The pursuit of excellence: Overcoming perfectionism in dentistry

Photo of Muhalab Al Sammarraie, D.D.S.

Muhalab Al Sammarraie, D.D.S., originally from Baghdad, is the site dental director at AltaMed Health Services, one of the nation’s largest federally qualified health centers. Recognized as a 2023 ADA 10 Under 10 Award winner and an Incisal Edge magazine 40 Under 40 Top Dentist in America for 2023, he is also an international lecturer at Universidad De La Salle Bajio and a preceptor for Tufts University School of Dental Medicine students. He serves as an alternate delegate to the 2024 ADA House of Delegates and a member of the continuing education and communication committees at the San Diego County Dental Society. Dr. Al Sammarraie’s leadership spans public, private and nonprofit sectors, focusing on education, social services and health care. Beyond dentistry, he supports activist groups in Iraq, helping war victims and displaced individuals access education and medical care.

Dentistry represents the perfect intersection between scientific precision and artistic creativity. It is not simply about treating teeth; dentists are artists who blend their understanding of biological sciences with exceptional artistic skills to craft smiles that suit every face, making dentistry the beaming face of medicine. As dentists, our training involves working on extremely small areas, often no larger than a few millimeters. We understand how even a minuscule difference can dramatically alter a patient’s appearance, which can lead to meticulous overthinking and a relentless pursuit of perfection.

Even when you create a stunning smile, you may only be able to focus on a quarter-millimeter discrepancy that’s visible to others only under magnification. This attention to detail can lead to frustration or regret over hours of effort, even though the result is excellent from the patient’s perspective (and might even impress other dentists). This never-ending quest for perfection is the foundation of our high standards and causes us to continuously push the boundaries of precision and excellence in dentistry.

The perils of perfectionism

What is perfectionism? It’s the continuous search for flawlessness and the rejection of anything short of it. The problem, though, is that when you seek perfection, your goals continually change and are always just out of reach. Think of it as a race where the finish line is always three steps ahead, no matter how long you run.

This drive for perfection might initially motivate young achievers by offering a lofty goal to strive for. However, it can gradually become toxic as it depletes your energy, causes feelings of chronic inadequacy and makes the accomplishments that you do reach less joyful because they never reach your idea of “perfect.” As the saying goes, courtesy of Winston Churchill, “Perfection is the enemy of progress.” The relentless pursuit of perfection can be damaging to your mental health, often leading to stress, anxiety and depression. Furthermore, if you’re constantly seeking perfection in one area, you may miss other opportunities that make your professional and personal lives rewarding and enjoyable.

Recalibrate your perceptions

When the search for perfection becomes too much, recalibrate your perceptions — remember that perfection is only an illusion, but striving for excellence is possible. It’s a small shift, only a single word, but it’s enough to reframe your mind and prevent the unavoidable burnout associated with the quest for perfectionism.

In my own journey, I have learned that, ultimately, God will bring about what is meant to be, and I will receive what I deserve, even if it isn’t the perfect outcome I initially envisioned. In my culture, we emphasize balance, saying, “Moderation is the adornment of matters,” highlighting that finding equilibrium is key to achieving true fulfillment. Shifting my focus toward inner peace and excellence rather than perfection has been transformative. This change has allowed me to grow, mature and gain wisdom, focusing on the best outcomes for everyone rather than selfishly seeking perfection.

Dealing with comparisons has been crucial in this journey. Some people seem to have everything perfectly done and portray life as flawless, making you question, “What’s wrong with me?” There’s a saying, “He exaggerates and makes a big fuss out of a tiny thing,” which captures this well. Some do this intentionally, while others do it unintentionally to feel happy. I learned not to judge others and to take only the positive aspects from these portrayals, focusing on my progress without unrealistic comparisons. Often, I hesitate to try things because they are marketed as extraordinary feats. However, when I finally attempt them, I realize they are neither as difficult nor as impressive as portrayed. This understanding has helped me approach challenges with a balanced perspective, focusing on my capabilities and progress.

Create a life outside of your work

Loving your work and being proud of what you do is natural, but it’s important to remember that dentistry is just one aspect of your identity. Allocate time for rest, social activities and breaks to maintain a well-rounded work-life balance. You’ll perform better at work when you give yourself ample time away from it. The term “work-life balance” is used a lot, but it’s a myth — you cannot treat both equally. Instead, you can strive for harmony by aligning your actions with your unique values, goals and life circumstances.

Find hobbies outside of work that bring you joy, help manage your stress and allow you to step out of the work headspace. Whether it’s playing football (or should I say, soccer), hiking or learning a musical instrument, engaging in activities you love can remind you there’s more to life than career “perfection.”


Finding fulfillment often means looking beyond perfection, and volunteering can be a key to this realization. Giving back to the community, especially to those underserved, shows that perfection isn’t necessary to make a positive impact. Furthermore, sharing your knowledge and mentoring others can foster positive changes, reinforcing the idea that everyone has something valuable to offer.

Volunteering provides a sense of purpose and perspective. By focusing on the needs of others and tackling real-world problems, you’ll see that the value you bring isn’t reliant upon flawless performance, and success can be found solely with continual progress. Volunteering fosters empathy, reduces stress and builds community connections, enhancing personal growth and well-being. It promotes a balanced outlook on life and achievements, which is particularly beneficial for high-stress professions like dentistry, where perfectionism is common.

Steer clear of social media comparisons

“Comparison is the thief of joy.” — Theodore Roosevelt. Social media is a double-edged sword; it connects us with others but also puts our colleagues’ achievements on display, often without revealing how many struggles they faced along the way. This creates a distorted reality where we compare our behind-the-scenes to others’ highlight reels.

While social media offers opportunities for networking and professional growth, the curated perfection seen online can lead to unrealistic expectations and feelings of inadequacy, contributing to stress, imposter syndrome and burnout. To avoid these toxic effects, it’s crucial to approach social media mindfully. Reflect on your journey and acknowledge your unique challenges and milestones without comparing them to others’. Your path is uniquely yours, and any progress you make is noteworthy.

Ditch the idea of perfect

Perfectionism often does more harm than good. It can cause career stagnation, drive self-deprecating thoughts and foster imposter syndrome, all in the interest of creating something unattainable: perfection. If your goals always feel out of reach, take time to reevaluate and possibly dial them back to the realm of realism. Remember, while perfection is an illusion, excellence is something tangible to strive for. Reshape your perception, embrace your imperfections and see how excellence, not perfection, is the true path to professional and personal fulfillment.

By understanding the perfectionist mindset and implementing these strategies, we can transform our approach to dentistry. Embrace progress and self-compassion to find fulfillment in our achievements, and enjoy the journey toward excellence without the burden of perfectionism.

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