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Handling the Stress of Practicing Dentistry: The Story of a Recovering Perfectionist!

May 11, 2020
by Sally Safa, DDS, MSc (Perio), FRCD(C)


In 2014, I was published in the Ontario Dentist journal pleading for speakers and content that could address the stress that dentists incur day after day and ways in which to successfully handle it.
I can’t believe that six years later, that I would actually be that person!

When I wrote this letter to the editor, I was frustrated and angry. I was suffering from a great deal of stress and anxiety like many of my colleagues and no one talked about it. I went to meetings, CE courses, seminars, study clubs and not a single thing. My 7 years as a student at U of T Dentistry also never included anything formal on stress in dentistry. Funny enough, I did study stress while I was at the Faculty and my Masters thesis was actually in Stress as it relates to Periodontitis. Its surreal that 13 years after I published my thesis, I would be speaking about stress, but as it relates to dentists.

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I started a journey six years ago to find ways to cope with stress and anxiety. This is how I came to learn and study Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). A scientifically-based, proven method to help manage stress.

I would have never imagined that my passion in Mindfulness would take the turns that it did, and keep me busy speaking to dentists and health-care providers across Canada and soon in the United States.

The most humbling experience has been the responses that I get time and again from our colleagues after I share my experience and knowledge of MBSR. Two things stand out: many feel they are alone in the level of stress and anxiety they feel, and, they don’t know where to turn. By sharing my experience, as someone in the trenches, a tribe member, I feel that has made it possible for colleagues to openly discuss their stress.

I wanted to point out one common thread that underlies so much of our colleagues’ stress, and that is “perfectionism”. It’s funny, when I was preparing for my Perio specialty interview at U of T, I knew that they would ask me a question that would go something like this: “Sally, what would you say is your greatest weakness” and I remember thinking of what I would say. I could say the truth, like I have anxiety, that I get overwhelmed easily, etc…but none of this would get me into Perio. So, I came up with the “perfect” answer…”I am a perfectionist”. I would spin it as “its my weakness and my strength!”

I find that dentists are notorious for wanting to be “perfect”. Unfortunately, dentistry is a death sentence for those of us who want to be perfect. Why? Because PERFECT isn’t real. We will never be perfect, that’s an unattainable goal. It’s something that we constantly strive for, but will never reach. The perfect prep, the perfect obturation, the perfect margin. We measure ourselves up against this idea of “perfect” work. This often then spills into our personal lives as well. Many studies link perfectionism with burnout.

As a recovering perfectionist, I have seen how in my own life, this idea of wanting to be perfect has created a ton of angst and stress as I try to reach something that I can’t achieve. So, I’m now advocating the “good enough” and “tried my best” approach. This doesn’t mean I strive to do mediocre work, not at all. I still try my very best to do “perfect” work, but now, I just recognize what I’m doing (mindfully) and take a breath and say, “I did the best I could”. I did the best I could with a moving target (patient), with a high-speed drill, working in a scale as small as the tip of a pencil. I did my best and that is perfect!

My hope is that if we can shift our thinking, the way we teach at our dental schools, bringing in some compassion to these folks who have strived to be “perfect” all their lives. Let’s cut them some slack and bring some compassion to ourselves, our students and our colleagues and just drop the perfect and be ok with “I did my best”.

The journey for me has been full of ups and downs. I am grateful every day that I get to share my knowledge of stress and mindfulness as a coping tool. If this work changes even one person’s life, then that’s “perfect” for me.


About the Author

Dr. Sally Safa is a board certified Periodontist. Alumnus of the University of Toronto where she maintains a teaching position as clinical instructor. She maintains private practice in North York where she enjoys all aspects of Periodontal and Implant related patient care.

She is also a passionate advocate of wellness for healthcare providers. Her website is www.mindfuldentist.ca. Dr. Safa’s Masters research was in the field of Psychoneuroimmunology, understanding the effects of stress on the body. This background combined with her education in the field of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, has allowed her to share the science behind both stress and mindfulness and how it can help dentists reduce stress in their day to day lives at home and the office.