The Articulate Dentist - A Blog by the Metro Denver Dental Society

The Golden Rule is Great…But There Is One Area in Which it is Lacking

 By: Dr. Laura Brenner

Howard Farran recently wrote a column in Dentaltown titled, “Follow the Golden Rule.” In it, he offered excellent examples of how we can share our greatest and highest good with patients. When it comes to clinical care, we should only do treatment on patients that we would choose for ourselves. I like that. It allows us to lead with our integrity. Equally as important, he dives into how we treat patients on a personal level. We can get so caught up in the nitty-gritty of the dentistry that we sometimes forget we’re treating human beings. We sometimes forget about personal connection, the very key that creates the satisfaction we give and receive from our work. Sincere thank you’s after finishing a root canal and apologies for being late make all the difference in the world.

Connecting and building relationships help our patients feel important, and it gives us the warm fuzzies we all want from our work.

It’s so important, and as I read this article, it leaves me asking another question. I can’t stop wondering… what about how we treat ourselves? It’s great when we can help our patients. Being of service is crucial to creating life satisfaction. However, sometimes we can be of so much service, that we tend to neglect ourselves. When we leave out self-care, our service to others becomes unsustainable over time. As you continue reading, think of this article as a giant “YES, AND…” to Howard’s column about the Golden Rule.

We need a second rule. The rule should be: Treat yourself the way you would treat others. 

Think about it. We tend to be pretty hard on ourselves– especially as dentists! As caretakers, we create the need to be perfect or to be the hero who jumps in to save the day for our patients. We put so much pressure on ourselves that when anything goes slightly wrong, we beat ourselves up for it. Many of us may waste hours of our time outside the office worrying about the root canal we did that day, wishing we had done something differently. We might even dip into our precious sleep, waking up at 2am obsessing about the ledge we couldn’t smooth on the box floor of the DO on #14 that we did while fighting with a fearful
patient’s tongue! Reading that sentence alone is exhausting, isn’t it?

If we said out loud to another human what we thought to ourselves in these moments, we’d burn through a lot of relationships. The reality is, we’re often so much kinder to others than we are to ourselves. Why do we do this to ourselves? What are we trying to accomplish? Somewhere along the way we were taught that we have to be perfect. Maybe it happened in childhood when our parents taught us the importance of getting straight A’s in school. That was only highlighted it in dental school. The constant emphasis on doing the perfect prep on a typodont tooth set us up to believe that all of our preps had to be perfect– even in a world with lips, tongues and saliva– not to mention personalities. Many of us missed the memo that perfection in an imperfect world is impossible to attain. I’ll never forget a statement that was, ahem, drilled into my brain: Once you touch a tooth, you own it.

For me and my career, that was the single most destructive lesson I ever learned in dental school. I’ve asked around, and many dental schools taught this. I get it. It’s a really important message to share with green dental students. The point is we need to learn to choose our case acceptance wisely. However, for some of us, it also sends a damaging message. It tells us that we have to carry the sole responsibility over this tooth the minute we touch it.

This ideal created my need to be perfect, and I’m not alone here. From this lesson, we learn that if we can be perfect all the time in practice, then we will protect our patients and ourselves from consequences. The problem, as we all know, is that nothing is ever perfect. And even when it is perfect, that is never a predictor of success in dentistry.

Perfection works out great when things go well. We can take credit and feel good about ourselves. However, when things don’t go well, we believe that we now own the tooth we touched as well as the entire patient experience. This is a heavy burden for a human being, as we then begin to define our self-worth by our “failures.” This is where we begin to sacrifice our own well-being by creating unrealistic expectations for ourselves in order to take care of our patients.

This pressure comes from a place of genuine concern. We want the best for our patients. Their one, single tooth means the world to us– in fact, we care more about that single tooth than many of our patients do. Because we know how important teeth are, we put enormous pressure on ourselves to do it all right. That’s a good thing. Patients want a dentist who cares immensely for them, their health, and yes, even their single tooth. However, we take it one step farther than we need to. We put so much pressure on ourselves to get it right, that we diminish the personal responsibility our patients have for their own health. We take on that responsibility to be 100% ours.

How can we turn the Golden Rule on ourselves?

I’ve noticed a difference between the dentists that love or like dentistry and those of us who feel anxious and stressed in our careers. This is the difference, right here: The anxious ones (like me,) struggle to let ourselves off the hook. We carry the weight of the world on our shoulders. We often don’t even realize it, but we effectively do it voluntarily.

When I speak to dentists who enjoy dentistry, I see some common trends:

  • They’ve learned that it’s “just a tooth.” Yes, they care about the patient and their health, but they’ve gained the perspective that things will be okay as long as they are following the Golden Rule.
  • They commit to doing good work. I didn’t say perfect work– I said good
    work! When we commit to perfection, we do it to try to protect ourselves from problems or consequences. That actually creates a situation where we are practicing defensively. Instead of practicing to help serve patients, we are practicing from a place of protecting ourselves. That can chip away at our self-confidence over time.
  • They practice self-compassion. When things go wrong– which they do– they recognize that things just happen in life and in dentistry. Instead of berating and punishing themselves, they give themselves a break. They learn to let it go and forgive themselves.

Next time you’re spiraling in worry, practice this: Think about how you’d talk to a friend. If your friend called you up after a day of work blaming themselves and worrying about the implant that unscrewed while removing the healing cap, what would you say to them? You’d be kind and try to convince them to simply let it go. Most likely you’d empathize and tell them that they did their best. You’d remind them that things sometimes happen in dentistry, and we can’t control everything. You’d encourage them, cheer them on, and tell them that there’s no sense in worrying and beating themselves up about it. You might even forgive them.

Basically, you would say the opposite of what you say to yourself when you are in this situation!

The next time you find yourself spiraling and thinking that worrying now will help you be perfect the next time, take a pause. Forgive yourself and think in your head exactly what you’d say out loud to a friend. This takes practice. You’ve likely spent years developing that habit of self-judgment, so give yourself a break if you don’t even get this right the first time around. And remember, you’re not only doing this for yourself. You’re doing this so you can give better care to your patients too.


Dr. Laura Brenner graduated from Baylor College of Dentistry in 2001 and moved to Denver to establish her dental roots. She worked in private practice for 10 years until she left clinical dentistry behind for good. As the author of the Lolabees blog and “10 Reasons Your Dentist Probably Hates You Too,” she began connecting with other dentists from around the world who wanted more from their careers. This work inspired her to become a Certified Professional Coach who is passionate about helping dentists find joy in their careers again.