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.”