Resilience: Bouncing Back From Life’s Challenges
By: Laura Brenner, DDS
If you’ve spent a day practicing dentistry, you know how stressful the job is. Despite our best intentions, we often run into harrowing experiences and it’s always when we don’t have time for them. Maybe it’s unscrewing the whole implant when you’re removing the healing cap to take an impression, the resin popping out during a prophy with the hygienist, or that inferior alveolar block that just won’t take.
I used to struggle with how to handle those stresses almost daily. I worried what patients would think. Would they think I am incompetent? Were they frustrated with us? How mad was my next patient (who I’m now late for) going to be? I felt overwhelmed and, at times, even traumatized.
What if I told you that all that stuff happens to make us better people? Not just clinicians, but people.
When we struggle with challenges, we build resilience. We learn to adapt; we eventually bounce back and hopefully thrive. We grow from our mistakes and, over time, realize that we don’t have to be perfect nor can we be.
It turns out resilience isn’t something with which we are automatically born. It takes practice.
Many of the dentists I know care so deeply for their patients that they want everything to be perfect for them all the time. We want it so much that this desire can create unbearable stress when things go wrong.
I recently helped a dentist who was experiencing such burnout that she wanted to quit dentistry at 40 years old. She had a thriving, successful practice and was ready to create her five year exit strategy. When we broke down what was really getting to her, we realized that she was carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. She was taking on too much responsibility for everything that happened in her office.
Once she realized that she was “taking on the patient’s problem and making it [her] own,” she began to consciously choose to stop owning her patients’ problems. When she found herself bogged down with staff issues, she worked with her office manager to teach her how to co-lead the office. This required having trust in her support team and letting go of some of the control we all like to maintain. It was worth it! Getting support from those around her helped her to lift some of the unnecessary pressure she was placing on herself. With that, she stopped letting everyday office missteps take over her life.
She no longer feels the burnout that was taking over her life and she has learned to enjoy what she does again. That is resilience!
How did she do it? Here are three tips that my client used, and that we can all use, to learn to bounce back from the negativity that can bog us down every day.
1) Practice accepting the fact that we’ll have wins and losses. Failing is part of life. If we resist failing, we only live in denial of reality and we create a no-win situation for ourselves. Then when bad things do happen, we don’t have the skills to accept it and move on. Instead we swirl around in worry, self-blame and guilt, which only makes things worse. If we need to do this for a finite period of time in order to process our thoughts and feelings, that’s okay. When we accept our failures, we can also learn from them and let them go. I’d bet most experienced dentists will confirm that the mistakes they made and lessons they learned in practice ultimately made them better.
2) Take some of the weight off your shoulders. It’s not always all our fault. Some of us tend to punish ourselves for everything that goes wrong, whether it is our fault or not. I remember the teachers in dental school repeatedly teaching us that “once you touch a tooth, it’s yours.” That’s an important message, but I always took it way too seriously. There’s a difference between responsibility and blame. We can take responsibility for our thoughts, feelings and actions without shaming ourselves into taking the blame for things over which we have no control. Things go wrong in life. It’s not always you. Knowing that you will show up to do what’s best for your patient and for yourself is all you need.
3) Know that you’re stronger than you think you are. We never really know this until we’re put to the test. Think you could never give up eating dessert if your life depended on it? How about having that difficult conversation with your boss or your employee? We worry about facing difficult challenges, but when we get through it, we realize we made it out alive. We just do it and we survive. Our imagination almost always creates a scarier story than what reality delivers. Reminding ourselves of our own strength every day helps us start to believe it’s truth.
The next time your patient hates the veneers you did for them, think about how you can use that experience to build your resilience muscle. Take responsibility for your part, but don’t assume the blame for the things out of your control. Remind yourself that your failures are the very thing that make you better. Believe in your strength and you’ll start to see your confidence grow in all areas of your life.
After graduating from Baylor College of Dentistry in 2001, Dr. Laura Brenner 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. She can be found at LolabeesCareerCoaching.com.
The Metro Denver Dental Society is a not-for-profit component society of the American Dental Association and the Colorado Dental Association.