Welcome to Part 7 of the Holistic Nutrition for Clear Skin Series. In this post, we’ll talk about acne and self-kindness.
Acne can do a lot of wretched things to your self-esteem. It can make you feel, in no particular order, ugly, gross, worthless, useless, unattractive, unlovable, bleak, hopeless, lonely, and depressed. And with all of that can come more painful emotions: shame, fear, anger, frustration, sadness.
Struggling with acne can also lead to thinking unkind thoughts about yourself – I know, because I used to say lots of mean things to myself when I was feeling upset about my skin. It felt easier and more natural to be harsh then to say or think loving things. The reality was, though, I’d built up the negative muscle so that being mean was basically effortless and natural – a habit. It took more effort and felt sort of inauthentic to be loving and kind, and in all honesty, when I was feeling frustrated with my skin, I didn’t have a big energy reservoir for changing my habits.
And that’s really the emotional roller coaster of acne – you feel great when your skin is clear; you feel awful when it breaks out. And sometimes even when your skin IS good for a while, you can live in real fear about it breaking out again.
Overall, your self-worth and self-esteem become dependent on how your skin looks.
And while I promote healthy and positive ways to manage acne (that’s the whole point of the Holistic Nutrition for Clear Skin series), I think it’s equally important to discuss:
- how to be kind and love yourself even when your skin isn’t perfect; and,
- how to develop ways to feel good and whole and loveable and balanced that are SEPARATE from your skin’s condition.
That’s where the self-compassion and self-love come in.
For another good read on this topic, check out my post on negative self-talk.
BASIC PRINCIPLES OF SELF-COMPASSION
I’m not a pyschotherapist, and I’m not an expert in self-compassion, although I think I might be an expert in needing it (ha ha). For guidance, I turned to the book The Self-Compassion Workbook for Teens by Karen Bluth, PhD. Why a book for teens? Well, sometimes I think the books for teens are written in more approachable terms and streamlined for simplicity. I also think that the teens are when many of us first start to get acne and first start to adopt the habits of mean self-talk, of feeling angry at our skin, and of feeling our self-worth is taking a hit. So in many respects, that emotional self is still a teen. That’s the self we need to talk to.
The basic idea of self-compassion is treating yourself with the love, kindness, respect, and empathy that you would treat your best friend or most beloved relationship. It means being nice to yourself, understanding that you’re human (and therefore wonderfully imperfect), forgiving yourself for making mistakes, and reminding yourself that you are not alone and that this too shall pass.
With respect to acne, specifically, it means telling yourself that you’re lovable and worthwhile, avoiding speaking harshly to yourself when your skin is breaking out, reminding yourself that you’re on a journey to improve your skin but that it takes time, and valuing the characteristics that make you who you are and are unchangeable: kindness, humour, empathy, intelligence, and so on.
How Self-Criticism Feels and How Self-Kindness Feels (in the Body)
I’ve always had a sense of the difference between these two things in the body but I didn’t know how to articulate it – the best I could think of was that self-criticism feels like tightness and stress (never good for acne), and being kind to yourself feels like a warm hug.
The Self-Compassion Workbook has a wonderful way of describing this: compare the feeling of making a tight fist with both hands with the feeling of holding your hands out, and then placing them over your heart.
- The tight fists feel uncomfortable, painful, hurtful, tense, and something you’d like to stop. That’s how self-criticism feels.
- The hands over your heart feel warm, connected, gentle, compassionate, loving, caring, protective, relieving. That’s how self-kindness feels.
The Three Parts of Self-Compassion
The Self-Compassion Workbook suggests that there are three parts to self-compassion and that it’s important to practice improving/strengthening our skills in all three areas.
- What it looks like: speaking to yourself kindly, supporting yourself as you would a good friend, recognizing your good qualities, cutting yourself some slack, and being gentle with yourself even with your instinct might be to be harsh.
