- What Is Medical Gaslighting?
- Why Does Medical Gaslighting Happen?
- Gaslighting Myself
- What to Do When Medical Gaslighting Happens
- Final Thoughts on Medical Gaslighting
Have you heard of medical gaslighting? Have you been gaslit by a medical professional?
It was the summer after my sophomore year of college. Since my senior year of high school, I had been experiencing mystery pain in both ankles that suddenly appeared after an unrelated surgery. (Now I credit a major part of the root cause to medical trauma.)
I was in the doctor’s office again. I had gone through multiple rounds of physical therapy. X-rays and MRIs showed no obvious issues. The orthopedist decided it was best to cast each ankle for six weeks in case I had hidden stress fractures.
So I followed his protocol to a T. I had a walking cast on my left ankle first for six weeks, then did six weeks of physical therapy to restrengthen my left side before having my right ankle casted for six weeks.
I was at the appointment where my right ankle cast was to be cut off. I lamented to this doctor that I had no improvement in my symptoms. I also requested another six-month extension on the handicap sticker for my car. It was a big help as I was navigating a college campus with this chronic pain.
After he cut off my cast and spent less than a minute examining my ankle, the doctor turned to my mom who accompanied me to this appointment, and said,
“I think she’s faking for attention. There are multiple reasons that make me think this. It’s not common to have bilateral pain on both sides and it’s not common to have a 6-week cast not fix the problem. We will not renew her handicap sticker.”
I was so stunned. I knew I was in real pain. Was it all in my head?
Looking back, I know I went into the freeze response.
What Is Medical Gaslighting?
It wasn’t until a decade later that I finally got the language to explain what happened to me in this appointment. I was a victim of medical gaslighting.
In order to define medical gaslighting, let’s define gaslighting first.
Johnson et als. definition of gaslighting resonates with me the most:
Gaslighting describes the act of manipulating others to doubt themselves or question their own sanity…often convincing the targets…to question their own perceptions.
We can apply this definition to healthcare to understand medical gaslighting.
For many people experiencing serious and/or chronic health issues, we’ve had doctors downplay our symptoms and make us doubt ourselves.
We’ve had doctor’s appointments where the nurse or doctor disrespectfully rolls their eyes or sighs while we share our health concerns. Or maybe you’ve had a doctor blame symptoms on your mental health.
The example I gave in the intro is not the only time that I have experienced medical gaslighting from a so-called medical professional. (I say so-called because medically gaslighting someone is one of the most unprofessional things a healthcare provider can do.)
More Examples of Medical Gaslighting
I was once rejected when I applied to an integrative clinic because I wouldn’t admit that I was on pain medications. I tried to explain that the pain pills I was given when I had an ovarian cyst burst didn’t touch my joint pain.
Not to mention, I had wrecked my gut health from taking 12-16 ibuprofen a day in college. So I was hesitant to continue anything else if I didn’t notice a major and immediate improvement from it.
I was again told that my pain couldn’t be as bad as I described it to be if I wasn’t dependent on pain medications. And that the doctor did not see patients who lied about their medications.
Can you see how my symptoms were minimized? I was told it could not be as bad as I had described. I had been medically gaslit again.
One of the most reported examples of medical gaslighting is in women’s health.
For example, many female patients with endometriosis have a delayed diagnosis because of how elusive the condition can be. A gynecologist may attribute the symptoms to typical PMS cramps or pain. Even after multiple trips to the emergency room, women suffering from endometriosis may struggle to be believed.
Sadly, medical gaslighting occurs in realms of medicine beyond women’s health. I was curious where the term medical gaslighting came from. Here’s what I discovered.
Where the Term Gaslighting Originates
Dr Sarah Fraser, MSc MD CCFP, describes the origin of gaslighting:
Early in the black-and-white movie Gaslight, the protagonist (played by Ingrid Bergman) sits alone in her bedroom. As she stares at a dimming gas-fueled lamp, confusion sets in. Did the light just dim on its own? Much later in the film, she questions this again, but this time screaming, convinced she is losing her mind. This film, and the play on which it is based, gave rise to the term gaslighting—a form of psychological abuse. Within the culture of medicine, gaslighting is a phenomenon I have both observed and experienced…
Set in London in 1880, Gaslight tells the story of a man who pushes his new wife to doubt her own sanity through a series of manipulative tactics. Among these cruel and subtle torments, he gradually dims their home’s gas-fueled lights while vehemently denying doing so, causing his wife to question her own perception of reality. Gaslighting is when someone in power uses manipulation to make another person doubt his or her own judgment, or even sanity. The concept first gained traction as a construct in the psychological literature during the 1960s, and it pervades domestic and professional spaces to this day.
