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Kindness to oneself and self-love are concepts that are often spoken about in the context of looking after oneself and supporting personal well-being. According to the UK’s National Health Service, “well-being is about feeling good and functioning well and comprises an individual’s experience of their life; and a comparison of life circumstances with social norms and values”.1 Dental professionals widely recognise the importance of patients’ well-being and their mental health, and it is an ethical requirement that we always act in the best interest of all of our patients. We have to be accountable for this. Yet, are we acting in the best interest of ourselves so that we can always thrive as dental professionals? Are we accountable for doing so? Self-compassion could have a significant role for dental professionals.
The topic of well-being and mental health is complex. This article will explore how self-compassion can support the well-being of dental professionals. In addition, it will identify opportunities for dental professionals to utilise self-compassion practically as a tool to enhance their well-being and ways they can become accountable for practising self-compassion.
Stress factors dental professionals experience
There are many stress factors experienced by dental professionals that have been identified throughout literature.2–4 All individuals deal with different stress factors to varying degrees. Common stress factors that dental professionals experience in a clinical setting include:
- fear of litigation;
- running late for patients;
- difficult or demanding patients;
- musculoskeletal pain; and
- working without a nurse.
A common trait exhibited by dental professionals is the commitment to meet the high standards that are required of them. This can result in a consistent desire to achieve perfection, and such self-imposed pressure can lead to a spiral of self-criticism if perfection is not achieved.
It is important for dental professionals to consciously recognise the stress factors that affect them on an individual basis. It is furthermore important to acknowledge that the extent to which they are affected by similar stress factors varies at different times.
Example of how the same stress factor can affect the individual differently
Scenario 1: The dental hygienist goes to work, and the surgery has not been left and restocked by the previous clinician as it usually is. The hygienist feels slightly agitated, but proceeds to reorganise the surgery in preparation for the day ahead.
Scenario 2: The dental hygienist goes to work feeling tired, and the surgery has not been left and restocked by the previous clinician as it usually is. The hygienist is agitated and bursts into tears before starting the day.
Scenario 1: The dentist is at work and receives a call from the reception while in surgery that a patient who received treatment the day before would like to make a complaint. The dentist asks some more questions regarding the situation, takes a deep breath and accepts that it is not possible to please every patient even though he or she is always trying to deliver the best possible treatment. The dentist stays calm, carries on with the next appointment and schedules an appointment to call the patient.
Scenario 2: The dentist is at work and receives a call from the reception while in surgery that a patient who received treatment the day before would like to make a complaint. The dentist starts to feel extremely agitated by the news and is very abrupt with the nurse and begins to feel stressed.
This example shows how similar perceived stress factors in the same scenario can affect that same individual differently on a different day. Finding resources that can be used on a daily basis, such as self-compassion, could help limit the impact of certain stressors. Thus, self-compassion could have the potential to build resilience in the dental professional to ongoing stressors.
What is self-compassion?
Self-compassion involves treating oneself with kindness and acceptance using words and thoughts that are contextually logical to oneself, like one would address a friend who is suffering. In doing so, one can help to ease the pressure often conflicted on oneself, which in turn can limit one’s ability to function well and thrive. The practice of self-compassion, avoiding self-criticism and self-comparison, has the potential to motivate one to reach one’s own capabilities while cultivating self-awareness and seeing oneself clearly and honestly with acceptance.
What are common misinterpretations of self-compassion?
Frequently, individuals have reported in conversation finding the topic of self-compassion challenging to implement. They may feel slightly uncomfortable with the thought of self-compassion being self-love, as it may feel fake and not real, or narcissistic. This common misconception may prevent individuals from practising it.
It has been discussed that self-compassion may be difficult to comprehend and practise. An unclear understanding of self-compassion and how it can be comfortably practised on a daily basis will in turn limit dental professionals’ exploration of how self-compassion can bring potential value to their lives.
How can self-compassion be cultivated and implemented by dental professionals?
Self-compassion can be practised by first recognising when self-criticism and self-frustrations occur and what the known trigger is.
It can be helpful to imagine how a close friend is feeling about a particular stress factor and imagine how one would talk to him or her to reassure him or her and reduce the pain he or she is feeling.
Regular practice of self-compassion can improve the neural pathways for using this helpful resource. At times when we strive for perfectionism and fail to achieve it, a natural relapse into self-frustration can be the usual default response. However, when perfectionism is not achieved, instead of self-frustration or self-criticism, kind thoughts like “I did my best at this moment, this is all I can do and I acknowledge that” or “I continue to learn every day and accept this wonderful quality that I have” could be a positive alternative. Through repetition and regular practice, it will become easier, and allow us to default to positive self-compassion more regularly.
How can dental professionals become accountable for implementing self-compassion?
Every time a dental professional resorts to negative inner words of self-frustration, self-criticism, self-judgement, he or she should recognise the opportunity to automatically shift to positive words of self-compassion, self-love, self-acceptance and self-appreciation, like he or she would do for a friend.
However, it is difficult to hold ourselves accountable. Recognising this and using a tool like the HabitShare app or simply keeping a diary or holding yourself accountable at work or with a colleague, friend or family member might help.
The future of cultivating automated self-compassion among dental professionals
Changing the stigma and misconceptions of self-compassion and beginning conversations in dental schools and among dental teams will allow the practice of self-compassion to become more mainstream. The poet Rumi wrote “Our task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it”, and learning the skill of self-compassion can help to break down the barriers to love, both for oneself and others.
Dental professionals should seek and find the barriers they have built within themselves, reduce these and practise self-compassion in order to maintain a mindset of being consistently kind to themselves amid the constant changes in the world and to increase their ability to thrive. Imagine what could come into your life when you become as good at being kind to yourself as you are kind to the people that surround you.
- UK Department of Health. Wellbeing: Why it matters to health policy. 2014 Jan [cited 2022 Oct 26]. Available from: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/277566/Narrative__January_2014_.pdf.
- Collin V, Toon M, O’Selmo E, Reynolds L, Whitehead P. A survey of stress, burnout and well-being in UK dentists. Br Dent J. 2019 Jan 11;226(1):40–9. doi: 10.1038/sj.bdj.2019.6.
- Gorter RC. Work stress and burnout among dental hygienists. Int J Dent Hyg. 2005 May;3(2):88–92. doi: 10.1111/j.1601-5037.2005.00130.x.
- Harris M, Wilson JC, Hughes S, Radford. Stress and well-being in dental hygiene and dental therapy students. BDJ Team. 2017 Sep 1;4:17136. doi: 10.1038/bdjteam.2017.136
This article was published in Dental Tribune UK & Ireland vol. 12, issue 1/2022.