How a stoic mindset makes for a better practitioner

How a stoic mindset makes for a better practitionerUzair Dadabhai, a third year dental student at Leeds University, debunks the myths surrounding stoicism and how it can make for better dentistry. 

It is no secret that life in dentistry is not all plain sailing. There are plenty of challenges we face and predicaments we find ourselves in, from perplexing endodontic procedures to difficult patient interactions, adversity is not a novelty. The risk of burnout is real.

Many of these obstacles are simply unavoidable – part and parcel of what we signed up for – inescapable realities of dentistry. However, our capacity to endure such circumstances is greatly increased if they are approached with a stoic mindset.

What is a stoic mindset?

There is a common misconception that stoics are stone-cold, emotionless individuals. This is far from the case. Stoicism is not simply apathy, rather it is a highly effective tool for mental wellbeing.

Equanimity would be a far more accurate description of ‘stoic-calm’, a type of level-headedness which allows stoics to attempt to achieve a mellow, balanced state of freedom from despair regardless of circumstance. Simply put, emotional tranquility.

Below, I will highlight three stoic disciplines which, if acted upon, will serve as an excellent foundation to the development of a robust stoic mindset. This will allow any practitioner to better manage the mental demands of modern-day dentistry.

Stoic discipline 1: Virtue

Understanding this discipline of virtue is key to understanding the following two disciplines.

Stoics believe that the possession of that which is genuinely and wholly good is the key to happiness. If something is not perpetually of benefit to its possessor, it cannot be considered wholly good.

Hence, they conclude that the only things which are good, are characteristic excellences or virtues of human beings. The core stoic virtues are: wisdom, justice, prudence and courage.

These are considered the ultimate good in stoic philosophy. It is no coincidence that these are highly respected traits in any dental professional. Stoics believe that possession of such virtues is a prerequisite for happiness.

Things like achievement, good health, financial gain, influence and power are all considered indifferent. That is not to say that they are worthless. They have value – and are preferred over their opposites – even if they may not always be good. However, pure – resolute – virtuous character is the holy grail.

This philosophy is intrinsically empowering. It places you in the driver’s seat of your own thoughts, emotions and actions. Because only you can decide whether you behave in a just, honourable and compassionate manner fitting of a healthcare professional.

No amount of stress can take this power and control away from you. Financial gain and respect from your peers comes secondary, upholding your virtues is primary. In every action you do, it is the process, not the outcome which is important.

Tried and tested

Did you perform every step of that treatment as well as you possibly could? Were you candid about the benefits and potential risks of any intended treatments? Are you doing everything you can to improve your patients’ oral health?

This is how your personal accomplishment should be measured because this is what can be controlled. Chance has a role in determining success and failure, but only you determine your own effort.

In a social media world where we are constantly kept up to date with what our colleagues and experts in our field are doing, it can be easy for us to compare ourselves with others. Constantly comparing our apparent lack of achievements to someone else’s wealth of accolades is a tried and tested recipe for unhappiness.

We are always aware of our own flaws while our colleagues appear flawless. The self-deprecating thoughts of ‘I could never do a composite filling as good as that’ are something many of us know all too well.

This is why the stoic philosophy of virtue serves well to re-centre us around what really matters – our virtues as dental practitioners.

‘One ought to seek out virtue for its own sake and not from hope or fear, or any external influence. It is in virtue that happiness consists, for virtue is the state of mind which tends to make the whole of life harmonious’ – Zeno of Citium

Stoic discipline 2: Control of emotions

The stoics hold that emotions are things which one undergoes, a contrast to one’s actions – things which one does. Therefore, it follows that the emotions that you are psychologically subjected to should not be allowed to manipulate you physically without you being positively and actively in control.

There must be a space of emotional and physical awareness between stimulus and response in which the emotions are processed and dealt with accordingly so that the best response is chosen.

This ensures the response is not one which is blinded by emotion and threatens one’s virtue. We do not get to choose our circumstances; we only get to choose how we react to them.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought about many negative emotions in the dental profession, namely uncertainty, frustration and fear. Negative emotions are often exhausting, whereas positive emotions are invigorating.

The ability to rationally confront, process and reframe negative emotions as well as harness positive emotions would make for a more resilient dental professional. A professional much better suited to navigate the turbulent waters of modern-day dentistry.

‘He is most powerful who has power over himself’ – Seneca

Stoic discipline 3: Nature and community

Relationships between humans are incredibly important to stoics, as they are to all members of the dental team. We only need to look at the GDC standards and how many of them pertain to our dealings with other human beings to notice how integral human interactions are to the care we provide.

No human being is perfect – we each have our individual flaws. Each imperfect individual is part of a family, a country, the local and also the global community of human beings which connect each and every one of us.

The stoic will not attempt to evade exasperating interactions with irrational and difficult people. Instead they will persevere and continue to work with people despite their nature, in order to play their part in the betterment of that person’s situation.

In dentistry, we are all too aware how certain patients can pose considerable challenges, and how frustrating a breakdown in teamwork can become. We must be willing to forgive them as we would also forgive our own irritating behaviours.

A stoic would do well to change the sharpness of words said in anger for the warm reassurance of forgiveness. Instead of jeopardising a relationship with words said in anger, we should look to strengthen relationships with gentle words of kindness and forgiveness.

‘If your choices are beautiful, so too will you be’ – Epictetus

Conclusion

The discourses on stoicism are long and the lessons to be learned are many. The above three disciplines should serve as a strong foundation for one to develop a robust stoic mindset with which to approach and navigate the challenges of both dentistry and daily life.

‘Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.’ – Marcus Aurelius


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