This particular doctor laments how she has been gaslit by male colleagues while trying to provide medical care for those with debilitating symptoms.
In the same way, a medical professional can respond to a person’s ailments by minimizing them, dismissing them, or trying to talk the patient out of their experience.
But why does it happen?
Why Does Medical Gaslighting Happen?
There are multiple reasons that medical gaslighting happens. This list may not cover all of them, but it helps us consider why it may be affecting us.
And knowing why it happens can help us better respond to it.
The first reason medical gaslighting may happen is that a doctor has limited expertise.
A doctor or other medical professional may gaslight you if your condition is outside their realm of knowledge.
Perhaps they initially misdiagnosed you, and therefore, you didn’t respond to the treatments.
Ideally, if a doctor runs out of ideas, they should refer you to get a second opinion (or a third, fourth, or fifth, if needed, by different specialists.)
However, some people are too arrogant to recognize their own limits. I believe this is what happened when the orthopedist gaslit me about my ankle pain.
Perhaps, he only knew about joint health. He was not trained to have a holistic view of the body and how to address root causes.
It needs to be okay for our healthcare professionals to not know everything. It is not okay for them to think that if they don’t know the answer, then no one else will.
Power Dynamics of Medical Gaslighting
As a young adult, I failed to identify the power dynamics in healthcare between myself and doctors.
A doctor has a lot of authority as the person who holds the knowledge about our health. However, as patients, we must remember that they work for us. We are paying them.
I was once told that my chronic pain was because I was overweight. I was struggling with stress eating at the time.
When I tried to explain that I had chronic pain before I had gained weight, the doctor dismissed me by moving on to a new subject.
I didn’t know how to stick up for myself.
I had mentors and friends remind me that I could seek out a second opinion. I began treating any diagnosis as a new hypothesis to experiment with instead of taking them at their word.
Even though a doctor may have more education than you, you are the expert on your body.
The degree and the medical license may make someone a doctor, but it doesn’t necessarily make them an expert on your specific condition or symptoms.
There needs to be a partnership between the health care provider and patient that involves communication and understanding.
A doctor must team up with the patient and really listen, as well as look at test results and make physical observations.
I’ve also had to shift my mindset to see my practitioners as members of my care team. My hope is that we can collaborate together to improve my health. I can’t expect a single practitioner to have all the answers.
Another reason for medical gaslighting is when healthcare professions have underlying gender or race biases.
Gender Bias or Race Bias
Many people of color experience increased medical gaslighting over white patients. Likewise, there are also disparities between how seriously doctors take the complaints of male versus female patients.
In particular, black patients report traumatic childbirths in which their concerns were minimized by gynecologists and other medical professionals.
All humans are prone to struggle with bias against those who are different or other than them. It is a shame that the gender and racial biases of providers lead to poorer health outcomes, especially for minorities.
We must challenge medical professionals to consider their hidden biases and how to address them.
Here is the next reason why medical gaslighting happens.
Overwork & Burnout
Unfortunately, many doctors are overworked and overwhelmed. Insurance companies mandate how little time they can spend with patients.
When doctors are overworked and burned out, they may be more prone to medically gaslighting patients.
Even a good-willed doctor who is rushed may question your symptoms. An overworked doctor may not be as able to recognize their own limits or biases.
Because I ran into so many doctors who didn’t do much with the 8-10 minutes they could give me, I sought out functional medicine practitioners.
Some still billed my insurance for part of the time we had together. Others didn’t take insurance at all. But they were able to give me hours of their time to get a proper medical history and come up with a treatment plan together.
I hope that medical model becomes more common and accepted by insurance companies to prevent overwork and burnout.
On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve had to learn to recognize when I was sticking with a doctor only because they believed me.
In my early twenties, it took me far too long to realize one provider had long run out of ideas.
I kept seeing her because she had a warm bedside manner and was professional. But I began to doubt if the protocols were actually helping me.
I now realize that I was doubting my own experience because it was a surprise to be treated well.
Be aware of gaslighting yourself and know when to let doctors go. Even the good ones may run out of expertise.
So what do we do when medical gaslighting happens?
What to Do When Medical Gaslighting Happens
For those of us navigating any kind of complex and chronic condition, we must beware of healthcare practitioners who don’t believe us about the symptoms we are experiencing.
In K.J. Ramsey’s memoir This Too Shall Last, she shares her horrible experience trying to get treatment while suffering from the horrific chronic pain of Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS). In chapter 2, she shares:
My experience with rheumatologists included both doctors who cared and listened and those who treated me like an inconvenience, or worse, a liar…
I entered the tiny exam room of my new rheumatologist’s office ready to give a full (medical history)…
When the tall, blond doctor strode into the room, something was off. He didn’t shake my hand or look me in the eye, but instead went directly to the computer to read from my chart… When he finally turned around, he gave me no invitation to share my history but instead unequivocally stated he believed I was a case of misdiagnosis and malpractice.
