If you’ve ever had a close friend, family member, or partner avoid going to the doctorwhen they clearly need to see somebody, you’re probably familiar with the mix of concern and frustration this situation can create.
“Persuading another adult … to care for themselves can be trickier than you might expect,” psychologist Nancy Burgoyne, Ph.D., chief clinical officer and vice president of Clinical Services at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, tells SELF. You can’t exactly drag them to the doctor kicking and screaming the way you can with a kid who hates pediatrician visits.
Avoid saying anything like, “You’re being selfish and making your whole family suffer” or, “If you don’t go to the doctor, I swear you’ll give me an ulcer.”
“That’s probably the biggest mistake,” Andrew Roffman, L.C.S.W., clinical assistant professor in psychiatry and director of the Family Studies Program at the NYU Langone Child Study Center, tells SELF.
Guilt is not a good motivator, Burgoyne explains. It’s probably only going to make the person in question feel defensive. And, as Roffman points out, even if shaming someone does make them go to the doctor, your relationship may pay a price.
While it’s OK to be firm and persistent, attempting to control your loved one’s behavior with ultimatums or threats—“I’m taking you to the doctor tomorrow,” “I’m not hanging out with you this weekend if you don’t see someone this week”—will probably backfire, Roffman says.
This is another time they might dig in their heels out of pure opposition, Burgoyne explains: “What they are resisting in this case is not so much the help, but feeling controlled.”
While it may seem obvious to you that you’re coming from a place of love, it’s really important to say that as a frame for the conversation. “What you’re really banking on here is the relationship you have with the person, so you want to start by affirming that,” Roffman says.
While the way you phrase that statement will obviously depend on the nature of your relationship, Roffman recommends something like, “You know how much I care about you and how much our relationship means to me. So, I wanted to say a few things that I’ve been thinking about.”
You may have heard that it’s better to use “I” statements during an emotional exchange rather than “you” statements. This definitely applies here. “I” statements can help you avoid coming across as critical and underscore that you’re not judging your loved one.
Roffman says the general message should be along the lines of, “I’m concerned about you and your wellbeing, and I believe going to the doctor would help you take care of your health.” Translation: Don’t say anything that could be construed as, “Here’s what’s wrong with you, and here’s a long list of how you’re failing by not going to the doctor.”
Sometimes people resist going to the doctor out of pure fear, Burgoyne says. Maybe they’re afraid of getting bad news or being told that they’ll have to make significant lifestyle changes. At the same time, they might be embarrassed to admit they’re scared or nervous.
If you think this might be the case, let your loved one know their worries aren’t unusual. “Normalizing those kinds of anxieties and validating the person’s feelings can be helpful for some people,” Roffman says. Try something like, “I understand that the thought of going to the doctor might make you nervous. I think a lot of people feel that way.”
It may be tempting to catastrophize in an effort to scare your loved one straight. (“You’re going to have a stroke if you don’t get that high blood pressure checked out!”) But fear-mongering with dire predictions is cruel and ineffective. It will likely just raise the person’s anxiety and make them even less likely to seek help, Roffman says.
Focusing on the benefits of going to the doctor is a better strategy. Rather than, “If you don’t do this, you’re going to get that disease,” try, “If you do this, you’re going to feel better and enjoy life more,” Roffman says. Or say something like, “It’s highly likely that there’s a way [insert their symptoms or health conditions here] can be treated and that you’ll feel better.”
For someone who is already resistant to going to the doctor, logistical nuisances like finding a provider, working out the insurance, and obtaining old medical records can seem like daunting obstacles.
Ask if your loved one would like help with that sort of stuff by saying something like, “If you want, I can find somebody in-network for you.” But don’t go ahead and do anything without their OK, Roffman says. And if they reject your offer, don’t insist. At the end of the day, their health is their responsibility, no matter how much you love them.
In some cases, the person’s fear may be rooted in previous encounters with doctors. Most doctors are caring and want the best for their patients, but there are some bad apples in every profession.
While you can’t erase a bad medical memory for your loved one, you can validate their fear of having it repeated and try to help make sure it doesn’t happen again. Roffman recommends saying something like, “I know you had a bad experience, but no good doctor will treat you that way, and we’ll make sure to find a doctor who won’t do that.”
Then, help them find a capable and compassionate provider they’ll hopefully be comfortable with. Get referrals through friends and family, Roffman says. If you can’t do that (or honestly, even if you can), screen reviews online. You could also call a practice for your loved one and ask the administrative staff which of their doctors has an especially good bedside manner.
If your loved one has a particular concern, like being mistreated because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, connect them with resources that can help them find a provider who is an LGBTQ+ ally. Same goes if they’ve been fat-shamed at the doctorbefore (ask if their prospective doctors are trained in “health at every size” principles) or if they have any other specific hesitation.
Finally, if your loved one has an appointment with a great-seeming doctor but is still nervous, you can offer to accompany them to the appointment if you’re actually able to and you think it would help.
Pushing too hard once you’ve reached an impasse will get you nowhere, Roffman says (except potentially into an argument). You also run the risk of making this a sore subject for the person, which will put you at a disadvantage in future conversations.
“It’s important to recognize that if it’s not going well in the moment, [you need to] back off and return to it another time when the person is in a more receptive state,” Roffman explains.
If this is an ongoing conversation for you two and you are hesitant to bring it up again, simply ask if it’s OK to do so, Burgoyne says. She suggests something like, “I know I have reminded you a bunch of times, but can I keep encouraging you?” or, “I realize it may be annoying, but I sense this is hard, and maybe reminders will help. What do you think?”
If you want someone you love to take care of themselves, one of the best things you can do is follow your own advice. It might inspire them to take action, and they also can’t accuse you of hypocrisy by saying something like, “Why should I go to the doctor when you don’t?”
Plus, it ensures that you are well enough to be there for the other person going forward. You know how on airplanes you’re always supposed to put on your oxygen mask first before helping others? That’s a great life rule in general, and it absolutely fits this situation. “Take care of yourself so you are not both depleted,” Burgoyne says. “You have to establish a safe distance from unhealthy patterns that can trap you both.”