Expert Advice Does Not Invalidate Your Lived Experience
I believe in science — in research and in scientific inquiry and advancement. I put my faith, such as it is, in the scientific method. Sometimes, I’ve made the mistake of transferring that faith onto the experts in the medical community. While I do not expect them to be infallible, I have often trusted their advice over my own intuition, and I seem to forget that their advice should never invalidate my lived experience.
Recently, I was at a routine gynecological visit when my new (male) doctor explains to me that I’m not having problems with my hormones. In fact, he continues, hormones are something that women often complain about but are never actually the problem. He repeatedly informs me about his 30 years of experience treating women — as if this alone should emphasize his expertise.
I have 39 years of experience living in my body, and when I say that I am struggling with hormonal issues leading to severe mood swings, I know what I’m talking about. I’ve been through two pregnancies — with all the hormones that come with them. I’ve lived in my body long enough to know when hormones are out of balance. To be told that women do not, in fact, have issues with hormones was mind-blowing, particularly from someone who has all the academic knowledge and practical experience but absolutely no firsthand, personal experience with this.
When I was a practicing therapist, I often worked with families. At the time, I was married, but I did not have children. Yet, I frequently gave advice based on academic knowledge. I did not understand until I had children myself how absolutely necessary the personal component was when it comes to giving advice on parenting. What sounds good in theory doesn’t always work in a practical, everyday home setting.
I understand that not every medical or mental health professional will have personal experience with our struggles, but that doesn’t mean our lived experience should be invalidated either. When this happens, we’re left either finding another medical professional who will take our problems seriously or we’re left to struggle through our own independent research hoping we’ll find a valid form of treatment rather than so much snake oil. It can feel particularly frustrating when we’re already struggling to either be dismissed or gaslighted by the professionals who are meant to help us find solutions.
Often, the invalidation happens because of bias in healthcare. Scientific research has shown that implicit bias, or unintentional negative perceptions of someone who is different from us, exists, and it impacts our care and treatment outcomes. As the doctor repeated his mantra of 30 years of experience, I could see that a bias was in play.
He was certain that 30 years of dismissing the impact of hormones on a woman’s body far outweighed my direct experience as a woman. While I wanted to trust his education and experience, I felt like my concerns were being minimized and dismissed. His intentions might have been good, but the impact of his assessment matters more than his intentions.
It happens all the time. While I’ve experienced it based on gender on more than one occasion, it happens just as frequently with race, weight, and even disability. So, what do we do when the healthcare professionals dismiss our lived experience out of hand?
Get a second opinion.
If the expert providing recommendations seems dismissive of our experiences, we can visit another provider for a second opinion. While this can have challenges in rural areas or with limited in-network providers, it’s important to attempt to get a second opinion when we have doubts about the first one. It can’t hurt to have another professional make an assessment, and it could yield a better experience or more answers.
Find a better fit for the position.
Because we aren’t the experts, we can forget that we are the ones who hire (and fire) the professionals in our lives. It may be time to treat our search for medical providers like an employment search. We need to find the best fit for us — a provider who makes us feel comfortable, trusts our lived experience and makes recommendations without invalidating our concerns. Consider a first visit an interview and hire or reject accordingly.
Find social support.
For any struggle that we have, there are likely support groups online who can help us navigate our symptoms and even make recommendations for doctors who will take our concerns seriously. While we don’t want to fall into the habit of treating Google like a licensed and trained medical professional, it can’t hurt to find a supportive group of people who’ve been through our struggle and can offer guidance or suggestions based on their experiences.
We are the experts of our own bodies. This doesn’t mean we know everything or can provide our own medical treatment. This does mean that if we feel like something is wrong, we should pay attention to that. Our bodies are amazing, and they give us so much information all the time. If something feels off, there’s a reason. Trust that. Trust yourself.
Don’t dismiss mental health.
Sometimes, the reason could be our mental health. After a lifetime of recurring stomach pain, a doctor finally suggested that my problem might not be physical. Being a young adult and getting a psychological referral felt overwhelming, but I began to see that the physical symptoms I was experiencing were rooted in anxiety. The therapy referral was exactly the right call. Instead of putting my body through more invasive exams, I was pointed in the direction of an expert who could help me build the coping skills to minimize my anxiety and put a stop to the physical manifestation.
Our minds and bodies are inextricably linked. We shouldn’t dismiss mental health recommendations simply because we’re experiencing physical symptoms. In fact, for best results, regularly taking care of both our physical and mental health can benefit our overall wellness.
Expert advice shouldn’t invalidate our lived experience. If it does, it may be time to make a change. No one else is going to advocate for us here. It’s our job to stand by our experience and to find an expert who will listen, trust that we know our bodies, and help us find solutions without dismissing how we feel.
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