The Price Of Being A Dentist Shouldn't Be Mental Illness

burnout impostor phenomenon perfectionist May 07, 2021
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Dr Jessica Metcalfe
The Price Of Being A Dentist Shouldn't Be Mental Illness
A disgruntled patient or bad google review.
Rising student and practice debt.
Being the best parent or partner.
Doing everything perfectly.
Thinking you’re never good enough.
Not taking breaks because you feel guilty.
Evading chats with colleagues for fear of judgement.
Cherry on top: add an emergency patient into the mix. 


The exact stressors may be different for each one of us, but the general list remains the same. Is being a dentist in 2021 worth it?

If I were to ask my 14-year-old self (I’m now 33) if it was worth it, I probably would have told her to explore other options. That I didn’t need to be so definitive at 14 and that my career didn’t need to define me as an individual.

When I made that decision to become a dentist, I put on horse blinders and made it my mission to do so. Sure, I became a dentist, but at what cost? My mental and physical health?

Let me take you back to grade 10, career’s class. I remember filling out a questionnaire on a software program to determine what I would be when I grow up. The answer: tree planter. 

Never in a million years, would I have guessed that outcome. 

Yes, I am an outdoorsy person. Yes, I love being in nature (although I dislike camping) and I enjoy playing on sports teams. Yet, I wanted to be a dentist. I remember hitting the ‘back’ button. I wanted to desperately change my answers so that my career outcome would be ‘dentist’. A part of this project was to print the answer and hand it into the teacher. There was no way I was going to print the career: tree planter.

I . . . was going to be a dentist . . . and everyone needed to know.

Fast forward to 2021 and I’ve experienced burnout three times. In my last burnout, I was diagnosed with clinical depression and a generalized anxiety disorder. I also experience impostor phenomenon and perfectionism.

Now, I know what you’re thinking . . . perfectionism, is a good thing. Well, from my perspective, it’s not. 


Perfectionism can be explained in 3 components:

  1. The relentless striving for unrealistic expectations

Great. So now, I not only want to get straight A’s or 100 on all my tests, but that class II prep needs to be perfect in all dimensions. That the conversation I have with my patients needs to be perfect otherwise I will overthink if I said the right thing. That the staff meeting has to goes as planned without pissing someone off because I am a people pleaser. All while smiling through the anxiety and depression that is crippling me from the inside out. 

  1. Judging self-worth on the ability to achieve

Okay, I’ve made it through the unrealistic expectations but linked my identity to being a dentist. Being a high-achiever, means I have to keep on achieving. If I stay as an associate did I fail because I didn’t become an owner? If I want to teach, is that because I failed at being an owner or a clinician? If I choose anything else, then, What am I? Who am I? 

If I do anything but dentistry, who will think I failed? Who will judge me and whisper at dental meetings saying, “she couldn’t hack it.” Wait a second, I actually can’t do anything else because I only know how to be a dentist. I don’t have any other skills.

So I need to keep on being the best dentist, being that high-achiever, being . . . perfect. 

I can’t take a vacation. I need to take more CE. I need to schedule one more patient. I need to do things faster. I need to buy into that office. I need to maybe start having a family? I need . . . a break. 

  1. Experiencing negative consequences as a result of (1) and (2)

Being perfect isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

At the end of the day, I head home and want to watch my favourite TV show, but, it comes at a cost. I feel guilty as I sit. I’m exhausted from the day and yet, I’m scrolling social media, seeing the perfect dental cases and procedures. “I will never be good enough,” I say over and over again. Sitting there, like a blob, where I’m not watching the TV but the TV is watching me.

The immense pressure I put on myself keeps getting worse, but being a high-achiever, being a perfectionist, being a dentist, is totally worth it…right?

I no longer want to hang out with friends. I skip the gym because I’m too tired. I avoid phone calls because I have no energy left. I continue to sit and yet, I feel guilty and never rested.

I no longer have dreams and passions. Instead, I have worry, stress, anxiety and the fear of uncertainty. Oh, the fear of uncertainty and what a nemesis it is. The fear of uncertainty can cripple my mind in seconds.

What if an emergency comes in? Will I be able to handle it? What if I try to go through every scenario in my head? What if something goes wrong? What if I just avoid going for that walk to make sure I’m reviewing one more dental procedure? What if . . .


What if I asked my 14-year-old self what I thought of me?

She would say, “You did it. You became a dentist. All you ever wanted was to become a dentist.” I would ask her back, “But, at what cost?”

Avoiding the outdoors because it was considered a waste of time. 
Avoiding nature because it didn’t progress the next goal.
Avoiding sports because it was time away from dentistry.

I don’t think 14-year-old me could have have predicted that I would lose myself as a person to become a dentist. That, for sure wasn’t in the career questionnaire.

I don’t think 14-year-old me would keep thinking she was never good enough, never perfect enough, never strong enough. She wouldn’t have thought that I would be worried that other dentists would harshly judge her and who she is. She wouldn’t have thought that she would stop taking care of herself because she thought everyone else was more important than her.

I don’t think 14-year-old me would have realized how far she sank.

The price of being a dentist not only comes at a financial expense but at a mental and physical expense as well. Is the price worth it? That’s for you to judge.


Yours Truly,


*inspired by May 6, 2021 post by Adam Grant*

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