Everyone at some point in time has popped a pimple, and some feel the need to pop others’ pimples as well. I believe the root of the pleasure most people have about popping pimples is multifactorial.
For many people, pimple popping comes from a compulsion to ensure that their skin looks and feels smooth. They view any irregular patch or bump, such as a pimple, as an imperfection that must be removed.
The act of pimple popping can also fill emotional needs. If you are stressed or anxious, pimple popping can give temporary relief, but doesn’t address the underlying issues. Instead of dealing with the actual problems, pimple popping can be a quick fix that makes you feel like you are resolving an urgent matter or source of stress.
For others, the skin is a metaphor for their entire self-image. They see imperfections like pimples as an indication that they have allowed themselves to slip and become tarnished. They view having pimples as unacceptable and have an urge to cleanse themselves.
Another group of people use pimple popping as a way of picking on themselves. Being picked on in any aspect of your life, whether it’s at work, in your marriage, by a parent, or by an actual bully, makes you feel helpless. Popping your pimples can be a strategic behavior to give you a sense of control over yourself. By literally picking on yourself you can feel some control over the unwelcome behavior of others.
Dr. Sandra Lee, also known as Dr. Pimple Popper, has attracted millions of viewers on YouTube with videos showing a variety of dermatological extractions, like pimple poppings. These videos provide an acceptable way to vicariously enjoy a behavior that most people engage in in the privacy of their own homes. We’re always told that popping pimples is wrong because it can cause scarring, but these videos show us that this behavior can actually be acceptable and even helpful.
Watching Dr. Pimple Popper’s videos can help reduce the urge to pick skin by allowing viewers to take part in a skin purifying ritual. In essence, they see a patient whose skin is in need of purification. Removing the perceived irregularity on their skin is not just an option, but a necessity. Viewing a video of a doctor popping pimples validates the behavior and sends the message that you don’t have to be ashamed of it. It normalizes something that might have been considered improper or even forbidden.
The mind and body are intimately related. If you imagine putting a slice of lemon in your hand and then slowly putting that lemon slice into your mouth, how does your body react? Many peoples’ bodies will involuntarily respond and make a face as though they’ve taken a bite of a real lemon.
Watching other people pop pimples can elicit very similar physiological responses. It’s analogous to watching an action-adventure movie. You are not performing the action, but you identify with the hero. You gain vicarious pleasure in watching it happen.
There are many different reasons that can make pimple popping feel so good. If you need smooth skin and you equate popping the pimple with having it, the action can make you feel very relieved. If you are anxious or stressed about various aspects of your life, pimple popping can be an ideal coping mechanism to get temporary relief. If you feel bullied, but cannot bully anyone back, you can bully yourself by picking on your own skin. Your skin can be become a metaphor, with pimples acting as a message of inferiority. Clearing those pimples can provide relief.
Skin issues affect a substantial portion of our population, but are underreported and often kept private. I work with people whose obsessions with their skin have become so bad they cause a real, significant impairment to their quality of life. It is important to know that you are not alone and millions of people feel compelled to focus on their skin.
Matt Traube, MFT
Child and Adult Psychotherapy
Phone: (805) 324-4684 and (781) 223-8629
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