How can you tell if your self-esteem is improving? Sometimes—thanks to luck, work and/or miracles—self-loathing ebbs. But self-loathing is so sneaky, so habit-forming, that when it recedes, it wants you not to know. Here are five healing signs you might not recognize at first.
They're all good news in principle, but don't always feel good—at least, until we honor them as evidence that we are on the road to brighter days and better states of mind.
1. Faint outrage. Do you find yourself feeling insulted for the first time in a long tme—maybe ever? Do you take offense at glances, gestures, words which in the past you wouldn't have noticed or, had you noticed them, would have thought you deserved? Congratulations. You're attaining boundaries. A sense of justice for yourself. Don't become so thin-skinned that you can't handle anything or anyone. But explore the idea that you merit at least basic politeness and goodwill. Revel in defending your boundaries.
2. Vague yearning. Craving. Longing—for things, people, places and experiences. A whole world of possibilities awakens and expands the moment we stop thinking we're disqualified from joy. Welcome to the bittersweet frontier of desire.
3. Pickiness. Aka choosiness. Selectiveness. Long considered the province of spoiled brats, this is the known and stated preferences of some things over others, then—voilà!—the follow-through, those preferences manifested, experienced, eaten, bought. Do you feel, for the first time ever, that cotton feels better on your skin than rayon, that you'd really rather work with Person A than Person B and that you prefer crushed ice in your summer drinks to cubes?
Life with low self-esteem means making a practice of merely putting up with stuff, of tolerating the bare bottom line or less, not in a mindful-minimalist sense but as a form of punishment. Self-loathing, at its worst, finds us living life as a set of toleration tests in which we ask ourselves semi-subconsciously at every turn: How low can I go? To what depths can I endure this individual, substance or situation which entered my purview randomly or was thrust upon me? To what extent can I survive what is not actual torture—so severe that observers would intervene— but is instead the kind of quiet misery I believe I deserve?
Any alleviation in this pattern, any shift from clenched-jaw tolerance to open-hearted preference is evidence of wellness.
Which leads to ...
4. Regret. Why did I waste so many years placating friends who disrespected me? I wish I'd had the confidence to aim higher in my career. Remembering those countless times you aimed low, harmed yourself, suppressed your dreams and/or let others run your life, knowing how long that lasted and doing the math— days, weeks, months, years—is sheer head-banging agony, but hey: Ask anyone who ever broke a limb or survived surgery: Most healing hurts.
Self-loathing is one kind of pain: It constantly refuels itself. The pain of healing is another kind: the pain of process, which begins then ends. First comes the impact of realizing what we've lost. Then comes the deep ache of acceptance. Grief. Compassion for the long-suffering self. Learning, which is a workout as we retrain and recalibrate heart, flesh and mind to manifest changes, forging a new and less regrettable reality. Ouch. But in pain's wake comes awareness, strength, resolve, a sense of peace. After enduring this pain, we know where we've been, and won't let ourselves go back there again.
But then: Where will we be instead?
5. Emptiness. When you delete or erase everything from a page —because that content was toxic, or at least no longer accurate —what's left? A blank page. Deleting attitudes, habits and people that fueled our self-loathing is an act of courage. Replacing them with healthy alternatives is an act of creation. Between these two acts is blankness, waiting, wondering. Ask any writer: Blank pages can be scary, but they also hold boundless potential.