December 14, 2022

Medical Gaslighting and How to Stand Up For Yourself

Explore eight red flags for medical gaslighting, the consequences of medical gaslighting, and how to stand up for yourself with your health provider.

If you’ve ever found that you were not being listened to by your medical care team, you’re not alone. Unfortunately, this is an all too common story, with women and people of color often experiencing the brunt of medical gaslighting. 

If you’ve ever experienced medical gaslighting, we want to be the first to tell you — We Believe You. It’s not all in your head. And just because someone with a medical degree won’t give you the time of day, doesn’t mean you don’t deserve the highest level of care to help you start feeling better.

What is Gaslighting?

The term “gaslighting” first became popularized in a 1938 play called Gas Light, later adapted into a movie in 1944. Essentially, the husband in the story tries to manipulate his wife into questioning everything about her reality so she loses her mind, allowing him to commit her to a mental asylum so he can steal her inheritance.

Since the movie though, gaslighting has been adopted as a psychological term used to describe a specific type of manipulation where one person attempts to make another person question their own reality, perceptions, and memory. 

Gaslighting is often seen in interpersonal relationships, although it can be used in almost all circumstances, especially those with a power dynamic, like boss and employee or doctor and patient.

What is medical Gaslighting?

Although gaslighting messes with our mental and emotional wellbeing no matter what, it can also affect our physical health in the form of medical gaslighting. This type of gaslighting happens specifically in medical settings, usually between a doctor and a patient (although other medical professionals can gaslight as well).

With medical gaslighting, a patient’s story and symptoms may be discredited, doubted, or dismissed by the doctor. 

The doctor may downplay your symptoms, question whether they really exist, or barely listen to you before throwing out some generic health advice. Medical gaslighting is an awful experience, especially for those of us who’ve been living with pain and are essentially told that it doesn’t exist or that it’s our fault.

In many cases, health care professionals aren’t trying to dismiss you. But with the insurance-based limitations of roughly 15 minutes per consultation, they may be jaded, trying to save time, or may simply be responding from ego and think they know best. Whatever the excuse though, medical gaslighting is never okay.

Why does medical gaslighting happen?

Research has found that medical gaslighting is fairly widespread and tends to occur in specific scenarios.

Patients of color often experience medical gaslighting more than white patients do. For instance, a 2020 study found that black patients were diagnosed later than white patients for Lyme disease, skin cancer, and cystic fibrosis. Another study published in 2019 found that black patients were more likely to be incorrectly diagnosed with schizophrenia, contributing to delayed diagnosis and treatment for the true source of their symptoms.

There also seems to be a gender bias at play with medical gaslighting. A survey from 2014 of over 2,400 women with chronic pain found that roughly 84% of women felt they were treated differently because of their gender.

Beyond the unconscious bias that may lead primary care doctors to dismiss or devalue the symptoms of women and people of color, chronic pain is also one of the most common conditions that receives gaslighting. This is because there are both physical and psychological factors at play, and many of the symptoms of chronic pain are invisible from the outside.

8 Signs of Medical Gaslighting

Not sure if you’re being gaslit by your medical care team? Here are eight red flags to keep an eye out for.

  • They question the legitimacy of your medical history

  • They question your experience of your symptoms

  • They rush you

  • They cut you off or talk over you

  • They tell you what’s wrong without listening to you

  • They blow off or minimize the importance of your symptoms

  • They make you question whether it’s all in your head

  • They make you wonder if you’re being overly sensitive

How You Can Stand Up For Yourself with Your Medical Team

The #1 person in charge of your health is You. So while it can be scary, it’s important to know how to stop medical gaslighting in its tracks and get back in the driver’s seat of your health. You are in charge, not the doctors. No matter how much authority they may have, this is about you and your health. Here are a few tips to help.

1. Prepare a list of questions

It’s easy to get swept up in your nerves and get tongue-tied as soon as the doctor walks in. Do yourself a favor by preparing a list of questions you want answers to beforehand.

2. Consider seeking out a new health care provider.

If your physician consistently dismisses or ignores you, they may not be the right doctor for you. Consider finding a new physician who will actually listen and help you work through your symptoms, instead of paying lip service and delaying care.

3. Practice setting boundaries in hard conversations.

When someone has the power in the room, it can feel almost impossible to question their authority. Practice this skill — it will serve you ten times over! If a doctor dismisses you, practice calmly telling them “no” and correcting their statement.

4. Ask someone to come with you.

Who says you have to do it alone? Invite someone you trust to act as a support system or advocate.

If you’re working with other health specialists, have them communicate with and for you.

We like to serve as advocates for our clients. For instance, with our client’s approval, we make sure to send over detailed information on our work, progress, and any other information that could be helpful for your physician. We know you’re dealing with a lot, so we want to do what we can to make communication easier for you.

6. Remember that you are the authority on your own body — not them.

They may have gone to med school and have a degree, but that doesn’t mean they’re the expert on your body. You are the foremost authority on your experience and your health. If you know something’s wrong, don’t let someone with excess confidence take away what you know to be true. Stand your ground and listen to yourself.

Have you ever experienced medical gaslighting? 

Let us know below and what you did to take back control over your health.

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