I got this comment the other day on a blog post:

I just wanted to let you know that after breaking up with my boyfriend, my acne has cleared tremendously!!!!!!! Coincidence? I think not! I’m not sure if you remember, but I was the girl who, sometime late last year, was posting on here about how my boyfriend was so critical and always making negative comments about my acne (among other things, now that I have reflected).

I want to thank you for your support back then, I am left with only two small bumps and healing scars. I have learned that sometimes, in order to heal, we need to rid our lives of toxic things AND people …

Yep. I’ve been saying it for years: stress is hugely toxic to our bodies and our skin. And stress exists in a lot more ways than we think. It can come in the form of physiological stress – like too much intense exercise, as we discussed last post. Or not eating enough. Or eating so many chemicals your body can’t keep up.

It can come in the form of classic stress – writing an exam, or having too much on your plate.

Or, it can come in the stealth form- the kind that is deadly, but so silent you don’t even realize it’s there at all.

I believe the girl who wrote the above note didn’t quite realize how much her boyfriend was stressing her out. She can correct me if I’m wrong, but I think she said before that they had a good relationship and he had a lot of awesome traits. Therefore, she didn’t quite think he was as much of a problem as he “clearly” was.

You can’t trick your body though. Deep down inside, it knows the truth. But if you don’t acknowledge that stress so you can process it, it can often make itself known through other means. Those other means are often health problems (acne!! aagggh!) 

I actually went through this same thing myself. When my acne turned from mild to severe, I was dating someone who stressed me out. We had a fairly good relationship – he is a good person, and we are still friends – but the relationship was not good for me on a soul level and was difficult on my self esteem (mostly because of my own perfectionism and need to be completely desirable to everyone). I don’t think it was a coincidence at all that that was the time that my skin decided to go mental. It was trying to tell me something. Of course I didn’t realize that at the time.

Anyway, her comment reminded me of a certain section from the amazingly awesome free ebook by the famous psycho-dermatologist Ted Grossbart called “Skin Deep“. Many of you probably have already come across it since I have talked about it before on the blog, and in my acne ebook.

Close links with the nervous system make your skin highly sensitive to emotions; it can be more in touch with your innermost needs, wishes, and fears than your conscious mind. You may not be aware that tomorrow’s conference is causing deep down anxiety, but your skin is expressing that tension in hives or in an outbreak of acne.

Anyway, the section is called “Listening to Your Skin” and goes over scenarios of possible things that your body could be trying to communicate to you via your skin breakouts (his book does not specifically focus on acne, but all skin issues – acne, hives, eczema, etc).

This list is also a way of narrowing down the question of “what benefit do I get from having acne?”. Consciously we want more than anything to get rid of it, but sometimes we hold onto it subconsciously because it provides us with some sort of twisted pay off. It fills an emotional hole, or prevents us from having to move forward in life and face painful or scary situations.

I always thought this part of the book was incredibly interesting and so I want to summarize the scenarios for you and change them to be acne specific. Because, hey – it kinda sucks when someone says “hidden stress might be causing your acne” and you have no idea how you figure out what this “hidden stress” is. I know. But maybe you will see yourself in one or more of the following descriptions. And while resolution may not be instantaneous, being aware of the pattern is the first step to recovery.

1. Your Skin is Crying Out for Love and Protection

Love and nurturing is a basic need that humans cannot live without. While most parents always do the best that they can to love and nurture their children, there are always cases where they cannot – due to lack of love in their own upbringing, major life stress, and other factors that might end up causing a child to go without this basic need of love and protection.

As a result, this might leave a major emotional black hole of emptiness that has a voracious need to be filled. It absorbs all love and protection we receive later in life, and then cries for more.

People with this type of emotional emptiness usually go to great lengths to fill that void – with clothes, drugs, needy relationships, and other self destructive behaviours.

Example: Joan, whose father abandoned her as a child, has troubled skin. Her skin flares up as a way to give a voice to that pain and loneliness she felt as a child. She spends hours doting on her skin – washing her face, doing masks, spot treating – “self mothering” it in order to fill that hole.

Additionally, she finds that when her husband goes out of town on a business trip, her skin flares up, as this is a re-enactment of the abandonment she felt from her father.

2.  Your Skin is Raging with Anger

Anger is a normal, healthy reaction. Unfortunately we are often taught to deny anger, because if we feel it or we express it then we “aren’t nice”. Parents often will subtly or not subtly tell their children that they are not acceptable when they are angry. Or children see their parents anger and are so repulsed that they completely deny and repress any angry feelings of their own.

Unfelt, unexpressed anger is the most common psychological mechanism behind troubled skin. If it is unnacceptable to express anger towards others, the skin takes the beating as the anger becomes expressed towards the self. Alternatively, the skin becomes the voice of anger that the child within the adult was forbidden to express. Angry, inflamed acne tells the world what the person cannot. It tells the truth behind the calm facade.

3. Your Skin is Trying to Control

A child can have an abundance of love, but still cry out for another essential need: respect. From our earliest days, we must be acknowledged as independent beings, not just extensions of our parents. When parents give love and attention on their own schedule, according to their own needs, they withhold this respect. Examples are the mother who forces a sweater on her child when she is cold, or a father who has a stubborn, unwavering “father knows best” attitude. Neither are respecting the autonomy of the child.

