How to Tell Others About Your IBS

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 of those with IBS 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 those with IBS 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.

man and woman talking on a couch

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Overcome Your Feelings of Shame & 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 mindset 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 have 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—don't 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.

Assess the Trustworthiness of Others

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 free 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 someone who enjoys gossip. If you want the other person to keep the information to themselves, be sure to ask them for confidentiality.

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 everyone. Similarly, you may choose not to tell your employer if you feel 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.

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 it from overtaking my life."

Keep Your Head Up High—Do Not Internalize Criticism

Hopefully, over time you will 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 a 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.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. How Embarrassing Do Your IBS Symptoms Get?

  2. Shame: A Horrible Side Effect of My IBS.

  3. Flett GL, Baricza C, Gupta A, Hewitt PL, Endler NS. Perfectionism, psychosocial impact and coping with irritable bowel disease: A study of patients with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. J Health Psychol. 2011;16(4):561-571. doi. 10.1177/1359105310383601

  4. IBS Network. Let's Stop Side-Stepping the IBS "Poo Taboo."

  5. University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. Definitions and Examples of 15 Cognitive Distortions.

By Barbara Bolen, PhD
Barbara Bolen, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and health coach. She has written multiple books focused on living with irritable bowel syndrome.