Does your acne:
keep you from hanging out with friends?
make you feel obligated to “cover up”, even if you don’t want to?
cause you to shy away from compliments, telling yourself they’re not true?
make you feel like people without acne are better looking than you?
make you feel like you’re less worthy of love, kindness and respect?
cause you to obsess about every little thing – your skin care routine, your diet, your lifestyle, to a fault?
Then this post is for you.
Having acne often comes with negative thoughts and emotions; feelings of sadness, frustration, embarrassment, anger, and hopelessness.
You’ve probably told yourself at least on one occasion that if your skin cleared up, you could finally be happy, that if you were acne free, everything else would fall into place.
But what if I told you that to be completely acne free, you don’t need to have clear skin?
We are all born with infinite potential and equal worth. Over time, our circumstances, experiences, and our interactions with the world around us might cause us to believe that this isn’t true. However, with hard work and self-compassion, self-destructive thoughts and beliefs about ourselves can be unlearned, and we really can be “acne free”.
Have you ever heard the phrase we are our own worst critics?
When it comes to our acne, we are often striving for an unattainable goal: perfectly flawless skin. We are inundated with images of “perfection” in the media, even though we
know that not everyone is perfect all the time. We all get pimples, we all have bad hair days, but with the rise of social media and posting our “highlight reels” it’s getting harder to remember that we’re all just human. No matter who puts up the façade of having everything under control, nobody does.
Some of us even go so far as to convince ourselves that we would be happy if our acne would just clear up. But would you, really? I told myself that, but once my acne cleared up, I found new things about my skin to hate and pick at. The reality is that, if an ounce of your self-worth and confidence are tied up in something arbitrary such as the condition of your skin, you will never be acne free. Even when your acne is long gone, you’ll be suffering from what I call phantom acne and its effects.
The “do more” mentality is also negative and damaging, doing us no favours. We need to take a step back and ask ourselves if our thoughts and actions are actually proactive and helpful or if we are just chasing pipe dreams and always viewing ourselves as the reason our acne isn’t getting better. “My acne would get better if I tried harder, if I stopped eating so much junk food, if I stopped stressing out so much”. Whether or not these things are true, is of little consequence. The fact of the matter is, whether you have acne or not should not determine your worth. This only leads to further feelings of failure when a supposed cure doesn’t work for you.
Despite all the ways in which we situate ourselves in the thick of negativity, we have the power to get ourselves out of it by practicing self-compassion.
Change Your Relationship with Your Mirror
Those of us with a negative self-image often have a complex relationship with our mirrors and other reflective surfaces. Sometimes we are stuck in front of the mirror, scrutinizing every pimple, bump and follicle, which sometimes even includes skin picking (which inevitably makes your skin worse – don’t do it!), and other times we practice complete avoidance (no pictures, no mirrors). On top of this, we also often engage in negative, judgmental and emotionally-charged self-talk (“my acne is so disgusting”).
Taking steps to change your relationship with your mirror should include not getting too close to the mirror, which always magnifies our perceived imperfections. When you need to look in the mirror, try standing 2-3 feet away and resist the urge to get up close and nit-pick. Try to set limits for mirror checking; when I had bad acne, I was constantly checking the mirror, worrying about every flake of skin or pustule. This only served to reinforce my negative self-talk. Instead, allow yourself 2-3 mirror checks throughout the day. But don’t avoid mirrors completely – you deserve to bask in the beauty that is your bad self!
Expose Yourself to Your Anxieties
Exposure therapy, although best complimented by sessions with a trained therapist, can be particularly liberating. The bottom line is, avoidance may feel good temporarily (we think we are saving ourselves shame and embarrassment), but it doesn’t help us in the long run. For example, our acne tends to keep us at home, especially when it’s really bad. We may even cancel plans because of an especially gnarly pimple. Instead, try to fight the urge to cancel, or commit to going out at least twice per week, either by yourself to a library or coffee shop, or with friends to a restaurant or shopping mall. Try challenging yourself to leave the house without makeup a couple times a week.
