I have good news: It is possible to love the skin you’re in. Let me repeat that, because this message is so critical: It is possible to love the skin you’re in. It’s true. And it’s a big statement. Why? Because for so many living with vitiligo, it’s hard to even fathom the idea of loving your skin.
I know this because I was that person – and sometimes still am. For most of my life, I didn’t want to love my skin – I wanted to change my skin. I lived in deep agony over my spots for years, crying myself to sleep at night and thinking that I didn’t deserve friends because of the way I looked. I wished with all my heart that this disease would go away. And I don’t mean a light-hearted wish. I mean a deep-in-my-soul wish that gripped my whole body. I was grieving as if someone had died – because I felt like the person I had been before this disease had died. That heart-wrenching pain is why this message is so critical – and so life-changing.
So what changed my tune? How did I go from heart-wrenching pain to advocating for self-love? As I got to know the vitiligo community, I was struck by the number of people who loved their skin. Yet I was simultaneously baffled by the conversations around how they got to that place of confidence. When I asked, the answers were always fluffy and nebulous, like “you just need to accept yourself” and “you’re in control of your life.” Inspirational words? Yes. Actionable? Not one bit. In fact, these conversations only made me feel even more left out – like I must be missing something.
Then one day, while reviewing my notes from the World Vitiligo Day conference, I found my answer. And not a fluffy answer, but one grounded in psychology.
The psychology of loving your skin
Let’s talk about psychology. More specifically, we’re going to talk about the psychosocial impact of vitiligo. Dr. Lisa Schuster, licensed psychologist, says, “Vitiligo isn’t a life-threatening disease, but that doesn’t mean it’s not life-impacting. It doesn’t produce any physical impairments, but it may considerably influence the psychological well-being of individuals.” As a result, those with vitiligo might experience things like low self-esteem, poor body image, and poor quality of life.
But, here’s the thing: Research shows that it’s not the objective severity of an event that makes it traumatic, but rather the person’s perception of the severity of the event. In other words, a traumatic experience for one person may not be traumatizing to another person. Trauma is not in the event itself, but in the reaction to the event.
Matt Traube, a licensed clinical psychotherapist who specializes in psychodermatology, says: “Our attitude, the way we relate to our skin, is subjective – not objective. Three different people can have identical vitiligo and have completely different experiences with it. You might not be able to change your skin, but you can absolutely change your experience with your skin and your perception of what it is.”
In case you missed it: You can absolutely change your experience with your skin and your perception of your vitiligo. And the reason why is that your thoughts and attitudes – not external events – create your feelings. And that’s the key: perception. If you can change your perception of a situation, you can change the way you feel.
How thoughts and actions influence the way you feel
That’s not all – because behaviors, or actions, also play a key role in your feelings. Here’s how it works. When an event occurs, you have thoughts that create your perception of that event. That perception creates your feelings or emotions. Actions are a consequence of those feelings or emotions. But there’s a twist – because actions also impact emotions, creating a cycle in which both actions and perceptions influence feelings.
Let’s look at a real-world example of this process. Event: I changed school systems when I started high school – for the first time, I was going to a school where I didn’t know anyone. Perception: I thought that people who didn’t know about my skin would think I was weird and ugly. Feeling: That perception made me feel uncomfortable. Action: As a result, I was quiet and closed off my first year of high school. The event of starting high school and meeting new people was just that – an event. And it could be different for each person. Yet my perception of how people would react to my skin influenced my feelings and therefore my behavior.
Now let’s look at how we can use my actions and perceptions to change my feelings. Action: As I moved through high school, I made new friends. Feeling: As a result, I began to feel more valued. Action: In turn, I became more outgoing and open to meeting new people. The action of meeting new people changed my feelings about myself and my skin. Not only that, the positive feeling resulted in a new behavior – one in which I was more friendly and willing to meet people.
What this means for your life with vitiligo
The point is this: The event itself is not the cause of your feelings or your inability to love your life. Living with a skin disease is not the reason why you can’t love your life. Your thoughts, feelings and actions are causing you to be in this space. And while that might be hard to hear, it’s good news. Because while you might not be able to change your skin, you can change your thoughts and actions, and as a result, your feelings.
This is exciting. Are you excited? If you aren’t, you should be – because this means that you already have what it takes to love the skin you’re in. You control your thoughts, feelings and actions. Yes, you can still pursue treatment and use foundation and coverup or do whatever it is you need to feel better about your skin. But you have the greatest tool you need to change your life right here, right now. And you can change your life starting today.
The next question? How. We know it’s possible to love your skin. But how do you use your thoughts and actions to change your feelings about your skin?
We hosted a Facebook Live event to share a simple, four-step model that you can use to put this psychology into practice and change your life. You can watch the video here.
Erika Page is a writer and blogger with universal vitiligo. Based just south of Washington, D.C., Erika founded Living Dappled to create a community of inspiration and hope for girls and women living with vitiligo.