I don’t know about you, but I find going to the dentist very traumatic. So when I broke a tooth recently, I was steeling myself for some radical (and expensive) dental treatment. The visit turned out to be much more traumatic than I expected—but not because of the dental work, which was yet to come. Instead, I had a very disturbing experience with the dentist himself, and I left his clinic feeling more traumatized than if I’d undergone major surgery.
Considered to be one of the best in the field of biological/holistic dentistry, this man was nonetheless arrogant, unprofessional, disrespectful and insensitive. He openly bullied his staff and he wasted precious time (at roughly $5 a minute) extolling his many virtues, claiming to be so incredibly happy with his superior skills that he had no time for everyday things. And it was clear that he didn’t really want to be spending it on ordinary mortals like me, either. Added to that was the fact that every other dentist who’d treated me had, he said, done a really bad job, and it was going to cost me, big time, to repair the damage. With them, I had wasted my money, but undergoing his extensive treatment (for TMJ disorder, crown reconstruction, dental implants…) would, it seemed, be my salvation.
I don’t normally like to put negative labels on people, but I’m allowing myself this rare dysfunctional luxury—partly because it can be healthy to just emotionally vent, and partly because it helps me to understand what’s going on for me. I also think it’s important to try to define the subtle negative undercurrents and passive-aggressive behaviour that we so often experience in our communications. These things can be hard to articulate, and we may feel we won’t be heard or understood anyway …which is why we tend to let them go unchallenged.
Admittedly, I’m unusually sensitive, acutely aware of undercurrents, hidden agendas, underlying emotional drivers, and the deeper truths and dynamics behind our words and actions (which is a wonderful asset in my work). Nonetheless, after 35 minutes of this dental diatribe, when the master himself had left to deal with more important surgical matters, I was stunned to find myself crying uncontrollably—literally unable to contain my emotions. When my embarrassing sobs finally subsided, I began to reflect on what had happened and why I’d reacted so strongly to his behaviour.
The true gravity of a cavity…
If I see myself as perfect and always attracting what I need (rather than being a victim), then this dentist must represent something more meaningful for me. But what did it mean? He was irrational, which prevented me from having a reasonable conversation or taking a logical approach. He was destabilizing—nice one minute, but aggressive the next—so I didn’t feel safe. He needed to be heard but didn’t listen to me, which brought up issues of trust and validation. Yet the emotional overwhelm kept building, as he piled on the pressure—financially, emotionally and psychologically—completely insensitive to the fact that I was dealing with a brain tumour that is aggravated by stress. At the same time, despite his claims that he was just “too smart for anyone else to keep up with him”, I was ‘reading’ him on many levels. I could see why he was arrogant; I could see high blood pressure in his complexion; I could feel some deeper warmth and compassion underneath all the bravado; and I sensed that he was far from happy.
Of course, he’s not a bad man. His mind was just so fevered and intense (a bit like mine!) that he could not relate appropriately to others. His work had saved him—given him an outlet for his creative energy and provided him with the accolades and recognition he wanted. Yet, at a deeper level, I sensed that he was lost and in desperate need of acceptance and validation from others. But with so many data and stimuli coming at me at once, my brain just couldn’t process it all …and I broke down. There was nowhere else for all the backed-up energy and tension to go. It had to come out; when it did, I recognized it as trauma—just one more layer on top of what had been buried inside, many years ago.
Perhaps if I’d allowed myself to collapse emotionally with him, rather than his assistant, I’d have connected with the deeper essence of the man—the heart and all the loving dedication that keeps him alive and engaged in his work. Maybe it would have been healing for us both and maybe we’d have seen the powerful impact we can have on others. Not all our cavities are in our teeth, and I believe that sharing our deeper selves can help us heal the ‘holes’ in our hearts.
We think we need to ‘hold it together’ so others won’t be upset by our upset, but really we owe it to ourselves and to them to just let it rip and to share the raw, authentic emotions that we keep so tightly contained, terrified of their powerful intensity. Maybe that’s the very essence of trauma—a deep hurt that never gets processed or healed, a ball of suppressed emotions that keeps attracting triggers on the outside, pushing us to the edge of overwhelm so that we finally crack, let go and set ourselves free.
As healthcare practitioners and as human beings, we have a responsibility do our own inner work, to have solid boundaries, to demonstrate appropriate behaviour and to not dump our unresolved issues on anyone else. Our clients invest their trust in us, and we hold their hearts in our hands, whether we’re counsellors, doctors or dentists. We’re not just fixing a tooth, an illness or an emotional crisis; we’re helping to build wholeness—one word, one action, one smile at a time. And aren’t dentists supposed to give us lovely smiles?