Exposure can be very challenging, so try not to set yourself up for failure. Going to a major event without makeup on for your first exposure probably isn’t going to end well. Instead, try taking a jaunt to the grocery store during off-peak times. The next time, try going to the coffee shop to read a book. The next time, maybe you’ll feel confident enough to tackle a social outing. Remember, it’s completely normal to feel anxious in these situations, and you will feel very uncomfortable – that’s the point! The point is to recognize the threats we tell ourselves are out there aren’t really there – to push yourself to your limits, to the point of almost unbearable anxiety … because it’s only downhill from there. Challenge the validity of your fears. If you think everyone will stare at you if you go out without makeup, challenge the validity of that thought during your exposure. If you think people will look at you in disgust if you’re makeup-free, challenge the validity of that thought. I think you’ll find fairly quickly that these are imagined, not real threats.
Challenge Your Inner Critic
Our inner critics tend to favour “all-or-nothing” thinking (“my acne makes me completely disgusting and unlikeable”), labeling (“I’m a loser”), mind reading (“I know people are judging me because of my acne”), personalization (“that lady is staring at me because she thinks my acne is ugly”), and a variety of other cognitive distortions. It’s up to you to stand tall and challenge them – demand the evidence for these distortions, and importantly, give the defense a chance to speak. You give all this time to hear out your inner critic, but you stifle your inner cheerleader before they even get to the podium!
While it’s helpful to evaluate the validity of maladaptive thoughts (“what is the evidence that others are noticing or judging my acne?”), it can also be beneficial to examine its usefulness (“is it really helpful for me to think that I can only be happy if my skin was clear?”).
Once you can identify your automatic, appearance-related beliefs, and restructure them into more realistic terms (“I may have acne, but not everyone is staring at me”), you can begin to address deeper core beliefs, which are often beliefs like “I’m unlovable”, “I’m inadequate”, or “I’m a failure”. These deeply held beliefs filter your experiences, and if not addressed, can thwart your progress.
An exercise I like to practice daily is in recording (physically writing them down – this is important!) my negative thoughts, distortions, and realistic responses. After all, we can’t change something if we don’t recognize that there is something to change. By simply becoming aware of our negative thoughts, we can distance ourselves from the emotions they elicit, and therefore identify with them less. With this exercise, it’s important to remind yourself that thoughts are just thoughts – not facts. Without this, it is easy to believe our negative self-talk.
When I first began this exercise I was overwhelmed by the sheer frequency of my negative thoughts. The whole first day was spent writing, it felt like. But I learned a lot from the experience, and in my continued use of this exercise I have grown as a person, and become kinder to myself in many ways.
Go about your regular daily activities. Let your regular thoughts flow through your mind. Keep a pen and paper handy, and be ready to write down your thoughts and emotions as you feel them. Then, try to make connections between the thoughts you have, and your outward experience. Why do you think this way? Do the things you say to yourself sound similar to those your mom once said? Your school peers? A stranger? Sometimes making these connections are hard, but try if you can.
Once you’ve identified the negative thoughts, begin to challenge their validity. Rewrite your dialogue as if you were talking to a friend, or a loved one. For example, if a friend told you they thought they were ugly because of their acne, what would you tell them? How would you respond? That’s how you need to respond to your own negative thoughts.
It’s crucial to physically record this process, as the anxious mind is fast-paced and you’ll easily become overwhelmed by your many thoughts. Writing things down enables us to slow the gears a little bit and look at things more objectively.
For example, if one of your negative thoughts is, “my acne is disgusting and it makes me ugly”, you might identify that this is all-or-nothing thinking, and challenge it with a realistic response like, “attractiveness is subjective, and having acne does not make me ugly. I have many endearing features that people compliment me on, and when I think they’re staring at my acne, they probably aren’t. Even if they are staring at my acne, their opinions are temporary and inconsequential to me. I don’t know what other people think of me, and I don’t need to. I am allowed to take up space and time whether or not I have acne.”
