“David? David McElroy?”
I turned and looked at the man calling my name as though he knew me. The voice was slightly familiar, but I’d never seen this man before. He was a stranger.
Or so I thought until he told me his name. It was someone I’d met in business through a mutual friend. We were friendly and had done a little business together, but we hadn’t ever really been close. Still, the man I saw in front of me wasn’t the man I’d known. This was a new man.
It’d been a couple of years since I’d seen Paul. (That’s not his real name, but it’s what I’m going to call him here.) The guy I knew was a lot heavier. The big weight change was the most obvious difference. But there was something more than that. I couldn’t put my finger on it.
We ended up standing there talking for nearly two hours. He told me all about the changes that had taken place in his life. He seemed eager to tell how the “new” Paul had come about.
He told me that he had gotten a divorce from a woman who had belittled and criticized him for 22 years. He said it was never aggressive and open criticism. It was always indirect and subtle, in ways that it was hard to respond to. The constant criticism slowly started having its effect on him, he said. He started out in life and in business with great confidence. After being pulled down constantly over the years by someone who didn’t understand him, he had unconsciously internalized all the criticism. He had lost confidence in himself.
When he started talking about the confidence he had lost, that’s when it dawned on me what was really different about him. Yes, his dropping 70 pounds or so made a difference, but the biggest difference was in the way he carried himself. The man I had known before was a bright and competent person, but he wasn’t confident about himself. He seemed as though he was perpetually deferential — as though he believed he was the lowest man on every totem pole. (And this was despite being the owner of a successful business.)
Paul told me that as he shed the weight and quit listening to someone telling him he wasn’t good enough, he discovered just how beaten down he had allowed himself to become. He had lost faith in himself. He wasn’t living. He was merely existing.
He started making changes. He remembered some of what he used to be — back in the early days of his career — when he had been willing to fight and scrap for business, when he believed that he could win any contest he needed to win. Starting on the inside, he started cleaning out his old attitudes. As his beliefs about himself changed, his appearance changed. The way he carried himself changed.
For the first time in decades, Paul was a man, not a mouse.
When that happened, he started seeing other changes in his life. People treated him differently. He handled business in different ways. His world started to change. He started becoming the person he wanted to be.
“Someone asked me if what I am now is the ‘old me’ from years ago or what,” he said. “I told him I didn’t know how to differentiate between different versions of ‘me’ as I’ve lived my life. All I know is that this is finally the real me. This is who I really am.”
When we’re finally ready for change — when we’re ready to pay whatever price is necessary — self-improvement happens rapidly. We might need other help, of course. We might need to make physical changes, spiritual changes or psychological changes, but no matter what changes we make in our outer lives, those deeper changes we so desperately need can’t start until something on the inside decides to change.
Self-improvement is like breaking out of a prison of our own creation — a prison where the keys are inside the cells, just waiting for us to use them and set ourselves free.