Let’s be honest. Being a dentist is an extremely challenging and a very difficult way to make a living. Now, add to this the influence of inflation on overhead, decreasing support from insurance plans, increasing competition from corporate players, and the need to stay abreast of current knowledge and trends, and you have the making of a perfect psychological storm, hence the need for an unusual level of psychological resilience to prosper.
And for most of us, our level of resilience waxes and wanes based on how well things are going at the office, in addition to how well things are going in our personal lives.
When things start to trend in the wrong direction, and we are tired and distracted, it becomes much easier to beat ourselves up, because we lose prospective. We start to think that we should be perfect. We start to think that every decision we make needs to be right. We start to think that our hands need to flawlessly perform perfect preparations, create perfect impressions, craft perfect provisionals, and facilitate the fabrication of perfect crowns, perfect appliances, perfect photographs -perfect everything. And all done with a sincere smile and the poise of a top level communicator.
Let’s admit it. Such expectations are not realistic, although as goals they are totally valid. And because perfection is unrealistic, while the need for near perfection is real, it’s easy for us to become conflicted.
How do we know when we are conflicted? When our self-talk becomes self-abuse. When we start berating ourselves like our most feared dental instructor. When we start giving ourselves a failing grade at dentistry and at life.
How we think about ourselves, influences how we think. And how we think influences our behavior and our performance, and then our performance influences how we feel.
It’s all connected. And if we left dental school feeling less-than and inadequate, it’s a self-defeating mindset which is both easy to acquire, and hard to shake
If this is an all-to-familiar experience, I would like to suggest to you that you start to pay more attention to how you talk to yourself, and then allow yourself to objectively observe those messages. Where are these thoughts coming from? Why are you doing this to yourself?
And when you make this kind of analysis, you will always arrive at the same conclusion- fear. Fear that you aren’t smart enough. Fear that you aren’t skilled enough. Fear that you don’t have the personality to be successful. Fear that you don’t have enough money. Fear that you are falling behind your peers. Fear that you are failing your patients. Fear that you are failing your family…your spouse…your church.
And you can easily see that this self-created list is endless.
Worse, it’s not true.
The truth is that you are doing a good job most of the time. The truth is that most of your decisions are solid. The truth is that you will have enough money. The truth is that you are just fine and have huge potential- but just don’t like to admit it to yourself.
If realizing this version of reality is difficult for you, it may be because you don’t think you deserve that level of self-respect…you may be too weighed down by shame. And by shame I don’t mean “I feel bad because I made a mistake,” rather, “I AM a mistake.”
And that is a mistake, because what we do is not WHO we are, rather we do is only a reflection of WHERE we are at any given moment. So you need to develop some strategies which will help you to turn this corner, and become more kind to yourself. Because it is only through being kind to yourself that you will have the capacity to learn your way out of – and away from- of your current challenges and thus change the trajectory of your life.
Reflecting and recalling things you appreciate about yourself isn’t always easy, but the more you practice it, the easier it becomes – and it’s where you need to begin. Once there, you’ll begin to see you deserve to be spoken to more kindly – that you deserve to be spoken to in the same way you speak to your closest friend.
Next, consciously surround yourself with people who lift you up and who do not judge you. This can be a study club, church group, or some other social situation where you can step out of your role of trying to carry the whole world in your shoulders, and just be yourself – the real open, honest, you. Then observe how differently you feel about yourself. Observe how much more valued you feel. Observe how much more capable and helpful you are.
Sincerely hear the compliments others give you and then build upon them. Often times, a kind word from someone who loves and trusts you goes a long way. Their perspective can also help shed some light on qualities about ourselves you have previously dismissed. And if you have those words in writing, you can pull then out and reread them whenever you feel down.
Become more curious about what triggers negative thought spirals. We get emotionally triggered by all sorts of things—words, actions, decisions, comments, and so forth, as they trigger negative memories which may actually be distortions – perceptions of a child or young adults who had no capacity at the time to fully understand what just happened to them.
Focus on being kind and helpful others. In dentistry, we are in a unique position to help others in ways which can literally change the direction of their lives. But that is only possible when we know people well, listen intently, and craft our solutions in the most helpful of ways.
Choosing to switch our focus from “What’s wrong with me?” to “How can I help others?” is tremendously powerful as well. Helping others in deep and meaningful ways actives the dopamine pathways of our brains and therefore helps us enjoy what we are doing more and more.
By giving back kindness, understanding, and compassion to others -even in tiny ways-you will begin to better see the positive impact you have on others. You will start to realize that you do matter and that you are valued. You will start to see that you are worthy and deserving of love, including your own.
Finally, realize that everything is relative, and everyone has their own struggles, with many having struggles which are much worse than your own. When we start to see others in this more accurate light, we can simultaneously see our current struggles shrink in comparison as well as better understand the fate of our common humanity.
Paul A. Henny, DDS