By doing this, we can shift the way we see ourselves by practicing consistent and supportive internal dialogues. Keep a small notebook with you to continue this exercise throughout the day. This way, instead of being critical of ourselves and ruminating on these negative thoughts and emotions, we can just accept who we are.
Stop the Comparisons
Comparing ourselves to others is not a valuable way to expend energy; it only leads to negative self-talk, which makes everything worse. If this means you need to seriously re-evaluate your Instagram follows, then do it. If this means you need to re-assess your close circle of friends, do it. Ask yourself if the people you’re around a cause of negative self-talk, if these people spend all their time judging or comparing themselves to others, or if they’re actually helping you grow as a person. Sure, it can be addicting to look at clear-faced beauties all day long and obsess over their flawlessness, but what value does that add to your life?
Positive Affirmations / Quit Discounting the Positives
Your ideas about what others think of you hinge on your own self-concept – you own beliefs about yourself. You filter the cues that you get from others through your self-concept, so when someone tell you you’re beautiful, but you don’t believe you’re beautiful, you’re more inclined to decline the compliment internally and reaffirm your own beliefs about yourself. We are so quick to discount the positives. How many times has someone paid you a compliment and you didn’t believe they were sincere? But why would they lie?
The idea behind positive affirmations is that what we tell ourselves, we believe. So if we tell ourselves negative things, we will believe them. But if we tell ourselves positive things, we will believe those. Positive affirmations involve asking yourself what you wish you believed about yourself – that you are lovable, that you are important, that you are worthwhile? – and then repeating these phrases to yourself every day, especially when negative self-talk creeps into your mind.
We all have our strengths and weaknesses, but neither of them define our core worth. Recognize your strengths and the positive, confident feelings that they bring up. If you’re having a hard time, ask a friend or family member for help. Sometimes it’s easier for others to see the good in us than it is for us to see the good in ourselves.
Share Your Kindness
While this may not seem useful in becoming acne free, it’s actually remarkable how being of service to others can help take you out of your own head. When we do something in our lives we’re proud of, such as volunteering our time, it’s easier for us to recognize our own worth. There’s a lot of truth in the belief that what we put out into the world we receive, only insofar as we create our own reality.
Spend the day putting out positive thoughts and deeds, and see how your mood and self-perception improves.
Sometimes, forgiveness is what we need the most – forgiving someone else, or
forgiving yourself. When we hold on to feelings of bitterness and resentment, we trap ourselves in a vicious negativity cycle. To forgive is to accept people, despite their flaws – yourself included. A better emotion to replace it with is empathy, or remorse. Instead of resenting someone for something they did, try to understand their situation at the time. Instead of feeling ashamed of something you’ve done in your past, feel remorse for your actions. Forgiving yourself can allow you to finally realize that you are worthy.
Make The Button Not a Button
Recognize that no matter how you look, people will judge you. It’s inevitable! You can clamor for “no judgment zones” until you’re blue in the face, but we are social creatures and we make subconscious judgments about people every single day. But to what extent should you let their judgments affect you?
For example, if I were to think something negative about you – how does it affect you? You wouldn’t even know I’m thinking it. Does it have any tangible effect on who you are as a person, or what you do? Of course not!
Easier said than done, but becoming aware of our “flaws” and coming to accept them, fundamentally changes how we view ourselves and denies the power of others to make us feel bad about them. As my therapist says, “find a way to make the button not a button anymore”.
give it a try...
Learning to differentiate between your circumstances and who you are is key to self-compassion. You need to actively take steps to recognize your inner worth, and to love your imperfect self unabashedly.
To truly be acne free, you don’t need to have clear skin, you just have to untangle the hold that acne has on you, and let it go.
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