Can Coming Out of the Closet Change the World?

There’s an interesting cultural phenomenon that happens in dentistry, and I wonder if it happens in other fields.  There is an unspoken rule that we all have to love our jobs and have to constantly show the rest of the world how happy and successful we are.  It’s a lot of pressure, especially when some of it feels like a lie.  Many dentists spend their whole lives hiding the real struggles we experience.  Sure, we can bitch and make jokes with our colleagues about some of our annoying challenges, but we can’t be real about just how much we may be struggling.  We spend years sugar-coating the realities of our lives with our friends.  We show up to dental community events and put on the show, nodding our heads, sharing how great practice is, and never getting real with each other.

I did it for years.  I describe in Escaping the Cult of Dentistry how I hated the phony small talk at dental events.  At times it was awkward, and it felt so disingenuous.  But when I came out of the closet about how I REALLY felt about dentistry, that all changed.  Suddenly those same conversations became real and genuine and about real people connecting.

Coming out of the closet was liberating for so many of us!  It’s probably obvious by now that I’m not referring to my sexual preference.  I’m referring to the idea that we feel we have to hide any really important aspect of ourselves.  I know I’m not alone when I say that I thought I had no choice but to keep my struggles in dentistry a secret.

Why do we feel we need to hide the truth?

We are so attached to our identity as dentists, that we can’t let go of it so easily.  It takes us years to come to terms with the fact that our love for our careers might be a lie.  Dentists have often been seen as caring, trustworthy, positive people who love every minute of their jobs.  This image is perpetuated within the dental community, too.  If we are to step out of that image, we fear that we would be exposed as failures or quitters.  It would be an admission that something was wrong with us.  We can’t tell anyone how we really feel because we still have reputations to uphold, patients to take care of, and businesses to run.  Not to mention the judgment from our colleagues who just can’t imagine anyone could feel this way.  We worry what would happen to us if we were to come clean about how we really feel.  Not only are we pressured to create an image for the public, but we are also pressured to fit in with our colleagues.  As a form of protection, we hide our true selves.

Why does this matter?

Ultimately living a lie creates a breakdown in who we truly are.  Self expression matters.  When we live a lie, we chip away tiny bits of ourselves every time we step out into the world that way.  Anyone who harbors a secret about any part of their identity experiences that same thing.  I know that while hiding my secret about dentistry may have protected my image, it destroyed my sense of self.  After a while, my confidence and happiness dwindled, and I thought I was alone.

We can’t remain in conflict with ourselves for very long.  At some point something is going to bust.

When we live so far out of alignment with who we really are, we suffer in some form.  There are extremes, of course.  Maybe it’s a mild depression that hovers over us for years.  Maybe it’s a major depression that causes us to consider suicide.  We know this field isn’t immune to suicide. We have the third highest suicide rate of all professions.  Maybe we develop a drug or alcohol addiction to help us remain hidden.  Maybe we find other ways to hide, such as overeating,  a TV addiction, or simply living an unhealthy, unbalanced lifestyle.

I recently listened to a Ted Talk in which the speaker actually came out of the closet for the first time on the Ted stage.  Talk about courage!  Her discussion about staying hidden does specifically reference homosexuality, but it can universally speak for any secret that keeps us feeling ashamed.  It has to do with human expression and the ability to be who we really are.  If you’re putting on a mask everyday, you’re crushing your identity and your soul in some way.  It’s no way to live.

In her talk, Morgana shares how hiding affected her personally, saying:

I became the opposite of who I thought I was.

I was paralyzed by my fear of not being accepted.

Sounds familiar to me.  I’m curious.  Do you ever feel similarly?

Then she discusses how hiding affects everyone on a more global level:

A surprisingly large number of people hide aspects of their identity.  61% of people changed an aspect of their behavior or appearance so they could fit in at work.

Life is shortened by 12 years for gay people in anti-gay communities.

I was scared when I learned that my silence has life and death consequences and long term social repercussions.

She realized that what she thought was her personal story, actually had a ripple effect.

I’m curious.  I wonder if 61% of dentists are hiding an aspect of their identities, I wonder what percentage are hiding that they are unhappy in their careers.  I wonder if the life expectancy of dentists who are hiding is also lower.  I don’t know the answers to these questions.

But more importantly, I wonder if our silence as a dental community  has life and death consequences.  I do know that my personal story has had a huge ripple effect, and the more of us that speak up, the more ripple we will create.

Do you think it’s really a matter of life and death?  I don’t have the answer to that either, but I do think that maybe this is a crisis we are facing in dentistry today.  I’m not sure if I’m just being dramatic, so I’d love to know what you think.  Is the suicide rate, the depression, and the drug and alcohol abuse a product of staying hidden?  I’d bet it is for some.

What can we do about it?

