Lingchi, or "death by a thousand cuts," was an ancient Chinese torture method used long ago to bring death and suffering to prisoners. Bodies were cut with small, nondeadly strokes to lengthen the time it took to die.
This brutal practice is nowhere near the suffering we experience in our daily dental lives, but the chronic stressors and the nagging little annoyances over time can seem like small knives cutting into our dental souls. It can feel like lingering pain. And, it can suddenly and swiftly steal our energy.
On one of those particular days, I felt the creepy Grim Energy Reaper knock on my door, but I didn't let him in.
Not just one event
There wasn't one intolerable event that took place on that particular dental day. There were many. It was the cumulative affect of the little cuts that threatened my skin's integrity.
- One of our dental assistants called in sick.
- Our first patient forgot to take her premedication.
- The light on my operatory chair stopped working.
- We were notified a patient's denture case that was needed would be arriving later than expected.
- My password expired -- again -- and it was time to change it -- again.
- A crown had a slightly open contact and could not be seated.
- The wrong impression trays came in, and we had to use a larger tray than desired.
- Unfortunately, we stretched a patient's cheeks further than needed, and we used more product than required.
- The newer hygienist placed too much sealant material on a tooth and needed me to adjust the bite -- twice.
- One of our patients apparently owned several cats and smelled like a cat litter box, so we had to spray down the area after his exam and cleaning.
- We spent time after regularly scheduled hours to regroup and reorganize after a day with several difficult encounters; we all left late that night.
Before I acquired better stress management skills, any other day like this one would have ended in exhaustion. Instead, I realized I had "one of those days," and I actually felt no different than when I walked in the door earlier that morning.
"I did it!" I proclaimed to myself. I beat the energy-zapper game. I didn't let my energy get taken from me. Finally, I had mastered my emotional responses to an unending slew of problems and predicaments -- some of them my own creations -- most of them created by my patients, my team members, or others. Now, let me explain how I did it -- how I kept my energy levels up despite energy slashers everywhere.
Here is a list of pointers to help all of us maintain our energy levels in a culture loaded with Grim Reapers everywhere -- waiting to suck the life out of each of us.
1. Start each day with a full bucket of energy
This means eating well, sleeping well, and thinking well to fill the bucket to the brim before arriving to work. If we cannot take care of ourselves, how are we supposed to take care of others?
Our teams and patients deserve our best every day, and if we have trouble with any of these three areas, we owe it to our patients and to our co-workers to get some resolution so that we bring our best selves to work each day. Build a self-care team loaded with health advocates such as a physician, nutritionist, meditation coach, psychologist, and/or counselor to learn new strategies to create the kind of skin that deflects cuts and bruises.
2. Let go of the thought of controlling others
I used to spend so much time (and energy) thinking of ways to help people change. "If only they would do it this way or think more like this," I would pine to myself. Before I knew it, my mind would ruminate on these annoyances, and guess what I would end up being? Annoyed. I would end up being annoyed and frustrated because someone else did not do things how I would have done them.
3. Stop being a perfectionist with people
This tags on to the previous recommendation. People are not perfect, and even when we really want them to be and really expect them to be, they are not.
Dentistry is a field in which perfectionism is held like a badge of honor. We strive for the perfect margin, the perfect sheen on the composite restoration, and the perfect line angle on the class II box. We were trained that way. Somehow, many of us inadvertently apply this perfectionism expectation to our human resources techniques. We lose sleep over bad hires or when unexpected changes occur in the lives of our team players. We take it personally and spend inordinate amounts of energy grappling with the imperfections of our teams.
Here is one saying that helps me when I fail or "lose" in the game of life: We never lose -- we only learn. I have learned a lot about human resources in my dental career, and although I wish I had been as perfect with my team leadership as I was with my crown margins, I wasn't, and that is OK. Certainly, I am not saying to aim low, and we all need to take time to work on our leadership and communication skills, but I am suggesting a different way to preserve energy that is wasted when team members are not perfect or when we, as leaders, are not perfect in our abilities with people.
4. Spend time teaching others
Instead of raising expectations and creating new rules and agendas, take the time to teach the team how to be better at what is currently lacking. Or, if anything new is going to happen in the office, take the time to teach everyone and communicate to others before the new system. A lot of energy is zapped from the team when a lack of communication or a series of miscommunications occurs within teams.
I don't mean with your biceps. I mean with your mind. Create space in your brain for new ideas and new ways of doing things. When we constantly think, think, think, we miss opportunities to allow other opinions to surface. The best way I establish this space in my brain is through calming techniques, such as yoga or meditation. Our brains need intermittent time periods to rejuvenate. With space created in our brains, we become more flexible in our thoughts. The rigidity melts away and so does the stress.
6. Accept patients for exactly who and how they are
If something is quasi-offensive, such as a patient with cat smells or body odor, learn how to gently communicate these problems with these patients if it becomes recurrent, or learn to tolerate the occasional inconveniences without complaint or grief.
The day-to-day rigors of dentistry can feel like death by a thousand cuts. We can be the victims of energy takers, or we can learn to shield our energy with counterintuitive techniques seemingly opposite of what we learned in dental school.
No one knows, for sure, how death will find us, but I hope to elude its arrival for as long as possible, and that means I will continue to shield myself from the small cuts and the deep cuts for as long as possible by managing my stress and wellness. I hope you will, too.
Lisa Knowles, DDS, practices in St. Johns, MI, and is the founder and CEO of IntentionalDental Consulting. For more information, contact her at IntentionalDental@gmail.com, or visit her website at Beyond32Teeth.com.
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