- Why it helps if you have acne: acne can really create a divide – you against your skin. I used to think my skin was betraying me, it was awful, stupid, so frustrating. Really I was expressing hate for my body. Self-kindness helps you curb that tendency, and offer yourself some gentle words. It can help you see your skin as part of you, a part that you’re trying to help (using the Holistic Nutrition for Clear skin series, perhaps), and a part of you that is raising a flag about something your body needs. Self-kindness can also help you have some perspective. If a friend asked you about their skin, it’s unlikely you would say, yes you hideous beast. You’re a monster. You would probably say, I totally understand it’s frustrating but it’s not as bad as you think, and also, I think you’re wonderful, and let’s go eat lunch. Self-kindness encourages you to give that same perspective, comfort, and support to yourself.
- What it looks like: remembering that your thoughts are not facts, and learning to observe when you are thinking so that you can separate yourself (and your worth, value, etc) from your thoughts.
- Why it helps if you have acne: If you are in the habit of speaking unkindly to yourself in relation to you skin (example: I’m a monster, no one will want to look at my face, etc), mindfulness can help. For one, it can help stop the rumination cycle (the one where your negative thoughts just cycle around and around and around and make you feel awful). For another, mindfulness can help you realize when you have fallen into the negative thinking habit, and it can help you question your thoughts. I like Byron Katie’s question series for this: is the thought true? can I know 100% that it’s true? how do I feel about the thought? how would I feel without the thought? You can find a great PDF of the questions (called “the work”) here. Rumination and negative self-talk also contribute to the stress response in the body and since stress is one of the root causes of acne, we want to reduce/manage it, not make it worse. Mindfulness can help with that.
3. Common Humanity
- What it looks like: recalling and understanding that you are not alone, that others have experienced (or are experiencing) what you are experiencing, that emotions are normal and valuable, and that this too shall pass.
- Why it helps if you have acne: when you struggle with acne, you can struggle with loneliness, low self-esteem, and shame. But as Brene Brown writes: “if we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” Shame disappears in the face of compassion and community, and having someone with you to recognize that common humanity is powerful. I like common humanity too for another reason: when you have acne you can also become someone who compares – you might compare yourself to someone who doesn’t have acne, for example, and feel totally deflated and like it’s really unfair. But comparison is the thief of joy, and also the thief of compassion. Comparison encourages judgement, evaluation, and a sense of self that comes from externals. Compassion encourages you to be kind to yourself when you’re doing well, and when you aren’t doing so well, and to recognize that everybody struggles with something.
10 Actions We Can Take to Build our Self-Compassion Muscle
For many of us, self-compassion and self-kindness are not natural habits. We aren’t usually taught ways to speak kindly to ourselves, and yet, it’s a skill that can be life-changing. Just think how you’d feel if that inner critic was a little bit quieter, and the voice of compassion a little stronger.
To build that positive voice, consider any of the following:
- Self-soothing with your hands. Try holding a hand over your heart and appreciate that comforting, calming physical touch is something you can do for yourself when you need it
- Anything on the self-care spectrum. As mentioned in this post on acne and stress, self-care can include everything from taking a bath, to watching a favourite movie, to taking yourself to dinner, to eating the foods that make your body feel healthy and strong and are supportive of clear skin, to going for a walk (also good for acne!), all the way to treating yourself to a massage, going to therapy to help work on your emotions and life challenges, and journaling so that you understand and appreciate yourself better.
- The voice of a friend. Ask yourself what a loving friend might say to you about your skin (or about whatever you’re struggling with), and then offer those same words to yourself. Or, consider what YOU would say to a loving friend who was struggling, and then also offer that to yourself.
- Loving-Kindness Meditation. Kristen Neff, PhD is the author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself and she has some wonderful meditations on her website. She shares that the Loving-Kindness meditation is designed to generate feelings of kindness and goodwill towards others and towards yourself. Find the Loving-Kindness meditation here, or access her whole collection of self-compassion meditations (and other exercises) here.
- Get into your body. The Self-Compassion for Teens workbook notes that “physical sensations bring us to the present moment. When you’re paying attention to your physical sensations, you’re in the moment. Your anxiety or worry cannot exist in the present moment.” Mindfulness is great for this, but so is dancing, walking, pushups – something to take your energy out of your head and into your body.
