This blog post will teach you about some of the most common manipulative behaviours seen in medical practice, how to identify gaslighting when you experience it and how to best advocate for yourself when it happens.
If you’ve ever walked out of a medical appointment or inpatient stay feeling confused, anxious, ‘crazy’ and questioning if you really are experiencing the symptoms that you went in to get help for, it’s a possibility that you have been gaslit.
So, what is gaslighting and what is the definition of medical gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a type of manipulation that causes the victim to question their own reality. This phenomenon is often seen in abusive relationships, but it can also happen with doctors and other medical professionals.
Medical gaslighting is a form of manipulation where a physician or other medical practitioner withholds information from a patient, makes them doubt their own memory and perception, tries to convince their patient that they are imagining pain or illness, and distorts reality to make the patient question their sanity.
Gaslighting can be intentional or unintentional and it can have a lasting effect on the psychological well-being of patients.
What is the history behind this type of gaslighting?
If we think back to other times in history, we can see this kind of abuse is not at all new. Throughout history, women have been given labels of “hysterical” and “dramatic” for simply being… well, alive. The birth of hysteria dates back to the ancient Greeks – who theorised that a woman’s womb wanders around their body, colliding with other organs, causing many of the symptoms women experienced.
What many people think is a thing of the past is in fact still a very big part of medical culture and continues to be something that many patients are subjected to even today.
In fact, the medical profession only removed ‘Hysteria’ as a diagnosis from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM) in 1980! That’s only around 40 years ago. Yet its legacy still prevails – continuing to cause mistreatment, misdiagnosis and harm to patients even today.
Common medical gaslighting examples
- Blaming symptoms on mental health: “It’s all in your head” or “What you’re telling me doesn’t add up, have you considered seeing a psychologist or starting anti-depressants?”
- Blaming all future symptoms on your other diagnoses, even when they don’t match, without investigating: “You need to stop worrying so much, it’s just your other condition causing that” or “You have other illnesses, so it just must be them causing that.”
- Shaming patients for wanting to educate themselves about their health, medications and conditions: “Why are you so obsessed with reading stuff about this?” or “You should leave that to the professionals.”
- Trivialising or downplaying serious and debilitating symptoms: “it can’t be as bad as you’re telling me it is.”
- Already deciding the diagnosis without doing any investigations or tests: “I don’t need to order any tests; I can tell it’s this” or “don’t tell me how to do my job.”
- Deciding what’s wrong based on your weight, age, sex, ethnicity, etc: “you’re a teenage girl, you’re just a hypochondriac” or “you need to lose weight and you’ll be fine.”
If you’ve ever experienced medical gaslighting, you can probably recognise a lot of these phrases from past doctors’ visits.
These comments can severely impact your mental well-being and create an unsafe patient-doctor therapeutic relationship which no patient should have to deal with, but sadly is a frequent experience for those of us who are chronically ill, femme presenting, BIPOC, disabled, neurodivergent, etc.
How can I best advocate for myself when a doctor gaslights me?
The whole ‘technique’ of gaslighting is to make you question yourself – your sanity, your memories and your symptoms. This can make it particularly difficult to recognise when a medical professional is being manipulative, so please don’t beat yourself up if it took you time to see what was truly happening, even if you knew something didn’t feel quite right.
First and foremost, remember that this is not your fault and that your mental health and well-being are the most important things to keep in mind. Experiencing gaslighting can be extremely exhausting, not only physically, but emotionally too and when you have a chronic illness, any added fatigue can really impact how you feel. Take time to practice self-care, pace and speak to a therapist about what you have been through to have outside validation of what you are feeling.
Journaling can help you to keep track of what a doctor has said or done so that you can refer back to it later to confirm what you experienced, for your own clarity and for if you want to put in a complaint in the future.
If a doctor outright denies to order tests that you have asked for, ask for them to write down that they have declined the testing in your medical records. Unfortunately, this will often push a doctor to order the tests as they don’t want to be made liable if in the future you have the tests and they come back positive.
If you have the ability to, ask for a second opinion. There’s no way one doctor can know everything there is to know medically and good, compassionate doctors recognise this fact. If you are unhappy with your care, have been dismissed or don’t ‘gel’ with your doctor, it’s completely okay to seek out someone who better fits your needs and will actually listen to your concerns.
If you feel able and have the energy to, put in a complaint. In the UK, if your complaint is about a consultant in a hospital, you can contact the Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) at your specific hospital who will give you information about the NHS complaints procedure and help you to write your complaint. If you’re putting in a complaint about a GP, it’s best to speak with reception and ask who you should pass your complaint on to.
Joining a support group or community of people with your condition or chronic illness is a great way of meeting people who have similar experiences to you. Being able to ask clarifying questions to someone who has maybe been diagnosed for a longer period of time is invaluable and can help you to recognise when a doctor is telling you incorrect information. Patients know a lot more about our health than medical professionals give us credit for.
What should patients take away from this blog post?
If you’ve experienced medical gaslighting and can relate to many of the things in this post, what I want you to remember is that you do deserve the care, compassion and treatment that you have been denied in the past.
Going into a health appointment and bracing yourself for the worst because of many past horrible experiences is exhausting. It’s exhausting going through this cycle over and over again and completely losing your trust in medical professionals (and understandably so).
You are not alone. And while in some respects that is sad because so many of us have been through this same awful ordeal, it’s also wonderful that we have each other to speak to and gain support and understanding from. We believe you.
What should health professionals take away from this blog post?
If you’re a doctor or healthcare provider, first of all, thank you for taking the time to understand what your patients may have been through previous to seeing you for their health concerns. Being aware of these issues in healthcare can absolutely make you a better and more understanding physician.
The most important thing to take away from this blog post is to listen to your patients, understand that saying ‘I don’t know’ is much better than dismissing a patient and their symptoms, that what you say and how you say it can truly impact your patients in a big way, whether that be positively or negatively and recognise that often chronically ill people are much more educated about their health than you may realise.
Work with your patients, not against them and remember that you can truly make a big difference in someone’s life just by listening when no one else has taken the time to in the past.