "I have IBS and my symptoms are worse in the morning. Thus, it is better for me to make plans or appointments later in the day."
  • "IBS is not just something in my head. It is a true digestive disorder that can be made worse by stress, but is not caused by stress. There is no cure for it yet, so I have to work hard at it to try to keep if from overtaking my life."

Step Five: Keep Your Head Up High and Do Not Internalize Criticism

Hopefully, the above tips will help you to become more confident telling other people about your struggles with IBS. Although IBS may have turned your life upside down, it does not have to define you. You are a person with wonderful strengths and talents, who just happens to have the misfortune of having dysfunctional bowels.

Be very careful not to internalize any negativity or criticism that you may receive from others. For some reason, probably an evolutionary one, our brains have the tendency to magnify negative feedback from others while minimizing compliments. Don't let your brain get away with that! Work hard to disregard unhelpful feedback from those ignorant people who have no idea what it takes to live a life that at time seems to be ruled by bathroom issues. Instead surround yourself with positive, supportive people. If you find that those are hard to come by, enjoy the beauty of the Internet and look into joining an online IBS support group.

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