Why We Keep Secrets From Our Doctors

Female doctor talking with a patient
Talking to your doctor in her office -- as opposed to in the examination room when you're half dressed -- can be easier. Eric Audras / Getty Images

Have you ever considered telling your doctor something… and then decided not to? Are there things you know you should tell him but don’t think you could ever bring yourself to say?

This is a common struggle.

While your doctor is trained to handle medical information and strange symptoms in a professional manner, it can be uncomfortable to share.  Even when you know you should.

What keeps us from sharing?

Fear of Embarrassment

You’re probably not embarrassed to tell your doctor about a strange bump or itching that’s on your elbow.

But if that itching or bump is “down there?” Suddenly, it’s much more difficult to discuss.

For some people, anything related to the sexual organs, the reproductive system, or digestion can be difficult to talk about. 

Many of us were brought up to feel shame about these parts of our bodies. You just don’t talk about your bad gas, strange vaginal smells, or discomfort during sex.

We may also (wrongly) see sexual or reproductive problems as a sign of weakness or sign that we are somehow “less than.”

A man who struggles with getting an erection may feel like he is “less than a man.” A woman who struggles with sexual arousal or vaginal pain during sex may feel she is “less of a woman.”

But none of this is true.

These symptoms may be signs of a hormonal imbalance or clues to an underlying and possibly undiagnosed medical problem.

They say nothing about who we are as people. 

If we speak up, our doctor may be able to treat the problem. If we remain silent, we may needlessly continue to suffer.

Previous Bad Experiences With Sharing

Doctors are human. Just like some humans are less than kind, the same goes for doctors.

Maybe a doctor once ignored your complaints of pain.

Maybe when you sought help with your weight, they accused you of laziness or belittled you.

Maybe they fat shamed you or age shamed you.

Maybe a doctor waved off your concerns. Told you that you’re "too young" to be infertile, or that you should “just keep trying.”

Maybe all the tests they ran came back normal, and instead of sending you to a specialist or considering something else may be going on, they accused you of being a hypochondriac.

Don’t let a bad experience (or two or three) stop you from getting the medical help you need.

If your doctor doesn’t treat you right, find a different doctor.

Disbelief That Sharing the Information Will Help

If you’ve ever been ignored by a doctor in the past or had doctors tell you they can’t help you, you may stop sharing.

This would be a mistake.

Some diseases are notorious for being difficult to diagnose. Endometriosis is a good example of this.

Women suffer for years with severe menstrual cramps, pelvic pain, and other symptoms. But because it’s not easily diagnosed — diagnosis requires laparoscopy; it can’t be detected via a blood test or ultrasound — some doctors may judge symptoms as psychosomatic.

They may tell you that it’s “all in your head.”

It’s not all in your head.

If you’re experiencing pain, keep sharing until you find a doctor who will listen.

Also, remember that your primary care physician may not have the training and experience that your gynecologist, fertility doctor, or other specialist has.

While some diseases are difficult to diagnose and treat, and there are some problems with the human body that doctors don’t understand, a good doctor will at least make you feel heard and understood.

Keep looking for one that does.

Need to Maintain Control and Privacy

This can be a real struggle for women and men going through infertility or any other kind of chronic illness.

Your doctor already knows way more than you’d like about your body. And if you’re going through fertility treatment that requires timed intercourse, your doctor may also be telling you when to have sex. (Talk about TMI.)

Do you now really need to share more details of your sex life?

Sometimes, yes.

If you’re experiencing pain or vaginal dryness, your doctor may be able to help. If your partner is experiencing difficulty with timed intercourse, your doctor may recommend other alternatives as you try to conceive.

Fear of Disappointing the Doctor

This can be a big one.

Maybe your doctor has been really encouraging, telling you not to give up on fertility treatments. But you’re feeling burnt out. You’re ready to move on or at least take a break.

You’re not going to disappoint your doctor by taking a break or moving on. Treatments are stressful when it’s what you want — they are unbearable when you don’t even want to try anymore.

Or, maybe you’re seeing an alternative care practitioner but you’re worried about what your doctor will think if you tell them. You may even feel like you’re “cheating” on your doctor.

It’s true, not every doctor is excited about alternative medicine options. Some are, but not all.

Nevertheless, you must disclose to your doctor if you’re undergoing treatments elsewhere. Especially if you’re taking any sort of supplements or herbs, as they can interact dangerously other medications you’re prescribed.

How to Fess Up and Start Being Honest With Your Doctor

If your gut is telling you that you should share information with your doctor, you should probably share it.

But, again, knowing you should share doesn’t make it easy.

Here are some tips to make it a little easier to bare... er, I mean, to bear:

  • Remind yourself why it’s important: Having a good reason — to relieve suffering, get treatment, help move closer to figuring out why you can’t get pregnant — can help you gather up the courage to say what you need to say.
  • Write it down before your appointment: Sometimes, it really is just easier to write it down than say it. Write down what you need to say before your appointment — make it short and to the point, remember that you can always explain further if you need — and bring that paper to your doctor appointment. Then hand it over to them. I’m sure you’re not the first to do this.
  • Ask to discuss the issue in the doctor's office: Talking to your doctor when you're fully clothed can help. When making your appointment, ask the secretary to schedule some time to talk to your doctor in her office, so you don't have to reveal your secrets when you're half-dressed.
  • Bring a friend for support: Even if your friend sits in the waiting room, knowing someone is there for you can help.
  • Or, go alone to the appointment: Does your partner attend most of your appointments, and what you need to share you’d rather him or her not know? Then make an appointment where you can go alone.
  • If things don’t go well, don’t give up: Most importantly, if your doctor is not helpful, won’t listen, or, worse, treats you disrespectfully, remind yourself that it isn’t about you… and find someone else who will help.
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