Study finds guilt and shame are common at the doctor’s office

Dr Alyssa Moyer, right, checks on Carol Kessler, left, at York Hospital. Do you find yourself being dishonest with your doctor because of guilt? Studies suggest how you approach your issues can help. YORK DAILY RECORD/SUNDAY NEWS - PAUL KUEHNEL

Dr Alyssa Moyer, right, checks on Carol Kessler, left, at York Hospital. Do you find yourself being dishonest with your doctor because of guilt? Studies suggest how you approach your issues can help. YORK DAILY RECORD/SUNDAY NEWS – PAUL KUEHNEL

My toddler is beginning to test the waters of his independence, and subsequently I’ve been reading up on the most effective discipline techniques for the under-two population.

A common theme is to label the behavior as negative but not the child. It’s the difference between saying, “Throwing food on the floor is bad!” versus “You’re a bad boy!” The first focuses on the undesirable action without negatively labeling my son as a person.

Turns out that technique is as effective with a patient as it is with my toddler.

Research from the University of California, San Diego has found that leaving the doctor’s office feeling guilty and ashamed is incredibly common. A 2009 survey found that over 50 percent of people have experienced shame based on a conversation with their doctor.

A follow-up study, recently published in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology, found that weight and teeth were among the most common shaming topics. Apparently we don’t like to hear that we weigh too much and don’t floss enough. Smoking and alcohol use were also frequently cited as guilt-inducing conversation themes.

The problem with all that guilt is that it usually doesn’t lead to a change in unhealthy behaviors, the study found.

Instead, the shamed patients either begin lying to their doctor or simply avoid going back altogether, making the problem worse instead of better.

Researchers discovered that the most effective way to make those doctor-patient conversations easier—and to encourage the patient to make positive lifestyle changes—is for doctors to condemn the behavior instead of the patients themselves.

As the lead researcher explained, “Those who say ‘I’m a smoker’ or ‘I’m a fat person’ may feel resigned while those who say ‘I smoke’ or ‘I eat too much’ also seem to think ‘I can stop doing that.’”

Much of the burden to improve this situation lies with the physicians, who must re-think the way they talk to patients in order to encourage positive change instead of inducing shame and avoidance.

But there are also two steps you can take to ensure you leave the doctor’s office feeling good instead of guilty.

First, find a doctor you’re comfortable with. Ask friends and family to recommend a physician they trust, and if you go to a doctor who makes you feel ashamed, don’t be afraid to switch. Yes, it’s an inconvenience, but it’s worth it to have a supportive medical professional.

Second, remember that you are not defined by your actions. Engaging in an unhealthy habit doesn’t make you a bad person; it just makes you a person who could stand to make healthier choices (along with most of the population).

Like I say to my toddler, you have it in you to make a better and healthier decision next time. The good news is he’s already stopped throwing his food on the floor, so I guess it’s working!

Have you ever left the doctor’s office feeling guilty?

About Katie Markey McLaughlin

Katie Markey McLaughlin, M.S., is a freelance journalist and blogger who’s passionate about all things healthy living. Learn more about her writing at KatieMcLcom.
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7 Responses to Study finds guilt and shame are common at the doctor’s office

  1. Pingback: Does Your Doctor Make You Feel Guilty? - Pick Any Two

  2. It’s all in the way of how you say things! I haven’t had the issue at the doctor’s office, but there are always people out there who make comments that give you pause.

  3. This is a great idea, and I can totally see how condemning the behavior as opposed to the person is a better approach, behaviors can be changed. When we think it’s a part of our inherent personality, it doesn’t seem like change is as possible.

  4. Nina says:

    I thankfully really like my doctors and dentist and have yet to feel guilty after leaving their office. I do remember though that after having kids, the dental hygienist noticed that I hadn’t been flossing. Yet she gently reminded and even empathized considering I just had a kid.

    If anything, I might leave thinking or worried that something is wrong, especially at the pediatrician’s office where parents worry and fuss over their kid’s latest milestones not yet met.

    But yes, definitely label the action, not the child—kids are inherently good, just their behavior needs some modifying!

  5. Tamara says:

    Yes, at the dentist! I have since learned to just be honest and it’s definitely been leading to some much better experiences!

  6. Luckily I haven’t had any problems with doctors. I’m pretty picky about who I see. I do think it makes a big difference in how you approach a conversation, particularly when it comes to addressing an addiction. I think many doctors could use some lessons in how to handle those tougher conversations.

  7. Chris says:

    This is just awesome… I love it! Doctors are awful at being personable and so often really treat the patient horribly- I know I have left feeling ashamed and awful because of things they have said. I love how you put this… it’s so true across the boards.

    From children to adults- we are all valuable people who just need some encouragement instead of condemnation.

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