I hope we’re doing it.  We can share our stories.  We can get real.  When we learn that we are not alone in this, it we can explore who we really are.  We can push past our fears.  Both Morgana and I came to learn that our own fears are often much scarier than reality.  As she points to the Toni Morisson quote, “There are more scary things inside than outside,” we are reminded of just that.  Our job is to do as she says, “The biggest obstacles I will ever have to overcome are my own fears and insecurities.  By facing my fears inside, I will be able to change reality outside.”

13 thoughts on “Can Coming Out of the Closet Change the World?

  1. You know, to consider changing career is all about fear and MONEY. We have status, expectation, financial fears to overcome. A financial buffer is needed, as well as acceptance of lower income from loved ones, in the medium term.
    When we acknowledge that and indicate to others that these our aims we’ve taken our first step …..we have the need for optimism and enthusiasm to rise out of the grey life of dentistry.
    Merge those two with a bit of guts and, well, you’re pretty much good to go.
    Just my thoughts
    Simon D

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Simon. You’ve nailed it. I wonder how different it would be if people felt comfortable being more real about how their experience is in dentistry. I wonder how all this secrecy and need to hide is affecting our community of professionals…

  2. This is such a fantastic post, and so well-written — on many levels — that I will need to re-read it several times to fully digest it!

    I will be posting a follow-up in the near future, but you have definitely hit the nail on the head. It made me ask myself several questions as well, such as…

    Why did I allow myself to feel inadequate when other dentists told me I could learn to do certain procedures as well as the specialists, when I didn’t want to do ANY of those procedures. (That’s what specialists are for. That’s why they go through training longer than general dentists!).

    Why was it hard to blend into the small talk conversations at the conventions and conferences? (I never seemed to know about the latest, greatest, newest, fastest, superior products and techniques).

    Why did I feel guilty when I first stopped working a month ago, because I need to have surgery on my shoulder? (That is ridiculous, when I really think about it).

    Are we afraid of patients thinking that WE think the work is difficult? The fact is — when done correctly — the work can be tedious and stressful. If we admit that to patients — and ourselves — are we afraid of being perceived as incompetent?

    The things that I am most proud of after 35 years in this field are the fact that I know I did my absolute best, and patients have been genuinely appreciative of my efforts. But having said that….

    there is something ingrained in this field that I have not been able to put my finger on….just quite yet. It affects our career, our life, everything we do. Did it come from the fact that dental school was more like a hazing than actual education? Or the fact that we are made to feel inadequate if our work is not at a super-human level, when analyzed via an enlarged digital image on a computer monitor?

    All I can say at this moment — 4 weeks after taking a break from dentistry — is that just now I am beginning to feel like I can take a breath and relax. Really live. Pursue some interests I truly have a passion for. And for the first time in a long time, say “I really don’t care”.

    1. Eric, look at what a 4-week break has done for you. You felt so guilty when you had to start this, and these questions about this ingrained identity speak to that. It’s pretty cool to see how a little time away has allowed you to see that there are other things you can do to “live” and you can pursue interests and passions. What is it about dentistry that makes us feel like we can’t do both at the same time. While I was practicing, I was so one dimensional– I had few outside interests (or at least it felt that way,) and I was only focused on my career.

      These other questions you ask yourself are so fascinating. I wonder what your answers are… back to this guilt again about leaving for a shoulder injury… so interesting too, because the way I see it, you had a very long and successful career, so I wonder what still keeps you feeling attached there. And then it goes back to that identity thing again, and how you feel tied to all that was your career. That’s natural– whether you’ve practiced 10 years or 35. Glad to see you now even question why you would feel guilty about that and see it as “ridiculous.” How eye opening.

      My theory about the small talk being hard… because we are all like puppets in a sense, saying what is acceptable to say. That curtain or wall we put up so we can hold up the appearance we want people to see actually hides us. This prevents us from being real, which prevents any true connection with each other. Just my thoughts on that.

      And about the show we have to put on for patients… in my first few months of practice, I remember saying to my assistant that I didn’t like something inconsequential about the composite I was using on the patient’s tooth. Can’t remember what it was, but it was just a personal preference and not anything that affected the outcome or the quality of the work. I didn’t think much about the comment because I knew my intentions. Anyway, I remember the patient having a little sensitivity afterwards and complaining to my boss that I said there was something wrong with the material. D’oh!!! What a lesson that was and what a bonehead maneuver on my part! I realized that you can never say anything like that in front of patients because 1) the power of suggestion is very real, and 2) patients (rightly so) have no idea what we mean or what we are saying half the time. Anything we say could be misconstrued and create a story that is untrue. So we can’t let them think the work we do is hard, because if it’s hard, then it’s more likely to be done improperly, and then it can really spiral from there. Wow, the patient management is harder than the dentistry itself, isn’t it?

      Anyway, so much more I could say, and I know you feel the same way. Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful insights!

