Dealing with setbacks

Medico-legal adviser and former consultant psychiatrist Dr Oliver Lord offers advice dealing with setbacks throughout your career.

Setbacks are part of dentistry, from retained roots to dissatisfied patients. But that first experience can be a shock for dental students who’ve come to associate hard work and dedication with success. 

Of course, it’s never good to feel that you’ve fallen short of your own high standards, so these pointers should help you put things into perspective and make sure a setback doesn’t hinder your progress.

You won’t know what you don’t know, so be open to feedback from others

We’re all susceptible to the Dunning-Kruger effect, where our perception of competence in a new skill – from a clinical procedure to patient communication – rises more quickly than our actual ability. That can leave you feeling the rug has been pulled from under you if something goes wrong, but try to remember it’s a very human tendency. The best way to counter this is to actively seek feedback from objective observers with more experience. 

Recognise the danger of an immediate ‘fight or flight response’ to criticism

Making an error or being on the receiving end of negative feedback typically produces a spike in adrenaline that results in a fight or flight response. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to stop yourself from saying something unprofessional in the heat of the moment, when the best approach would be to listen or simply apologise.

However, knowing that you’re vulnerable in this situation gives you the best chance of managing your emotional response. Give yourself some breathing space, and if possible, ask for a break so you can calm down and seek support if you need it.

Surround yourself with colleagues you can turn to for support

Dental school is a great place to hone your interpersonal skills, which will help you build supportive relationships with colleagues now and after you qualify.

Use the ‘small moments’ outside clinics to engage with fellow students and find out about their lives and interests, as this is what really knits a team together. That feeling of community and understanding among dental professionals can be a shared source of strength in tough times, and should make it easier to be open and honest with each other - vital for a healthy workplace culture.

Think of failure as instant feedback

Dental professionals need to be capable problem-solvers, able to recognise when a treatment plan isn’t working and adapt to achieve the best outcome for patients. Try to get into this mindset at dental school, accepting when something hasn’t gone as well as you’d hoped and focusing on how you can improve.

Read up on the subject, talk to your clinical supervisor and try to seek feedback that's useful, not just reassuring. It’s comforting when someone tells you they would ‘have done the same’, but it's not always particularly helpful – you need to know what you can do better next time.

Write down your reflections

Having recurring thoughts about an incident is the brain’s way of not letting you forget something important, but it’s not great if it’s keeping you awake at night or distracting you from your studies.

There are no guarantees, but many find that writing their thoughts down is a positive step towards addressing these concerns and quietening those intrusive thoughts so they don’t seep into day-to-day life.

While you don’t need to share what you've written, demonstrating reflection is an important part of being a dental professional (in the eyes of your dental school and the GDC), so it’s worth using every opportunity to practice.

Explore techniques for addressing anxiety

The setbacks that tend to affect us most are those which challenge our core beliefs about ourselves. If you’re feeling vulnerable and anxious, there are self-help techniques that could help you feel more in control, such as breathing exercises, progressive muscular relaxation and visualisation.

For more on these, try our online health and wellbeing course, which is free for DDU members. You can also find a list of wellbeing resources in our feature, Adjusting to life in dental school.

Always seek professional help (such as your GP) if you feel constantly anxious or you're experiencing symptoms like panic attacks, avoidant behaviour and tearfulness.

If you find yourself catastrophising, call the DDU

Many of us latch onto the worst-case scenario when we make a mistake, whether that’s being asked to leave dental school, being sued or facing a GDC hearing. But in this situation, you need more than the bland assurance that it ‘probably’ won’t happen.

It’s much better to talk to someone with relevant experience, such as your personal tutor or the DDU. We've helped thousands of members with issues relating to clinical errors, so to help you get things in perspective, email or call our helpline sooner rather than later for realistic and informed advice on what to expect.

Dental school is a supportive environment where mistakes are a recognised part of the learning process, so it’s the ideal place to develop the skills and techniques you need to deal with setbacks. Your tutors and clinical supervisors don’t expect you to master procedures straight away, but they do want you to recognise problems and respond appropriately. Ultimately, this is what demonstrates your fitness to become a dental professional.

This page was correct at publication on 01/02/2024. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

Oliver Lord

by Dr Oliver Lord Medico-legal adviser

Oliver is part of a specialist advisory team that assists MDU members with disciplinary investigations and has an interest in doctors’ wellbeing. Before joining the MDU in 2013, Oliver was a consultant psychiatrist in a crisis resolution team. He provides regular talks and courses to members on medico-legal issues, conflict resolution and unconscious bias.