What My Struggle with Cystic Acne has Taught Me About Kindness and Confidence (and why it applies to you, too)

Well here’s some grit for you: acne sucks. Adult acne really sucks. But adult cystic acne sucks the worst of all.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve struggled with having clear skin since middle school, but it’s not something I bring up a lot. If I’m being honest, I’m embarrassed that this isn’t something I’ve been able to leave behind in my teenage years, like I did my bangs and braces.

Yet despite a truly incredible dermatologist and accompanying treatments, and a skincare routine that I follow religiously, I’m still waging war against my face some days.

Cystic acne hurts, can cause severe scarring, and often feels like you’re sporting a golf ball on your forehead that maybe isn’t super-obvious to everyone else, but makes even just washing your face or brushing your hair out of your eyes an unpleasant experience.

The worst part, though, is when a cyst decides to do its own thing (because we all know that the golden rule of surviving cystic acne without major scarring is: no touching, ever, no matter how much you want to, ughhhhh). It morphs into something that may feel much better, but looks like an alien crawled out of your chin. I don’t know about you, but whenever this happens to me, I hate life. I don’t want to go anywhere, see anyone, or do anything other than the things I absolutely cannot get out of (i.e. going to work). I avoid making eye contact with people. I try to wear distracting jewelry or accessories or to style my hair in a way that more effectively hides the cyst. I basically let the state of my skin run my life.

But, like with nearly all things, there’s a bit of a silver lining to this challenge, and some takeaways that can apply to anyone who struggles with self-confidence.

In fact, cystic acne has taught me a lot about myself, about others, and about what really matters in life.

Or at least, this is what I tell myself on days when I’m sporting Mt. Vesuvius on my forehead . . .

  1. Nobody notices your flaws as intensely as you do! LITERALLY NO ONE IS STARING AT YOUR CHIN FROM ONLY A HALF-AN-INCH AWAY. I promise you this. Most people are wayyyyy too wrapped up in their own insecurities to notice that much about you. I heard a great speech once where the speaker suggested that people often fall into one of two traps: they’re either overly confident or have no confidence at all . . . either way, they’re spending all their time thinking about themselves.
  2. You are not alone. Everyone gets zits, except for like maybe Gwyneth Paltrow, and her child’s name is Apple, for crying out loud. At least you don’t have a ginormous, painful zit and the name Apple. (No offense to Apple, whom I’m sure is absolutely lovely.) But for real, everybody goes through something like this. Don’t let the state of your face turn you into a miserable hermit.
  3. Some people will always see you for you. Invest in them. The people who look you in the eyes, and not at the giant thing growing out of your temple, are the people who really love you for you, and it is an extraordinary privilege to have people like that in your life. Everybody needs friends who aren’t superficial, because those are the ones who have your back when things go sideways.
  4. “Fake it ’til ya make it” has some merit to it. Most of being confident simply comes down to acting like you are, even when you feel gross. People notice (sometimes subconsciously) when you’re confident in who you are beneath the surface. We’re drawn to people who are self-assured because they seem like the kind of people who can get the job done, and who won’t let anything (even Mt. Vesuvius Jr.) get in their way.
  5. People who can “tell the truth with love” are the best kind of people. Sometimes I just need someone to tell me if covering up my breakout makes it look better or worse. I don’t ever use foundation, so usually I’m smearing on some ancient coverup stick from three years ago that’s two shades different than my actual skintone. My friends who can kindly say, “Jenny, I think you’re just making it worse, but it’ll be dark in the movie theater anyway!” instead of, “Oh my gosh, I don’t notice anything!” are the friends I trust deeply. I appreciate the attempt to protect my feelings, but I’m not an idiot. Telling the truth with love is a gift. Value it.
  6. You’ll think twice before judging someone else’s “imperfections.” At peak breakout stage, I start feeling really sorry for myself. I contemplate the perks of becoming a miserable hermit, as referenced above. (No junk mail, no gaggles of teenage girls who arrive at Starbucks just before me and order nine different kinds of frappuccinos, no #SpoilerAlerts, ever.) But then I remember that having a zit is a really tiny hurdle in the grand scheme of things, and that some people have much bigger obstacles to overcome. Dealing with acne has made me less quick to judge others: perhaps that person’s social skills are sub-par because they struggle with anxiety; maybe the guy who’s always late to work has to take three buses to get here; you get the idea. Focus on the person, not their “flaws,” just as you hope people will do for you. There’s an incredible, viral story about a guy who did just that, and it’s the best thing you’ll read today.
  7. You never know how much your kindness means to someone. Guys, I can’t underscore this point enough. People who have called me beautiful for no apparent reason, even on days when I have woken up and wanted to cry over the state of my skin, probably have no idea just how badly I needed to hear their encouraging words. Sometimes during a particularly awful breakout, sheer determination and the kindness of others are the only things that give me the courage to get out of bed and face the world, even with a goose egg growing out of my forehead. If you have ever given someone a genuine compliment, simply because you care about them as a person, from the bottom of my heart — thank you.

At the end of the day, not even a miracle dermatologist can always control the state of your skin.

But you know what you can be in control of, 100% of the time? The way you react to challenges, the things you choose to value, and how you treat others.

You can’t moisturize confidence into your soul. There isn’t a prescription for compassion. But if you master the art of treating other people like you want to be treated, it won’t really matter what your face looks like, because they’ll know you by your heart.

Penny for your thoughts?