  3. I spent years ignoring the fact I was bored and unhappy with Dentistry. Every time I felt theses feeling I felt compelled to try and find my interest again by going on a course. I would then feel worse when I met people on a course who seemed genuinely enthused by a new material or technique. I’d ask myself what was I missing? Perhaps I should pretend to be amazed by a new bonding system… no. I just couldn’t.
    It was a few last ditch attempts on my behalf to try and ignore my true feelings and carry on in the career.
    It’s true you can only ignore feelings for so long, eventually they come and bite you! Perhaps low grade depression or worse.
    I came out of the dental closet and a huge weight was lifted. Ok, so I may not have as much money but I have gained something far more important. Happiness.

    1. Mark, thanks. It’s what we do, isn’t it? We ignore it. We just go blindly through life, and then one day it smacks us in the face (usually in the form of a depression, as you suggest.) It’s great that you tried everything you could to do to make it better for yourself. At least you were able to walk away knowing you did everything you could. CE and constant learning work for some people. That’s the case for my husband in his field. He is a super nerd because taking CE and continually growing is what keeps him interested. But we know that doesn’t work for everyone. Your last sentence is so beautiful, it gave me goosebumps. I’m so glad you were able to do what you felt was best for yourself. I’d love to interview you for the blog… look out for an email from me.

    2. Mark – I am so happy for you. It takes courage to face that honesty, and I admire you for that. Looks like you are on the right path. What good is a large amount of money if you wake up every morning, dreading to face the day?

  4. This was truly the perfect post.
    I’ve been out of school for 3 years, but have been out of the closet for 7 years. I knew by the time we had the first lab simulation I screwed up and would never enjoy the career. That initial time when people are always saying you’ll get better, or it’s still early wait it out made sense at the time. As the years went by it only became more apparent that there was no passion, and just a growing dislike of thinking about anything related to the dental field.
    Being out of school and seeing the things I’ve seen in clinics was almost laughable that some people can even classify themselves as dentists, and yet if you say anything you either get fired or get black-balled from other clinics since everyone knows one another in this unfortunately small field.
    Every time I stop working I feel a weight lifted from my shoulders, and there’s been a few periods where I’ve already gone a month without touching the handpiece already. It’s during those times I keep pushing to finding an alternative, thinking of some way to get me out of the field and pursue interests I’m more suited towards. Although it hasn’t happened yet, and I still end up back in the dental field for another few month stent, I’m fully committed to closing the door on dentistry as soon as I can and would never even miss it.
    It’s good to see there’s others that have pushed to make the change and are happier for it!

    1. Hi C,
      Even though it hasn’t happened yet, you’re laying the groundwork for a change to come. I’m curious about a few things because your story is so interesting. How are you able to work in short spurts? Do you temp? I bet that 1 month away felt great for you!

      Do any of your friends and colleagues know how you feel about dentistry? Thanks for sharing your story here. The more people that do, the more people can feel comfortable about being real about it!

      1. Hey Laura,
        No problem with asking questions, if anything I invite them as I have no qualms about sharing my experiences.

        In relation to working in short spurts I’ve been in 6 different clinics in the past 3 years, with 3 of them being a maternity leave type coverage. The other ones I would associate at, mostly part-time, and try to keep seeing if one day I’d wake up and see that maybe it all wasn’t so bad. I usually end up working for a place for 4-6 months, during which time I know I’ll never be happy working for them – sometimes a mix of what I see them do, and a mix of that doing dentistry just isn’t a passion of mine or something I even remotely enjoy doing. So I eventually move on, try another clinic, and hope maybe what I need is a change of scenery, so to speak, to help me get by a little longer. Truthfully nothing ever changes, I go in, I hate it, feel sore/wonder how I’ll make it another year let alone 30+ working in the chair, and spend more time thinking about how to get out early for that day/how to get out permanently down the road.
        Even though most of my other times off were mostly for surgeries, or some injury, even the recovery periods of those were a hundred times better than waking up to go to the clinic. I stopped working in my last clinic September 1st, the first time I’ve had a break while not recovering from something, and it’s just amazing. It’s still stressful trying to determine the next steps/figuring out how long I’ll be able to not work before having to find another place to associate at while my other plans get into place; however, the time away from that handpiece is never missed!

        Oh everyone that actually knows me, friends/colleagues alike, know how I feel about dentistry – it was actually a friend/colleague that sent the link to your blog since he understands exactly how I feel/found his way out already. Even staff I’ve worked with know my hate for it, and even knowing that they still prefer me to do any of their work that I’m willing to do (which is only basic procedures since I just hate all surgeries and endo, and am very unlikely to do any), since I do quality work, but just have no passion or enjoyment from doing it day in/out. Will someone ever know I take the time to properly shape their restorations, compared to my colleagues that make square boxes of single fill fillings. Staff knows, but patients will only appreciate the colleague taking those couple units less of time and nothing else.

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