People not given respect as a child may turn the tables on the world as an adult and develop a passion for controlling others. In the effort to control the world around them, they may be labeled manipulative and employ many tactics such as flirtatiousness, intimidation, or guilt.  A skin problem could be part of this arsenal.

Example: Peter is basically allergic to everything. Kids want a dog? Can’t. Allergic to dogs. Drive to the country? Nope. Allergic to pollen. Wife wants to go to French restaurant for the anniversary? Nope, french food makes him break out.

As a child, Peter had learned to “control or be controlled” and he was subconsciously using his allergies and subsequent skin breakouts to control the world (which, of course, in the end, controlled him more than it did anyone else).

4. Your Skin is Playing Sexual Policeman

Everyone has needs – something within us strives blindly for love, respect, and affection. Some of us are taught by parents’ examples and reactions that needs are bad – especially sexual needs. The frequent result is that we develop a “policeman” conscience, where our attempts to satisfy our deepest needs become paralyzed by indecision, anxiety, and guilt.

The skin is an easy way to police sexual anxiety. If you have doubts and frustrations about your sexual needs, attractiveness, or other intimacy issues, having a skin problem is an easy answer. Breaking out in acne is a useful turnoff; a red flag that says “count me out sexually”. It can be a very effective barrier against the threats and anxiety of sexual intimacy and dating.

Example: Derek had a comfortable live-in relationship with a woman who he didn’t truly love and would not fully commit to. When she would go out of town, he would begin thinking about breaking the relationship off so he could pursue a more meaningful intimacy with someone he truly desired. But every time, he would break out in acne.

The anxiety of breaking up and having to put himself out there for what he truly wanted was too much. Acne helped him avoid that anxiety by giving him the perfect excuse to stay where he was in his “safe” but unfulfilling relationship.

5. Your Skin is Trying to Rewrite History

When a major chapter in a child’s development turns out badly – for example, a cold, distant parent fails to support emotional growth with nurturing love – there’s a powerful drive to rewrite history, to replay the same story, this time with a happy ending. However, when the story does not turn out differently, acne breakouts are a way for the body to express that pain.

Example: As a baby and toddler, Oscar’s mother loved and nurtured him with all her heart. However, when he became a young child, his mother, for some reason, withdrew her love. For whatever reason, she just couldn’t love a growing child the way she had loved a toddler. Oscar’s health and skin took a turn for the worst.

As an adult, Oscar had a habit of only dating women who were affectionate and supportive at the beginning of the relationship, and then become cold and withdrawn as the relationships progressed and Oscar became more confident and autonomous. Then came the acne breakouts. His deep unconscious desire to replay the scenario with a happy ending was always thwarted by his choice to choose women exactly like his mother. Until he changed his relationship choices, the acne would not end.

6. Your Skin is Suffering For Love

If a child learns that the world supplies love, protection, and support only when she is suffering, she may unconsciously conclude that pain is the ticket to getting what she needs. An even darker truth from a emotionally or physically abused child is that she learns that the ones who love you are the ones who hurt you. Along comes an inevitable link between love and pain, and later in life this produces all sorts of victims: chronic losers, the accident prone, and people who deeply fear success.

A painful and sightly skin condition certainly causes its victim enough suffering to qualify for anyone’s sympathy and support.

Example: As a child, Lorna was very neglected. Only when she was unhappy, upset, or ill did her parents ever come through with even minimal support. As an adult during stressful periods, her skin would break out in acne (and she would subsequently pick at it and cause intense wounds) as it was the only way she knew how to call out for love and support from her husband.

7. Your Skin is Loyal

Our personalities are very much shaped by the people around us, and especially those that we love and admire. If our parents thought well of us, loyalty to that view means self-esteem and accomplishment. However, we can also remain loyal to a negative view. We may think we are ugly if our parents apparently saw us that way, and we can dress and act in a way that makes that vision come to life. This could include aligning with that vision by breaking out in acne.

Similarly, children are very adept at identifying what it is that will bring them closer to their parents and those that they admire. If your Dad likes the Yankees, then becoming a Yankees fan is a good way to get positive attention. Similarly, if your mother spends hours staring at the mirror, using products, and complaining about her acne, joining in on the pity party is a sure fire way to get closer and have something to share with Mom. If your acne were to disappear, so would that bond.

8. Your Skin is Remembering

Sometimes when something happens to us that is so traumatic and overwhelming that it won’t fit into our worldview and sense of self, it’s just too much for our brains. Driven by our need for protection against emotional overload, we try to deny it and sweep it under the psychic rug.

However, unless those traumas are processed and dealt with, our skin will remember for us and continuously remind us that we have some unfinished business to deal with.

Example: Vic was a pilot who happened to break out in acne every time his flight schedule took him over a particular canyon. Later on in therapy, he admitted that a fellow friend and pilot died in a plane crash in that canyon. Vic was actually supposed to be the pilot who took that flight, but he was kept in by illness.

