A person stands alone while a large group of others look on with pity or concern.

Fear of "The Look"

Fear of “the look” holds far too much power over me sometimes. I imagine we’ve all gotten the look at least once. Sometimes it might be a look of pity, other times a look of confusion or even disdain. It usually comes from someone who is generally healthy and seemingly unaware that not everyone around them is as lucky. The look gives me an immediate pit in my stomach, a flush in my cheeks, and an urge to explain myself.

Being on the receiving end of “the look” is never a pleasant feeling.

Before my ulcerative colitis diagnosis, I never imagined how much having a chronic illness could make you feel alone or like an outsider in social settings. Of course, I’d experienced some version of “the look” before — people aren’t always nice even if you’re healthy, but it wasn’t something I felt on guard about day-to-day.

When society values health

That changed when I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in my early twenties. It seemed like everyone around me was so healthy, and I felt a powerful sense of embarrassment about my illness. I know being embarrassed over being sick may seem strange, but in a society that values being healthy and productive above all else, it did often feel like a personal failing.

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On top of that, I just had to have the chronic illness that leaves you prone to having an accident any day. It felt like I had lost control of my body, and I imagined that somehow everyone knew. Part of me wished for another illness — something more palatable for conversation.

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Having to explain myself

With a newfound chronic illness, I felt a need to explain myself when I couldn’t just be like everyone else my age. Although people around me were generally well-meaning, I became more and more anxious about having to explain myself in social situations.

Usually the first sign that I would have some explaining to do was a look, or “the look.” When I couldn’t drink, I would sometimes just avoid the party instead of having to face the confused or pitying looks. People who didn’t know me that well would often give me strange looks when I refused a drink and then came all the questions.

The last thing I wanted to do at a party was to explain to someone I only halfway knew why I wasn’t drinking. Unfortunately, “the look” is often accompanied by this kind of barrage of questions, making it even more unpleasant to experience. If you’ve been on the receiving end of “the look,” you likely know what I mean.

Social anxiety

Another thing that often accompanied “the look” was the pressure. When I’d refuse an offer of food or snacks, I’d immediately be asked, “Are you sure? You don’t want just one? Maybe later?” On the rare occasions in the beginning of my illness where I felt comfortable (or pressured enough) to say that I had a chronic illness and try to discuss my ulcerative colitis, I hated how faces quickly switched into a look of exaggerated sympathy.

I’d immediately start downplaying the illness or trying to move to another topic, because the look of pity is just as bad as the look of confusion. They're all looks that say, "You're not like us." I started to experience social anxiety in a way I had not before my diagnosis. It made me shrink in public to try to avoid being noticed.

I’d always been an introvert, but “the look” made me want to avoid anyone new or situations where I might be the odd one out because of my ulcerative colitis.

With time comes confidence

I wish I could say that six years later, I’ve gotten to a place where the looks don’t bother me or where I no longer experience them. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Even though I am still bothered by the looks and the accompanying questions and pressure they can bring, I also feel more confident in myself and my ability to be different. Part of this has come from being around others who truly embrace and appreciate me for who I am. Part of it has just been learning how to manage interactions that might prompt “the look” differently than I did before.

Regardless, I think I’ll probably have a heightened alert system for “the look” for years to come.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The InflammatoryBowelDisease.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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