With a professional handshake and a warm smile, my dentist greets me, skillfully using small talk to calm tensions as the work inside my mouth begins. The office is cutting edge; it’s sanitary and sprinkled with a bit of whimsical charm. Over the years I have developed a trusting professional relationship with my dentist, even keeping extra business cards in my wallet in case I run across anyone in need of a good dental referral.
Inside the dentist’s office, patients assume the dentist has a perfect private life: exotic vacations, respectful children, happy relationships, and a well-appointed home complete with perfectly behaved pets. In reality, there are no perfect lives and high achievers tend to come with their own set of challenges. Additionally, some professions tend to attract certain personality traits. Carl G. Jung (1875-1961), a founding father of psychology, espoused that career decisions are based on values, personality, and interests. There is interesting research out of Creighton University School of Dentistry, where the Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator was used for categorizing the types of personalities drawn to dentistry.1
It appears the dental profession attracts very high achievers. The hypothetical story of Pat illustrates common patterns found in high achievers: Pat grew up in a home with high expectations. Like most children, Pat longed for parental praise. Because there was little recognition in Pat’s family for average accomplishments, Pat felt a need to be the best. Success was regarded highly in Pat’s family. Striving to be perfect became Pat’s motivation. Conversely, Pat experienced a critical inner voice accompanied by feelings of self-degradation when unable to maintain these sometimes unreasonably high expectations. Pat was an outstanding, hardworking student and motivated by a desire for excellence. Fast forward to college; Pat aimed high and chose a competitive field of study. Pat’s parents were understandably proud. The stress of perfection increased in dental school and signs of anxiety manifested, but Pat brushed them off and pressed forward achieving even more. Competition in the cohort made Pat feel isolated from peer support. There were few opportunities to share common difficulties with colleagues and Pat felt the stress of the program intensify each year. Still, Pat looked forward to graduation, believing the anxiety would dissipate and life would surely get better.
In starting out a dental career, Pat accepted a less than favorable position due to economic pressures and huge student loans. It was disappointing, but Pat worked hard and was able to realize personal dreams of private practice, which brought a multitude of unforeseen stressors. It became habit to work through lunch and keep later hours at night. Pat couldn’t afford to get sick or take much-needed vacations as time away meant forfeiting income. With so much competition in the area, Pat felt compelled to offer more than competitors. Pat found it lucrative to stay open on some holidays and offer nighttime and week-end appointments and burnout ensued. Pat became emotionally and mentally exhausted and developed a negative attitude towards patients and staff. To Pat’s dismay, the anxiety present in dental school had intensified rather than dissolved over time. The same traits that caused Pat to become a great dentist, also contributed to predisposing Pat to anxiety. To worsen matters, Pat’s tiny work space felt claustrophobic and personality differences between the receptionist and dental assistant were adding to office tension. Pat often incurred frustration because dental work felt more like patch up work due to many patients lack of funding that prevented them from receiving the dental school standards of care.
At home, Pat’s marriage began to suffer. Pat’s spouse could not understand Pat’s anxiety and why Pat had fears about financial restraint, but insisted Pat spend more time with family. Pat felt alone and unsupported and didn’t know how to collaborate or resolve the standoff. Sometimes Pat resorted to people pleasing in order to reduce the marital tensions. It wasn’t long before Pat felt trapped between economic pressures and escalating mental and emotional stressors. This was not the life Pat had pictured. Pat began to feel like a failure despite a lifetime of hard work and over-achieving. Pat discovered the occasional drink had now morphed into several drinks a day to help with relaxation.
1. Maintain balance in your life by making fun, rest, and relationships a high priority.
Many relate to the story of Pat. While hard work can be good, high achievers often have trouble balancing work with relationships and their own needs. High achievers often relentlessly push themselves and seem to lack the ability to recognize when they are over-extended, until it’s too late. Pushing one’s self too hard creates imbalance and sets one up for anxiety, depression, relational problems, and job burn out. Make it a point to regularly plan vacation time and time for fun and relaxation on your calendar; not only will this habit protect you from burnout, but it will also strengthen personal relationships. Practice leaving work stressors behind you and relax when you do have time away.
2. Let go of the critical inner voice and expect that challenges are a natural part of life.
High achievers often have unrealistic expectations of themselves and others, which can take the form of perfectionism. Perfectionism can damage one’s own self-esteem, as well as the self-esteem of others. The need to be seen as perfect is at odds with humility. Humility embraces both growth areas and strengths simultaneously. Shame is a byproduct of perfectionism and could be setting Pat up for self-esteem problems, and preventing Pat from seeking much needed support. There are no perfect people. Trying to be perfect is an unhealthy pursuit.
3. Make every effort to let go of trying to control people and collaborate instead.
High achievers usually don’t see themselves as having a part in sabotaging their own well-being. In fact, the desire to people-please, fix or control people are coping mechanisms often used to reduce one’s own anxiety. For instance, instead of collaborating on a budget, Pat could resort to control by hiding money in order to lessen financial fears/anxiety, thus negatively impacting the marriage. Lastly, unless healthy coping strategies are in place, people can develop a dependency upon substance when sadness or stressors become overwhelming. Collaborating builds supportive relationships. Supportive relationships are a healthy coping strategy for dealing with sadness or stressors.
There are many challenges that come with being a dentist, consider these self-care tips as way to help maintain balance – just as my dentist uses small talk to calm my tensions every time I sit in his chair.
1. Bill Claytor DDS, MAGD, “Personality Types of Dentists”, (6 April 2016)
Written by Denise Ehret, Lisc. Marriage and Family Therapist, CSAT
Published in Catalyst – Summer/Fall, 2019
Category: Practice ConsultingBack to Articles