Bob Barkley commonly said that dentists who graduate from dental school tend to leave there with a combination of a superiority complex and paranoia. The superiority complex evolves because dental students are sheltered from seeing some of their clinical dentistry fail (an issue Bob struggled through and which ultimately led him toward the creation of his legendary disease control program), and paranoia, because the world view that a young dentist acquires in school is so distorted (as an outcome of being free of the economic and psychological stressors of private practice), that when they finally do arrive in the private sector, they can easily become shell-shocked.
Bob’s comments were made in 1973, but there is still a lot of truth in his observations. Dentistry can be very frustrating, as well as financially and emotionally threatening to dentists. Add to this truth that many patients experience dentistry in similar ways, and you can have a ‘perfect storm’.
At times, the ‘perfect storm’ requires some kind of adaptive response. And different dentists develop different coping strategies in trying to manage it. Some experience the pain associated with these frustrations, check their fears at the door, and grow past them to become masterful helpers and healers. Some retreat into self-protective cocoons full of rationalizations and blaming. Others leave the profession entirely as the mismatch between what they are experiencing and who they are at that point in time is too much for them to overcome. Some bury their pain in substance abuse or extreme recreational distractions. And far too many take their lives during moments of total despair.
Finding the balance between the pain of growth and the pleasure of accomplishment through a growing self-regard is key. That was a favorite topic of L.D. Pankey, and it leads to a small revolution in dentistry.
Living with the constant anxiety that the practice of dentistry can produce, is to be constantly followed around by a little voice in our head. And that little voice knows all about our weaknesses; it knows all about our mistakes, and it knows just how to play with our insecurities and how to masterfully mobilize ourself against ourselves.
And that is not a good place to be, much-the-less live, day-in and day-out. Nor is it a good situation for our patients either.
One of the most common adaptations we make to these situations is to become a chronic people-pleaser.
We need to cover the A/R.
We need to make payroll.
We need to service the debt.
We need to make financial adjustments for the new baby at home.
So we smile and try to look our best at all times. We put on a facade that everything is always just fine. We say, “I am doing great, how are you?” twenty times a day, while we think, “If I can just get through today, tomorrow might be better.”
We pretend that we know more than we know, while we pretend that we are more successful than we are. We build up the walls, and then very cleverly learn how to function behind them -seemingly without detection.
But the sensitive and intuitive patients know – they can tell. And WE know that the wall we have constructed is what is now holding us back.
WE NEED TO STOP PLAYING PRETEND AT SOME POINT. We need to find a way back to ourselves. Because we need it, and our patients need it. Our spouses, kids, and communities need it too.
Developing a truly relationship-based / Health-centered practice is the best way that I know of to square that circle. And that is because it helps us to align who we are with what we are doing every day. And that feels good because others respond to it so favorably.
It promotes our growth, and that makes us more human, which then makes us more effective helpers. And truly serving others with our whole heart is the place where happiness and fulfillment lives.
Aristotle told us so.
L.D. Pankey told us so.
Bob Barkley told us so.
And that is a good place to be.
Each of us has more wisdom inside of us than we can possibly know. And the trick to gaining access to that wisdom lies in our ability to quiet that anxious disempowering voice in the back of our heads, while we push through our daily challenges toward more growth and a fuller life.
Paul A. Henny, DDS