Overcoming Challenges as a Dental Hygienist: An Interview with Sonya Dunbar

Overcoming challenges as a dental hygienist

Sonya Dunbar, also known as the Geriatric Toothfairy, is a registered dental hygienist with more than 30 years of dental experience in private practice, skilled nursing facilities, and academia. In addition to being a TEDx speaker and judge, she is also a published author and is pursuing a PhD in gerontology.

Sonya’s journey from adversity to triumph is an inspiring testament to what’s possible. Continue reading for an interview with Sonya about her journey and the challenges she has faced throughout her career. 

1. Can you share some specific instances where you faced obstacles in your career and how you overcame those obstacles? 

I have encountered several challenges throughout my career, but the one that affected me the most was burnout. At one point, the burnout was so bad that I seriously considered leaving the dental industry altogether. It had taken such a toll on me that the burnout turned into depression, and I didn’t want to go to work anymore.

During this time, I discovered the power of self-care. I realized that in order to reclaim my passion for the dental industry and my overall well-being, I needed to shift my focus toward prioritizing myself. Self-care became a non-negotiable cornerstone of my daily routine. 

2. Imposter syndrome is a common challenge for many dental professionals early in their careers. Could you provide some strategies or advice for tackling imposter syndrome and building confidence in yourself as a professional?

Imposter syndrome is horrible—we all want to be perfectionists and superhumans, but we can’t be. I have tackled this with many strategies, including pulling away from social media. We often compare ourselves to others, and we have invisible blinders on. Instead, we need to stay in our lane, compete with only ourselves, and become the best version of ourselves. 

As a dental hygienist, it’s important to remember that you are a big part of the team. It’s easy to feel like you don’t see your value, which can only worsen your imposter syndrome. My advice is: don’t downplay who you are. Know you’re making a difference, and know your worth and value. 

3. Handling challenging patients and coworkers can be emotionally taxing. From your perspective, what strategies or techniques have you found most effective in maintaining your emotional well-being and moving past draining interactions?

I’ve had my fair share of challenging patients and coworkers; this can be tricky to deal with in the workplace. Nowadays, I do not match or take others’ energy. If someone is having a bad day and taking it out on others, I don’t take it personally and choose to release their energy back to them. 

I also think it’s important to prepare yourself mentally and physically to have a great day every day. Whether that is taking some time to calm yourself down or doing self-care before the workday starts, prioritizing yourself can help you keep your emotional well-being in a good place. 

4. Maintaining a healthy work-life balance can be challenging in healthcare. How do you personally manage stress and prevent burnout while maintaining a fulfilling dental career?

To manage my stress and prevent burnout, I prioritize and know the power of no. I prioritize what’s important to me: my spiritual relationship, self-care, family, and then my business, in that order. Since I know what is important, I know what to put first.

There is power in saying no. I no longer say yes just to say yes if it cuts into my priorities. I take care of my priorities first and fill my cup up first, and then I see if I have the bandwidth to say yes. It’s important to remember that your body keeps score and doesn’t cheat—if you aren’t taking care of your body and its needs, it won’t take care of you. 

5. Can you provide some insights into how you keep your passion for dentistry alive, even when faced with demanding patients or colleagues, and how that passion has influenced your practice?

When I started my dental hygienist career, I did what I had to do to get by. After some time, I discovered what I really loved in dentistry. You have to discover what you want to do because if you do what you love, you will do it with passion. 

It’s also okay to change your mind, and it’s okay to pivot. You aren’t stuck in one role. There are seasons in your life when you love one thing and then realize it isn’t for you in the long run. That’s why I love TempMee; you get to work around other people, gain new experiences, and try different specialties until you find your passion. 
To learn more about Sonya’s journey and how to prioritize self-care and overcome a toxic mindset, watch our on-demand webinar.

Learn practical strategies to prevent burnout with Sonya Dunbar
Watch Now