Have you ever felt like you didn’t belong?
We sometimes dismiss the importance of fitting in, but being part of a community represents much more than simply being liked.
In fact, it’s a basic human need.
According to the Mayo Clinic, belonging helps “manage stress and other behavioral issues. When we feel we have support and are not alone, we are more resilient, often coping more effectively with difficult times in our lives.”
This explains why I felt so lost when I found myself alone and ashamed three years into my dental career.
From the time I was a young girl, I knew I wanted to become a dentist. I loved the idea of creating smiles to make other people happy.
Unfortunately, when I got here, dentistry wasn’t at all how I expected it to be. I thought I would feel great helping others, but instead, I always felt burdened by the responsibility of shaping others’ health outcomes. Instead of feeling fulfilled, engaged, and satisfied by my contribution, I felt depressed, anxious, and lonely.
I couldn’t share my feelings about my career for fear of being exposed as a failure, so I lived in secrecy, which made all my feelings worse.
There’s nothing as isolating as investing your whole being into becoming a dental professional and then arriving only to feel like you don’t fit in.
It was three years into my dental career that I first realized that something was wrong. Initially, I knew that dentistry would be hard, so I was expecting the first few years to be difficult. But when I arrived at year three, and things didn’t get any easier, I lost hope.
I couldn’t see how things could improve, and I wanted out.
That was an instinct that, looking back, I could have trusted. But at the time, I wasn’t ready to face it. I spent the next 7 years of my dental career trying– trying new jobs, investing in serious CE with entire weeks at the Pankey Institute, and even working on my own personal development with a coach and a therapist.
I wanted so badly to make it work, to feel like I was an integral part of this community. However, none of those efforts worked, and I eventually had to face that I was in the wrong career.
Because I thought I couldn’t share this with others in the community, that isolation made me believe a lot of lies.
When I observed other dentists, I couldn’t understand why dentistry was so much easier for them.
- Why couldn’t I handle the stress the way they could?
- Why couldn’t I like it the way they did?
- Why couldn’t I be happy in this amazing career that I should be grateful for?
I came up with answers for those questions and thought, surely, there was something wrong with me.
- Maybe I was a lazy person who didn’t want to work and would never be satisfied in any career.
- Maybe I was just an unhappy, depressed person.
- Maybe I was the kind of person who was always looking for something wrong in my life.
I believed these lies for many years.
It all changed when I got the big ultimatum.
One day my husband said, “You need to do something about this. You can’t come home from work every day crying and complaining, or our marriage won’t last. I don’t care what we need to do—if we have to sell our house, fine! But you need to do something about this.”
I joke that it was an ultimatum. But really, it was permission. It was permission to finally honor my truth. That launched me onto a journey of self-exploration, and with the help of a career coach and a therapist, I eventually began to change my life.
The key that allowed me to reconnect with myself was to tap into my creativity.
I began to see my career search more as a game, something to have fun with and take less seriously. My creativity came in the form of blogging, and that forced me to pay attention to myself and my world around me. I started to see that I had other skills and interests and that if I could do something as hard as dentistry, then I could do anything.
Through this process, I began to see more opportunities and slowly gained the courage to plan my split from dentistry.
That was just the beginning.
One day I found a blog post titled, “10 Reasons I Hate the Dentist.” Of course, I was a little offended! This article was very tongue-in-cheek, so I decided to reply in the same silly tone. I wrote a blog post reply titled, “10 Reasons Your Dentist Probably Hates You Too.“
It went viral overnight.
In 2011, no one had ever publicly written such a thing. Suddenly, dental professionals in every role and spouses and children of dentists reached out to me to share their thoughts on the subject.
For once, there was a collective sigh of relief in the global dental community: someone finally expressed what we felt.
I heard from people who felt silenced for years because, as professionals, we had to smile and nod and could never openly “talk back” to difficult patients. I heard from kind patients who loved their dentists and couldn’t believe a patient would treat us this way. And I heard from many dentists and hygienists who were in a lot of pain in their careers and felt stuck.
I finally felt like I was part of a community again.
In that moment, something shifted. After years of feeling ashamed that I “couldn’t hack it” as a dentist, I suddenly felt validated. I felt acknowledged and realized that I was far from alone.
Researcher, Brene Brown, says that “isolation breeds shame,” and “empathy kills shame.”
This explains everything.
After years of hiding in isolation and shame, connecting with others who understood me allowed me to slowly heal. It allowed me to see that all those years, there wasn’t something inherently wrong with me. Instead, I was simply in the wrong career.
When you isolate, you can lose perspective. That can make you question who you are and lose sight of the truth. Instead of seeing the smart, strong, and capable woman that you are, your mind plays tricks on you and tells you there is something wrong with you.
That can take a toll on one’s soul.
If there is an aspect of your life or career that creates pain for you, find your trusted community and share it with them.
You will see the truth that you are a strong, capable woman who is worthy of living your best life.