Without hearing my voice or touching my body, he reduced six years of medical treatment to a mistake…
I was face to face with the person who had the power to ensure I would continue receiving the care that kept me out of bed, and he was unwilling to give it. Without hearing my story, without knowing the way my body had so dramatically responded to treatment over the years, without listening to the ways the disease had split through my life like an ax, this towering, self-assured doctor had dismissed the reality that had taken all of my strength to survive…
I pressed hard into the handles of the chair, toughening my resolve, and looked straight into the eyes of the man who didn’t have the respect to look into mine.
‘Who is your superior?’ I asked. ‘Who can I see for a second opinion? I am not willing to have you be my doctor.’ More condescension ensued, but the scales of power had subtly shifted.
I hope to be as brave as KJ if I ever experience medical gaslighting again.
If you find yourself in a situation in which a medical professional:
- Minimizes your health concerns
- Tells you it’s all in your head
- Doubts your symptoms
- Refuses to order further testing or give a referral
- Blames symptoms on mental illness
- Or medically gaslights you in any other way
Respectfully call them out on it. Ask to talk to their superior. If you are in a place with multiple providers, ask who you can immediately see for another opinion.
If you’ve been a victim of medical gaslighting in the past, consider filing an official complaint with the medical organization. Your advocacy may prevent someone else from being gaslighted.
Final Thoughts on Medical Gaslighting
I hope that you have never been a victim of medical gaslighting. But I know that many of the readers here are women who are passionate about working on our health. We may be more likely to run into it as we advocate for ourselves and our families.
May you be empowered with the knowledge of what to look for and identify it in the moment if it ever happens to you or a family member.
At the same time, I encourage you to speak to a trusted friend if you’ve ever experienced medical gaslighting. I hope you find safe places to process how you were wronged.
Have you ever experienced medical gaslighting?
Fielding-Singh, P., & Dmowska, A. (2022). Obstetric gaslighting and the denial of mothers’ realities. Social science & medicine (1982), 301, 114938. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2022.114938
Fraser S. (2021). The toxic power dynamics of gaslighting in medicine. Canadian family physician Medecin de famille canadien, 67(5), 367–368. https://doi.org/10.46747/cfp.6705367
Johnson, V. E., Nadal, K. L., Sissoko, D. R. G., & King, R. (2021). “It’s Not in Your Head”: Gaslighting, ‘Splaining, Victim Blaming, and Other Harmful Reactions to Microaggressions. Perspectives on psychological science : a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, 16(5), 1024–1036. https://doi.org/10.1177/17456916211011963
Ramsey, K. J. (2020). This too shall last: Finding grace when suffering lingers. Harpercollins Christian Pub.
Sebring J. C. H. (2021). Towards a sociological understanding of medical gaslighting in western health care. Sociology of health & illness, 43(9), 1951–1964. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9566.13367Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.
2 thoughts on “What Is Medical Gaslighting? How To Recognize It And What To Do”
Nearly 20 years ago, shortly after having returned from a missions trip to Africa, I visited a new doctor because I was experiencing the symptoms of acute Lyme disease. I didn’t know Lyme disease even existed at the time, it was very rare in the Pacific Northwest where I live. All I knew was that I had fevers, fatigue, and intense, full-body pain. After reading my chart outside the door to the exam room, the doctor came in, looked me in the eye, and told me what I was experiencing was depression and she was going to write me a prescription for antidepressants. Having experienced depression in the past, and recognizing that I was going through some challenging emotional things, I accepted her diagnosis, and the prescription she gave me, and left. Had she spent some real time with me and taken my symptoms seriously, maybe she would have recognized the Lyme disease and put me on the standard antibiotic protocol. Instead, the Lyme disease took root in my body. It was not diagnosed until 12 years later after I had seen several more medical professionals who wrote off my symptoms because they had no experience with Lyme disease. Now, my best hope is to work to put my Lyme disease into temporary remission, because once it is chronic, there is no cure.
I now have an amazing functional medicine practitioner as my primary doctor. Knowing what medical care should actually look like has shown me the abuse I’ve experienced in the past. I wish there was a way to prevent people from experiencing the medical trauma that I have, but at the very least I can be a voice and help them know that they are not alone. I do so on my blog. You can find it at https://saltyzebra.blogspot.com
Thank you, Christy, for sharing this and for blogging about it to help others. We all need to know more about what *great* medical care looks like! I’m so glad you finally found a Lyme-literate doc and I hope you’re on the road to recovery. <3 Katie