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What Can We Do About Perfectionism in Dental?


As a group, dentists are known perfectionists. But while a certain level of high standards is a welcome, if not downright essential ingredient to succeeding in dentistry, many doctors we talk to would also agree that the pressure to be perfect goes too far.Most dentists are probably their own toughest critics, of course. That’s hard enough to navigate. 

But horror stories about dental professionals being quick to tear each other down and slow to lift each other up are also common. And even today, new associates are regularly thrown into the deep end with little or no mentoring — just harsh words when they inevitably make mistakes.

Small wonder so many dentists struggle with stress, mental health, and burnout. But does it have to be this way? 

Dr. Jessica Metcalfe says no. A practicing dentist when she went through her own journey through depression, she has since become a leadership consultant who specializes in working with dental groups.

She urges dentists to stop chasing an inhuman standard of perfection — in part by having the humility to remember as a dentist, you’re not practicing dentistry to please yourself or impress other dentists. 

You’re doing it to help patients.

“You have to learn how to let things go and understand that, the patient’s definition of perfection is what matters,” she says. “Not yours.” 

What she means is that as long as the patient benefits from and feels happy with your work, you’ve done enough. It isn’t about whether you’ve managed to outshine the dentist down the road — but whether or not you’ve helped a patient improve their quality of life in a meaningful way.

That shift in mindset can take a lot of pressure off — if you’re willing to make it.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you need to trade the tyranny of your own over-the-top standards for those of your patients. Part of working with your patients means helping them understand what a reasonable outcome looks like.

“It’s about setting the expectations with a patient,” Jessica tells us. “So then they understand that they can define what their perfection is — and you can set them up to say, ‘is this reasonable?’”

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