Not feeling fully supported in healthcare settings can be common. It’s important to know why you might be feeling this way — whether from medical gaslighting or from limited medical resources — and what you can do about it.
My name’s Stefanie, and I’m both a nurse practitioner and a patient living with a chronic condition. My journey getting a diagnosis includes medical gaslighting. But I know there were times I felt misunderstood for other reasons. It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t always the doctors fault either. I want to share how to feel seen and heard in medical systems that don’t have all the answers.
If you have a chronic illness, it’s likely that you have had many medical appointments throughout your journey. With multiple medical appointments come many conversations with healthcare professionals.
In a perfect world, your healthcare professional listens to your concerns, takes them seriously, and validates what you’re reporting. But what if you’re not being seen, heard, or taken seriously?
This might be due to a number of reasons, including the “invisibility” of chronic conditions and their symptoms, a lack of medical tests and treatment options, and limits on appointment times. It might also be due to something called medical gaslighting.
Gaslighting is a term used in psychology for describing someone’s experiences of doubt and manipulation that makes them feel that their lived realities are not accurate or valid.
This term was popularized by a 1938 play written by Patrick Hamilton called “Gas Light,” which was later adapted into a movie in 1944. The premise of the story is that a husband manipulates his wife into questioning her experiences of reality by dimming the gas-powered lights in their home while lying to her about doing it.
Different forms of gaslighting exist, which are detailed by the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
The term gaslighting has evolved to have a more specific meaning when it comes to medical services. Medical gaslighting is when a healthcare professional ignores or dismisses your medical concerns. They might invalidate your medical concerns, convincing you to question your own thoughts, experiences, and reality. This can be intentional or unintentional.
If your medical problems don’t get addressed, it can have a huge impact on your health outcomes, which can be life-altering and life threatening in some cases.
Although medical gaslighting can happen to anyone, it’s more commonly experienced by women and people of color due to structural inequalities and biases in healthcare. Medical gaslighting is also more frequently reported when a difficult or new diagnosis is involved, such as long COVID.
“After explaining how I’m feeling and how much it’s affecting my life, the doctor looks me straight in the eye, and tells me that it’s because I’m not trying hard enough. The doctor goes on to say I must not be exercising enough or properly destressing.”
Nia G. in “Medical Gaslighting Is Real, and It May Have Happened to You”
Gaslighting is real, and it happens.
Sometimes you may feel unseen and unheard for a different reason. These might include:
Feeling unseen or unheard for any of these unfair reasons, whether from medical gaslighting or not, can make you feel invalidated and frustrated. Your doctor might also feel upset that they cannot provide you with more time and answers. Knowing why you may feel unheard or unseen can sometimes help to change your mindset and understand the best route forward for your care.
If you feel your medical concerns are not being heard or taken seriously, no matter what the reason, there are steps you can take to resolve this.
Make sure you connect and communicate effectively with all members of your care team. If it’s not a good fit, you may want to look for a different healthcare professional if there are alternate options available.
Sharing facts about your symptoms and illness can help you be heard and taken seriously. Keeping your own personal health record (PHR) can help.
Sometimes gaslighting is confused with lack of time together, so make sure to get the most important information covered first. Lead with “This is very important to me,” or “This has been life-altering for me.” There’s no warm-up or icebreaker when it comes to healthcare appointments, so jump right into your concerns.
If you’re not sure about something, ask another question. Some important questions to cover are:
Use plenty of different resources, especially peer-reviewed and evidenced-based ones. If you have research about a test, diagnosis, or treatment, this can help a lot. When you’re presented with what you expect, you feel seen and heard.
If the conversation seems to be going awry, redirect with phrases like:
Stand up for yourself when it’s needed. You can say things like, “Can you please repeat back to me your understanding of my complaints?” or “I don’t think we’re connecting.”
A second set of eyes, ears, and another voice can be helpful. Be clear with your friend about what your goals are so that you’re both on the same page for the appointment.
This can be in-person or virtual. You’ll see and hear many different variations of what you’re going through. You’ll also learn about different treatment options and experiences. Most importantly, you’ll be validated and reassured that you’re not alone.
If your doctor is simply not listening, and dismissing your legitimate medical complaints, tell them how you feel and then escalate to the appropriate people within the organization.
If you have ever been ignored, not taken seriously, or medically gaslit, you know how small and unimportant this makes you feel.
Although all healthcare professionals take an oath to “do no harm,” there’s a lot of interpretation as to where care fits into this. All doctors don’t necessarily feel all of the feels. This may be due to medical gaslighting or might be a combination of many factors.
Don’t ever question your own experiences, and make sure you strive to always feel seen and heard.
Medically reviewed on June 26, 2023
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