Let go and live with less control

We all hang on to ideas, emotions and memories that sometimes deserve to be let go. In this article, I discuss learning about a major problem we may all face when we try to hang on to something.

Letting go is a tricky business because we all hold onto certain beliefs very tightly. For example, we believe in “toughing things out” and finishing the race no matter what. Our society values winning and revels in the bragging rights that follow. We prize the individual and his or her looks and possessions.

We idolize famous athletes, winning sports teams and famous actors because we like to see winners and associate with them. If we cannot win personally, we can at least pick winners to follow. And follow them we can … in newspapers, on Twitter and on Facebook. We can align with winners 24/7 if desired.

Unfortunately, our own lives cannot always compete with those of these stars — despite a valiant effort by many to try. We try to “be like Mike.” Or, we only want the dress designed by Ralph Lauren. In dentistry, we try to have every new piece of equipment and attend all of the right events. And that is when we can get into trouble. We overload ourselves with too many expectations and too many rules for how to live our lives. Stress creeps in. Anxiety lurks nearby. Sleeplessness finds us. And each day becomes a little bit more difficult to manage because we cannot decide what to release or how to release a desire or expectation. We forget how to let go. We ignore the signs or symptoms that something has to change. We don’t want to let anyone down, including ourselves. So we suffer.

As dental professionals, we are particularly prone to suffering because we think we are supposed to be the ones fixing others. We are trained to know the answers to problems, and with credentials behind our names, we find it hard to release this perceived obligation and find it hard to admit we may be the ones needing help. A 2015 ADA Dentist Well-Being Survey found “A total of 48 percent of male dentists and 51 percent of dentists under age 40 agreed or strongly agreed that it would be difficult for them to seek professional help.”

In other words, it’s hard to turn toward the pain and deal with it. But, I learned a different pathway in my mindfulness-based stress reduction training. I learned how to face pain and help others face their pain in a constructive way. There is a common saying in the mindfulness community: “pain + resistance = suffering.” We experience pain — like difficult decision making or painful rejections — and then we get to decide what to do with it. Some turn away from the pain and hang on to it. If we do, we often end up with more suffering because we resist an outcome we think we may not desire (what resists persists). The saying, “better the devil you know than the one you don’t,” explains why this behavior tends to persist. When we keep doing the same thing, we know what to expect, and that is comforting to a certain point. If we take a risk and change or adapt to something new, we may make our situation worse (the devil you don’t know may be worse than the situation you do know). If we acknowledge the pain, accept the pain, minimize the risks and work through the pain, we have a chance to lessen our suffering.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, touted as the father of mindfulness, wrote in his book, Full Catastrophe Living, “Mindfulness involves a determined effort to observe and accept your physical discomfort and your agitated emotions, moment by moment.”

There is no way to eliminate suffering, but we can lessen it greatly when we learn to acknowledge the cause of the pain. As dental professionals, we face a great deal of stress in our work environments because we feel responsible for among other things healthy and positive outcomes.

How we deal with our stress is absolutely within our reach. We have options, and they often center on our abilities to adapt and let go of certain expectations, behaviors or long-term beliefs. What we do as health care professionals is not easy. We have to find ways to cope with our stress. We may use spiritual guidance, mindfulness techniques, or other options to help us let go of issues beyond our control. And, when we find these ways, let’s not keep them to ourselves. We all need support and help sometimes. Yes, even us and even if we don’t like to admit it.

Once we know these options and practice them ourselves, we can offer them to our patients for their stress and anxiety concerns, too. We can give them hope, and we can help them resist their pain less. We can teach them to let go.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the Summer 2017 issue of Dental Practice Success. It was written by Dr. Knowles, a national speaker, health educator, and practicing dentist in East Lansing, Michigan. For more information, or to schedule her for your next speaking event, find more details at Beyond32Teeth.com, or email her at IntentionalDental@gmail.com .

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