- Remember the ninety second rule. This is right from the book, which notes that “the brain chemistry responsible for [a certain feeling, like anger, etc] stays in your body for ninety seconds.” But, as long as you keep revisiting your THOUGHT about the situation (I’m so mad, my skin sucks so much, and so on), you will keep those chemicals going for longer and possibly even create a NEW cascade of chemicals. So, if you want to let it go, you have to practice the mindfulness act of…letting it go. The book suggests picturing the emotion floating away, or like a cloud floating by, or a balloon drifting off.
- Engage in deep, diaphragmatic breathing. Breathing is always great for turning off your stress response in the body and getting the body into rest and healing mode. Plus it feels really good.
- Positive Affirmations. As noted in my cherish yourself post, I really like positive affirmations. They make me feel good, and they take the guesswork out of how to speak supportively and kindly to myself on a regular basis. For your own affirmation work, if certain phrases don’t feel authentic to you, or just don’t sit right, just pick the ones that do! They don’t have to be flowery if you don’t want them to be. A simple “I support myself” or “I am wonderful just as I am” can be really powerful too.
- Side note: I also LOVE positive affirmation videos in the morning while I get ready. It really gets the positive energy going. Try Jason Stephenson Pick Me Up affirmations!
- Read books that help you address shame and love who you are. The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown is a great choice. Or as noted above, try Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.
- Focus on gratitude. You can make gratitude lists on paper, or take 5 minutes before you fall asleep to think about things you are grateful for in your head, or do a gratitude meditation – whatever helps you look around with appreciation for what you DO have will help you feel less frustrated by (and focussed on) what you don’t have (or what you wish you didn’t have – i.e. acne).
To Sum It Up:
Take concrete actions every day (or as often as you can) to incorporate self-kindness into your life. From a very practical perspective, all of the actions above can help lower stress, which in turns helps with many things for acne: less stress means less inflammation, more balanced hormones, better sleep, better food choices, more energy, and so on. Loving actions and self-kindness also makes you FEEL so much better about yourself and your body, regardless of the state of your skin.
I’m the first to admit that THIS IS NOT EASY. I’m also the first to admit that THIS IS SO NECESSARY. Food and nutrition are super important for acne, but don’t forget about the other elements. Self-compassion and self-kindness are critical to the acne journey.
Well, one day, your acne will be under control and you’ll see clear, healthy skin in the mirror. And, hopefully the person you’ll see in the mirror will be as dear to you as that clear skin. Because the truth of the matter is that there will be other health challenges that require your self-compassion, or other life circumstances that might have you questioning your self-worth. Life is full of situations (or perhaps, opportunities?) where you’ll need to forgive yourself, or comfort yourself, or have the choice to pick between tearing yourself down or offering yourself a hand up.
Self-kindness, self-compassion, and self-love are skills for life.
Thinking we will love our body at some future time when it reaches perfection is a dead-end strategy. Our only true hope: love now.
Marc David, Founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating**
© Emily Joldersma, R.H.N. Eat Well, Live Vibrantly
You can find the other posts in the series here:
- Holistic Nutrition for Clear Skin – Part 1: Initial Thoughts About Acne
- Holistic Nutrition for Clear Skin – Part 2: The Drawbacks of Conventional Treatments for Acne
- Holistic Nutrition for Clear Skin – Part 3: The Root Causes of Acne
- Holistic Nutrition for Clear Skin – Part 4: Nutrition for Acne
- Holistic Nutrition for Clear Skin – Part 5: Stress and Acne
- Holistic Nutrition for Clear Skin – Part 6: Exercise and Acne
- Holistic Nutrition for Clear Skin – Part 8 – coming soon
**I’m pretty sure this quote is from Marc David. At least, that’s where I sourced it when I found it a few months back, except I can’t seem to confirm it now. So let’s go with Marc David.
Looking for more ways to be vibrant and healthy? Grab a free copy of my e-book here .It’s all about easy daily actions for clear skin, balanced hormones, and vibrant living.
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