themighty logo

10 Ways People With Chronic Illness Experience Gaslighting

If you live with a chronic illness, it can sometimes feel like others don’t understand what being sick actually means. And because of that, people around you may be reluctant to believe you. There is a difference though between someone not understanding what you’re going through and actively gaslighting you. What’s “gaslighting” exactly? Well, we asked an expert to clarify that one.

What Is Gaslighting?

According to Meredith Vender, LCSW, who specializes in psychotherapy and case management for adults coping with illness, gaslighting is a type of psychological manipulation where you’re told your experiences aren’t real.

“It is a form of power and control,” Vender told The Mighty. “It can take place in different forms including romantic, professional, interpersonal, between medical provider and patient and more.”

Gaslighting isn’t always easy to recognize, but Vender said there are some telltale signs. This could be someone “questioning your judgment or perception of things.” You might hear phrases like “‘that’s not true,’ ‘that’s all in your head,’ ‘you always get confused about that.’” They may say you’re exaggerating your symptoms or limitations. If this manipulation continues, Vender warned it could have long-term effects.

“It can make the victim question their sanity and their decision-making skills,” Vender said. “It ultimately erodes their self-esteem and confidence.”

Gaslighting and Chronic Illness

Having a chronic illness, especially one that might seem invisible to others, can make you vulnerable to gaslighting. Vender pointed out that constant gaslighting, especially from doctors and medical professionals, can make you feel both unsafe and unsupported. There are ways to cope though.

Vender said one of the first things you should do is find a supportive person who can help you “test the truth of what someone else might be telling you.” This will help you stay connected to the truth of your own experience. Vender added that if you think you’re being gaslit, professional help or support groups can be helpful, because gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse.

In order to learn more about the experiences of those with chronic illness who have been gaslighted, we reached out to our chronic illness community. We wanted to hear what they had to say in order to better understand how gaslighting really affects people with chronic illness.

Here’s what our community had to say:

1. You are accused of causing guilt.

“My ex-husband said I used pain to guilt him into doing things whenever I would ask for help, including post-op help. I was so worried after we split that 10 years later, I actually asked my current boyfriend if I ever do this. He looked at me like I was nuts and asked me seriously, ‘Who put that idea in your head?’ And this is why the first is the ex and the current is the right man.” – Melissa P.

2. You are accused of purposely having emergencies.

“I have recordings of [my gaslighter] telling me that I ‘schedule medical emergencies’ in correlation with trips and family gatherings. I will just tell y’all that … emergencies are frequent. He’s been asked to leave my hospital room by staff on two different occasions for screaming at me because I wasn’t home with the kids. One of those times was my worst case of sepsis and I almost died. I was admitted to ICU and the next morning he came in mad. He drew enough attention that my kidney doctor and the hospitalist, along with two nurses, came in my room. I’ve never told that story up until now, but it was enough that the staff put it in my records that they suspected abuse.” – Desiree S.

3. You are told you made the wrong choice about your needs.

“My ex didn’t believe in medical science. (I didn’t realize this until we had been dating for a while.) He once told me that all of my diagnoses and symptoms were in my head and that I just needed to ‘take better care of my brain.’ He sprayed me with some essential oils and told me to meditate when I asked him for some ibuprofen for a very, very, very bad flare one day. Apparently, that’s all it took.” – Brianna L.

4. You are told you’re only seeking attention.

“When my symptoms started, I was a teen and my sister was chronically ill. My parents and I were told by my doctor that I was making it up for attention. Even I began to believe it at one point.” – Victoria T.

5. You are treated for something else entirely.

“I was told by doctors that I had depression and anorexia. I was institutionalized and received electroconvulsion therapy. I was told I was manipulative and attention seeking, all while a macroprloactinoma was growing bigger every day. Finally, I was diagnosed when I was 18. Still even now, I’ve been left to feel like a hypochondriac. Nothing has changed over 20 years and never will. I am never going to let myself be traumatized by any doctor ever again.” – Nicola P.

6. You are told it’s ‘just’ relationship problems.

“As a teenager when I was first becoming sick, I quietly told my friend in class that I was really sick and I was thinking I may need to drop out of school. She proceeded to tell me loudly, in front of the whole class, that I ‘wasn’t sick’ and I was ‘just depressed.’ She said I needed to sort out some relationship issues I was having. I felt so shamed, hurt and invalidated. A week later, she called me asking why I hadn’t turned up to class. I replied, ‘I’ve had to drop out because I’m actually really ill, like I tried to tell you, so you won’t be seeing me in class again!’” – Kelly N.

7. You are told you’re actually fine.

“I was told for many years that my symptoms were ‘just stress’ and ‘anxiety’ and that I was fine. I was hard on myself and feeling like a failure and doing everything I could to get through a day, wondering why life was so much more challenging for me than others. Then symptoms progressed to a point I could no longer function and I sought out of country testing to learn that I have Lyme disease/MSIDS. I am now on disability and will likely be in treatment for many, many years and may never fully heal. I cannot help but feel failed by the medical community and truly believe my life would have had a different outcome if proper testing, treatments and awareness by the many physicians I saw had come many years earlier.” – Laurie A.

8. You are told you just have to ‘pray harder.’

“My ex-mother-in-law kept telling me I would get better due to religion, even though my diagnosis is incurable. She refused to help me fight for disability benefits and told me I wasn’t sick enough for them. Now I have Crohn’s, no insurance and no income.” – Elizabeth M.

9. Your doctor came to a conclusion too quickly.

“I had a rheumatologist try to convince me that all my medical problems were caused by my insomnia which was my own fault apparently because I ‘practice poor sleep hygiene.’ [The doctor] would not treat my fibro, arthritis or insomnia.” – Lisa H.

10. Your family never changes their mind.

“My mom told me for years that my endometriosis was all in my head and that it would go away if I exercised and ate better, even after multiple surgeries and doctors. I mentioned something about it last month and she said, ‘So now you’re throwing it back in my face after all these years?’” – Stephanie S.

If you have experienced “gaslighting” or feel unsafe within a relationship, please reach out to someone you trust.

For more insight on gaslighting, check out these stories from our Mighty community: