Self‐compassion is a way of emotionally recharging our batteries. Rather than becoming drained by helping others, self‐compassion allows us to fill up our internal reserves, so we have more to give to those who need us.
—Kristin Neff, psychologist and professor at the University of Texas, researcher on mindful self‐compassion
Self‐compassion is another highly relevant and important tool in helping dental professionals become more emotionally intelligent. Wrapping up the EI section, in this chapter we delve deep into why self‐compassion is essential in practising dentistry and how we can emotionally charge our batteries to keep giving to our patients.
As a dental professional, many of us chose our careers in dentistry because we feel compassion for others and want to help our patients feel better. We work hard to keep our patients well, but our own wellness can be sidelined. Chapter 1 delved into the high stressors that influence our mental well‐being, the occupational hazards, and how personality traits, such as maladaptive perfectionism and a harsh inner critic, can push us beyond our limits and lead to psychological distress.
In this chapter, we will explore how to build resilience and greater psychological well‐being through fostering self‐compassion as clinicians. Treating patients without losing ourselves and enhancing our levels of compassion satisfaction – that is, the positive feelings we get from caring for our patients – is a lifelong journey. The journey starts with understanding the concept of self‐compassion and the roots of perfectionism in us.
The problem with relying solely on self‐care practices to manage our mental health is that it can often be difficult to find time. For example, we may not be able to take a timeout to go for a yoga session during a clinic when emotionally triggered during treatment with a patient. Self‐compassion tools allow us to focus, in the moment, with patients and recalibrate so we can invite greater kindness, warmth, and support during those challenging moments of our day. Self‐compassion provides us with the emotional resources needed to nurture ourselves. It is also a protective factor for caregivers, reducing the ‘numbing out’ effect of working closely with patients and minimising burnout and compassion fatigue.
A Radical Way of Relating to Ourselves
As a dental professional, showing compassion to our patients is one of our key personality traits that allow us to connect and build strong patient relationships. Self‐compassion is compassion directed towards ourselves. It is a way of relating to ourselves with warm‐heartedness and kindness in all moments, including those moments of suffering. It involves treating ourselves in a way we would treat a friend who is having a hard time – with generosity, gentleness, support, sympathy, and love. You could consider it almost as a radical approach as a healthcare professional, with the swapping of perfectionism and self‐criticism with an approach that embraces our imperfections, soothes us when treatments fail or patients complain, and allows us to stay connected with the present, without getting stuck in negative thoughts about the past or swept up by anxious thoughts of the future.
Understanding the Perfectionism Trap: A Barrier toSelf‐compassion
Perfectionist traits are high amongst dental students and dental professionals. This comes as no surprise considering the emphasis of good grades in dental school and the high level of performance demanded working with patients. A recent study looking at 412 UK dental students reported high levels of perfectionism (35%), which was shown to be associated with maladaptive coping (avoidant coping strategies such as alcohol misuse or denial) and decreased mental well‐being, specifically burnout, and psychological distress (Collin et al. 2020). Perfectionism in the research has been associated with decreased self‐esteem and increase in depression and anxiety and unhelpful coping strategies (Grzegorek et al. 2004; Mehr and Adams 2016).
But what exactly is a perfectionist trait, and how does it present in dental professionals? A perfectionist trait is one where we set unreasonably high standards for ourselves and sometimes for others. It is the impossible quest to be perfect without flaws. At Stanford University, perfectionism is affectionately known as the Duck Syndrome – a duck appearing to glide calmly across the water, while beneath the surface, it frantically, relentlessly paddles.
The consequence of unrealistically high standards is that perfectionists are highly self‐critical. Every flaw is scrutinised, ruminated upon, and used to self‐flagellate. This inner critic may present as the internalised voice of our parents, teachers, or a bully. It may also originate from the media perpetuating that you are different, particularly in marginalised identity groups, such as groups excluded as a result of ethnicity, gender, identity, sexual orientation, and immigration status.
Further probing into perfectionist traits reveals a deep‐rooted need to be liked, accepted, and loved. The underpinning belief beneath perfectionism is that achievement and performance determine our self‐worth. There is often a fear of not being good enough. Perfection can be celebrated in society – for example, with successes of great athletes – and is often mistakenly confused with the pursuit of excellence. Anything less than being self‐critical is an act of self‐complacency. Individuals with high perfectionist traits strive to never make mistakes and are excruciatingly hard on themselves when they do.
It comes as no surprise that perfectionist traits do not lend to high levels of resilience. We do not easily dust ourselves from setbacks, and mistakes stick with us and damage our self‐esteem. As such, perfectionism is a losing game. The unforgiving nature of perfectionism results in us feeling a lot worse rather than better. Perfectionism also denies the very nature of being human: perfectly imperfect.
The roots of perfectionistic traits originate in childhood, from growing up with unrealistic expectations from caretakers or from culture and media. In a better world, culture would endlessly draw to our attention to the first drafts and the hidden labours of the people behind the scenes. The challenge we have as adults is to uncover our own silent guides and update them so that we are not at the mercy of the perfectionism trap.
Do you catch yourself delaying or postponing getting important tasks done? Did you know that perfectionism trait and procrastination are linked? In the procrastination–perfection avoidance loop (see Figure 7.1), procrastination is not a case of poor time management or lack of motivation. Beneath the learnt habit of procrastination lie the same fears of the perfectionistic trait of not being good enough or failing. It is this fear that prevents us beginning altogether. The common thread in the habit of procrastination is that the important tasks that are being delayed are not seen as fun or are stressful. Thinking of completing the task creates thoughts of not being good enough and not meeting our high standards, and the emotions of anxiety, fear, and doubt creep in. This leads to the avoidance of the task to relieve ourselves from negative emotions caused by the negative thoughts, with alternative routine tasks taking priority, such as scrolling through social media. We feel a sense of reward when our negative emotions are temporarily reduced; however, soon enough our minds return to the task, and the avoidance loop continues!
Brené Brown, a professor at the University of Houston, studies shame, vulnerability, courage, and perfectionism. In her book The Gifts of Imperfection (Brown 2010), she breaks down the perils of perfectionism and identifies the key characteristics of authentic, wholehearted living:
- Perfection is a maladaptive protective mechanism where we combat feeling not enough by pleasing, performing, and putting on a mask.
- We can think of it as an armour to protect ourselves and prevent us feeling hurt, but in truth it keeps us from being seen.
- The internal thought process is ‘If I look perfect, I can avoid criticism, blame, and ridicule’.
- We struggle in areas of perfectionism where we feel most vulnerable to shame. Shame is the intensely uncomfortable feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging. It is the most primitive human emotion we all feel.
- Healthy striving is internally focused – being the best I can be – whereas perfectionism is driven by what people will think.
- Authentic wholehearted individuals, according to Brown’s research, show qualities of self‐compassion and authenticity, lean on others for support, have strong social connections, show gratitude, have the courage to be imperfect, are open to sharing vulnerabilities, show spirituality, practise mindfulness, and set boundaries.
One of the challenges to self‐compassion for dental professionals is that patients also expect perfect systems, leaving little room for error. However, without self‐compassion and accepting our humanity, we run the risk of flagellating ourselves for every error. In the rest of this chapter, we explore how to use self‐compassion to counteract self‐perfection and nurture a kinder, softer inner voice.
Delving into the Detail