I went to the dentist for the first time in my life recently. No, seriously. I’m 31 and I’ve never been to the dentist.
I’ve had dead body bone chips fused to my spine, 60 staples and two drains in my leg, and been in a half body cast (not all at the same time, but still!) and yet I’m still terrified of the dentist. The first appointment was a consultation and I cried. I’ve been to two follow up appointments where I had to get shots to numb my mouth to do the procedure. I got through with the help of nitrous oxide, supportive people, and more crying.
The experience made me think about the whole process of being vulnerable and confronting things that scare us. There are a lot of parallels between my dentist experience and other times I’ve had to deal with tough situations in life.
So I’m going to share some things I’ve experienced while working through stressful or vulnerable situations. I’ll use the dentist as my example, mostly, but I can apply this to many different difficult situations. Reflecting on each of these items has been helpful to me in understanding how I cope and work through difficult situations.
1. This is a Normal Thing and it’s okay to be upset about a Normal Thing
It doesn’t help anything if the first thing you think going into a difficult situation is “other people are fine with this, there’s something wrong with me.” I used to do this to myself all the time. Like I said earlier, I’ve had a billion surgeries, why is the dentist a big deal? The dentist is just a Normal Thing for most people. But every single person is different. Your Normal Things aren’t my Normal Things.
I once worked with someone who was terrified of grasshoppers. Of course no one knew this until there was a grasshopper in the middle of the floor at work. Then everyone knew pretty quickly. But I didn’t think she was dumb, I just caught the grasshopper in a cup and took it outside, far away from the building. No big deal.
But I’m not terrified of grasshoppers. I am terrified of dentists. And I had to ask my husband to be there with me at my appointments to help me get through.
I’ve learned it is ok to really struggle with some Normal Things. But you also have to face those things to take care of yourself. I had to go to the dentist so I didn’t get really sick. In other situations, it may be difficult to speak up to some people, but I have to stand up for my boundaries so my mental health doesn’t suffer like it has in the past. Things that we need to do for our health can make us feel sad, anxious, or upset. But we have to do them. Which brings me to…
2. You’re safe and this is good for you.
So, obviously, I’m not talking about situations that are actually abusive or not safe. I am talking about going to the dentist, or having a difficult conversation with a co-worker, or working through a conflict in an intimate relationship. My past experiences sometimes kick in and I go into fight or flight. Or I just get so worked up that I avoid the situation altogether. But that’s not healthy.
Confronting things and feeling vulnerable is uncomfortable and can trigger a myriad of emotional and physical reactions. But, in the end, working through them is necessary to have a better life. I cried at the dentist but I did understand I was doing something good for my body. I used that as motivation to finally take care of my health and face my fear.
3. It’s not your fault at first.
A lot of times when I’m put in a vulnerable situation, I think there’s something I did wrong to get me there in the first place. Most of the time, it isn’t your fault. Life and our bodies are messy and things happen because we get older or things change. Deciding you are in a situation because you are inherently bad or broken will usually keep you stuck there.
Lots of stuff isn’t our fault, but we have to take positive action or else it will become our fault.
There will come a certain point when it is our fault if bad things get worse, more painful, or more dangerous. I used to look at my body and the job I was stuck in and think “It’s not my fault.” I would shower myself with shallow self-care tactics that kept me miserable in the same place. I had to take responsibility for myself amidst a lot of stuff that wasn’t my fault.
It’s not my fault I didn’t go to the dentist up until now, for a myriad of complicated reasons. But now I have the resources to go, and it will be my fault if I cancel the next appointment because I don’t want to face my fears.
4. Decompression is a whole process.
I have no idea why but after I freaked out at the dentist I got home and felt like I didn’t deserve to do anything nice for myself. I felt like I didn’t deserve any good things to happen to me ever again. I felt like a failure. I cried. I had FEELINGS.
Look. Stressful situations will require a decompression period and you’ll probably be on a roller coaster for a bit. Don’t be tough on yourself during this phase. It will pass. I always have to tell myself that I am riled up now but after a nap/time/processing I will feel better. And I do. It’s not a permanent evaluation of how things went and when the fog clears I am usually able to see how I’ve grown or ways that I am proud of myself for handling a stressful situation.
If you find this roller coaster of self-deprecation continues beyond a decompression period of a few hours or an afternoon, this could be a red flag: Maybe you know you didn’t handle the situation well and there’s still work to be done. Maybe you need to ask for outside support or intervention to help the situation. Maybe you need to try something new rather keeping yourself stuck in a stress cycle. Or maybe you need to look into professional care for your mental health. None of these things mean you are a failure. It means the situation was able to show you the direction you need to go in order to make things better and grow.
5. Other stuff is always going on in your life.
When I went to the dentist the first time, they put that x-ray plate thing in my mouth and I threw up. I felt like an absolute failure. Thing is, I had a migraine that day and though I took medicine for it, I might not have actually thrown up if I were in better health that day.
Life doesn’t stop for stressful situations. You always have stuff on your mind, health issues, or Big Life Things. If I’m thinking a situation is Very Bad, I can now usually look and see everything I’m projecting from other areas in my life. After the situation has passed, when I’m reflecting and working through, I can dissect and evaluate the situation better. We must always be tending to the big picture.
6. You have to work on your whole life
In the past, my life really sucked. I was broke, working part time jobs, had no stable health insurance, and was housing-insecure. When I had to deal with a stressful situation, I usually just avoided it because I wasn’t motivated to work through it—life would still suck on the other side.
Now, after the dentist or any other difficult situation, I get to go back to my normal life that is pretty damn good. So, I must say, it’s not a possibility for everyone, but if it is a possibility for you—start working on your pretty damn good sooner than later. Because you’ll need it to carry you through.
‘Til next time /&