Stopping the Acne Shame Spiral
For many years my life was steeped in shame spiral – and I had no idea what was going on. I was clearly trying to hide something – I avoided people, tried to be perfect, looked to my husband for approval and validation – and I was riddled with anxiety, stress, insomnia, and acne. Something was clearly amiss, but I couldn’t pinpoint the problem. Instead, I dabbled in diets, yoga, herbs, and alcohol.
When my therapist finally brought up the issue of shame in my late 30s, I had to ask her exactly what it was – and how it was affecting me. I mean, I knew what shame was on a very surface level, but I really didn’t understand it. And what I discovered over the next few years blew my mind and changed my life.
Shame runs deep, and often, women struggling with acne experience it even more acutely than others. Shame is a normal emotion, but it becomes a problem when it starts to affect the rest of our lives, preventing us from getting on with our days and trapping us in a spiral of self-deprecating thoughts. It can deeply mark our lives and lead to further health issues, anxiety, and depression.
What is shame?
Shame is a feeling of being unworthy, bad, wrong, or inadequate. Many acne patients feel a deep shame about their skin, and often these feelings of shame extend deeper and encompass the entire self.
Where does shame come from?
Shame arises when one’s ‘defects’ are exposed to others and/or one is negatively evaluated (whether real or imagined) by others.
Many women obviously view acne as a defect that is visible to the entire world, and when previous shame is already part of the picture – acne can become a shame spiral.
How does shame affect us?
Although shame is a necessary human emotion that helps us develop a moral compass, it can become destructive in our lives when experienced unnecessarily.
Shame can lead us to believe that we have to be perfect or else we are not lovable. It can lead us to withdraw from others. It can lead us to be defensive and distant. It can lead us to feel depressed and anxious. It can lead us to be overly responsible and to seek approval excessively. It is often the experience that underlies addiction, infidelity, perfectionism, eating disorders, excessive dependency in relationships, and so many other problematic behaviors.
What is the acne shame spiral?
Often women with acne already experience some degree of shame, but acne can intensify the feelings of being unworthy, unloved, and inadequate. These are the feelings that explain why acne patients tend to experience higher levels of anxiety and depression and lower self-esteem levels – it’s all the result of shame.
Shame has also been proven to trigger an increase in cortisol and pro-inflammatory cytokines in the body, leading to more acne formation and a variety of health conditions. This means that acne can trigger a vicious shame cycle, resulting in more acne and more shame.
How do you stop the acne shame spiral?
1. Recognize our shame and its triggers –
become aware of when we feel unworthy, unloved, or inadequate and the behaviors that result. Note the people, places, and instances when shame is triggered, and then notice your reaction. This could include withdrawing, becoming defensive or distant, exercising perfectionism, skin picking, or any of the problematic behaviors discussed above. If you know your triggers, then you can act that much faster after one of them has been activated. If, for example, “failing” publicly is a trigger, then you know to immediately take some counteractive measures should you bomb a presentation.
2. Practice awareness and understand where your shame originated –
listen deeply to yourself, write a short biography, feel deeply, create space to repattern your thoughts. I teach the method to accomplish this in my Beauty Bliss Program, which is part of my 7-Week Clear Skin Program.
3. Use Affirmations to Stop the Shame Spiral.
Many of us who struggle with self-compassion also struggle with what I often call the shame monster, whose voice can pop up at the most unexpected moments. The monster sounds something like this:
- “I’m not good enough.”
- “I shouldn’t feel this way.”
- “Why can’t I do things like other people?”
- “I’m too old to be struggling with these issues.”
- “I should have [fill in the blank]; I could have [fill in the blank].”
Just like flexing a muscle or practicing a new skill, cultivating self-compassion requires that we practice “talking back” to this shame monster. With time, the hope is that your internal voice becomes stronger and louder than the voice of self-doubt.
Some examples to try:
- “I’m absolutely worthy and divinely deserving.”
- “I’m allowed to feel I effing feel, however — my feelings are valid.”
- “I’m unique in my own wonderful ways while still sharing sacred interconnected human experiences with many.”
- “I’ll never be too old (or too much of anything, for that matter) to continue cultivating curiosities about my own behaviors and spaces for growth.”
- “At this moment, I am [fill in the blank]; at this moment I feel [fill in the blank].”
If these don’t feel natural to you, that’s OK! Try opening up a journal and writing some affirmations of your own.
4. Develop compassion for yourself.
When you act in ways that you don’t like, be curious about it rather than critical. Instead of saying “Why did you do that?” in a critical way, try to ask the same question with openness and curiosity. You will find out much more about yourself by observing and gathering information instead of criticizing. Forgive yourself for your past so that you can move on. One important exercise to help foster self-compassion is to use the phrase ‘of course.’ It is the raw voice of self-compassion. It permits us to be exactly as we are right now. It sounds something like this:
Of course, you feel this way, sweetie. Given what you’ve gone through — your upbringing, your life experiences, the beliefs that were fed to you early on — of course, you feel this way, and of course, you did that weird thing to try and avoid feeling bad.
Of course, you are scared. Of course, you are jealous. Of course, you are angry and sad, and of course, you did that thing you really wish you didn’t do in an attempt to get rid of this bad feeling. Of. Course. If anybody else were you, they would do the same thing.
5. Reach out and tell your story.
Be heard. Connect with others, which helps to increase our resilience against shame and create change. The more you tell your story, the more you understand your triggers, and the more you recognize and practice self-compassion.
It’s no easy feat to admit to flaws because that means they’re real, and we have to confront them. Accepting our mistakes or shortcomings — choices that may not have served us well, unflattering ways others may perceive us, or subtle imperfections that gnaw away at us — is uncomfortable in the short-term, but acknowledging them can ward off long-term problems. Dr. Brene Brown’s research points to the fact that “shame [is] highly correlated with addiction, depression, eating disorders, violence, bullying, and aggression,” which can all serve as masks or so-called armor we don to keep ourselves from dealing with, simply put, the reality of ourselves.
6. Practice empathy.
Often those that suffer from shame can project shame upon others. Be mindful when passing judgments and practice compassion and love. Embracing others with love and compassion is a game-changer and a huge part of stopping the shame spiral.
Stopping the acne shame spiral is a critical part of the clear skin journey. I really encourage you to connect with an acne support group or someone that you love and trust. Share your story. Also, connect deeply with yourself and unravel your own shame spiral. Focus on love and compassion – it’s the only way to create true change and healing.