The acne disappeared as Vic managed to gradually face and process the buried sadness and guilt over his friend’s death.

 9. Your Skin is Telling Forbidden Truths

With subtle hints and signs, many parents tell their children not to be what they are, and not to feel what they feel. The need for love and respect is the enforcer – we cover up what we are, or face the threat of emotional starvation and neglect. We learn to hide the truth from ourselves and the rest of the world. We refuse to let ourselves feel angrier, or needier, or more sexually aroused that we are prepared to admit.

However, no emotion just simply dries up and blows away with the wind. The skin, as the body’s larget and most visible organ, is a perfect candidate for truth telling (think about the way someone blushes when they are embarrassed). Someone whose personal party line is that “everything is fine” may only show the truth through his ravaged face.

Example: Sarah had a baby who was colicky, crying incessantly day and night, and causing a very stressful situation. Instead of supporting her, her husband withdrew and tried to pretend the turmoil didn’t exist.

Sarah became resentful and depressed, secretly wishing to escape her new life, but could not admit this taboo to herself because she was committed to the idea of being a good mother and wife. The acne began spreading across her face, as her skin was trying to tell her the truth that she needed to leave her unhappy marriage and move on without him.

10. Your Skin is Trying to Stop Time

For some parents, they feel a real twinge of regret as their children become adults. A child may unconsciously oblige them by staying “forever young” if these regrets were expressed persuasively by the adult.

A child taught that he won’t make it in the tough “grown up world” may be immobilized by fear and long to stay in the safety of adolescence. He may sabotage job promotions, dress boyish or girlish, or perhaps, his skin may break out in acne as a way for him to keep himself immersed in the teenage years and avoid the scary task of adult responsibilities

Example: 22 year old Stella got laid off from her job as a dental hygeniest, and ended up moving back in with her parents and worked in a store across the street from their home. Her parents loved it and hinted that they wished she had never left, but she found it humiliating being back at home. Not only that, but she had also been dealing with a string of relationships with men who started out caring and nurturing, but ended up abusive and humiliating.

While she was living there, her acne got worse and worse, which caused her to stay longer than expected due to the embarrassment of trying to find a job and move out with her skin so bad. Well, it turns out that her sudden skin troubles had two purposes: stop the clock to spare her parents the pain of their youngest child leaving the nest, and also spare Stella the pain of dealing with mature relationships.

 11. Your Skin is Telling the World You’re Not Perfect

Parents who overpraise a child’s accomplishments may seem to encourage self-esteem, but the result is often the opposite when such accomplishments are demanded to beef up a parent’s own frail ego. Some parents insist on their child to be the perfect daughter with spotless fingernails and a straight-A report card, or that their son be a flawless athlete-scholar. This denies the reality of the child. They may grow up feeling that if they are not perfect, then they are nothing. And since nobody is perfect, this is a recipe for disaster!

People with parents who put pressure on them to be perfect often grow up to be one of those tiresome people who will tell you about how important their jobs are, how smart their children are, how expensive their sweater is, how fast their car is, and how big their house is. The performance is hollow because it is a caricature of true self esteem. People like this often want to subtly communicate to the outside world that there is more to them than this act they put on, and sometimes the skin is how the message is carried.

Example: Lance was the youngest of a series of brothers, each of whom had been pressed by their mother to fill the emotional gap left by their depressed, alcoholic father. Each had failed. Lance had valiantly tried to be her champion, had excelled in high school sports and even looked the part of the handsome hero, but he repeatedly broke out in acne, the weakest link under his heavy emotional burden.

While his mother encouraged his success, she also constantly expressed an unspoken reproach: “How can you be so happy, young, and successful when your poor divorced mother is so miserable?” Lance’s acne cried out a disclaimer: “I’m not perfect either. I hurt too.”

So there you have it – 11 eye opening things your skin could be telling you, although you shouldn’t take it as so black and white. As Ted Grossbart says, we are all mixed bags of complicated emotional needs, and the skin problem that can be reduced to a single pattern or task is as fictional as the person whose character consists of a single trait.

A real acne case endured by a real person may involve several of these patterns. You may notice one or two that seem the most relevant, but all may have something to teach you.

Also, if you have some of these patterns, you may not have evolved them solely from your parents, as is implied. They could have developed from many situations in your life. However, we generally pick up our deepest and most stubborn patterns from our early interactions with those we depend on to provide love, protection, and nurture (ie. your parents or caregivers).

Just as these patterns never involve growing or feeling in isolation, most skin disorders are best understood as relationship problems rather than as the illness of one man or one woman. Infantile eczema, for example, typically signifies trouble between a baby and its mother; in adulthood, a spouse may come to play the mother’s role.

Your skin disease means trouble at the border between yourself and others: resolving the underlying tasks will require changes in how you interact with them. First, however, you must learn to see yourself as you really are – under your skin.

Make sure you read and download Skin Deep (it’s free! Scroll to bottom of page to download it from their link) for full descriptions and examples of these 11 points, and so much more to help you on your way to emotional wellness and clear skin.

Watch Me Talk About All This in Video

Do you see one or more of these patterns in your own life? Do you think any of them might be playing a role in your problem with acne?