On anyone’s fitness journey, there are all sorts of transformations that might occur. Aesthetic changes such as fat loss, muscle gain, and improved posture often get the most attention, likely because they tend to be easier to see. But they’re only part of the story.
Fitness pursuits can lead to numerous less-visible changes — in internal health, athletic performance, and social connections, as well as in neurological and psychological markers. These types of benefits, I’ve learned, are overlapping, multidimensional, and endless.
One of the more interesting transformations I’ve noticed is the change in my self-talk since I was a girl of 11 who believed that the only worthwhile goal was to get skinny. Back then, my internal voice was that of the Mean Girl. I bullied myself as a means of motivation.
This style of negative self-talk began to shift when, in my 20s, I started training for performance. I ran 5Ks and half-marathons, and I began lifting weights to find out how strong I could get. In this stage, my inner Mean Girl took the back seat as my inner Drill Sergeant appeared to take the wheel — and refused to take “no” or “I can’t” for an answer.
Although Mean Girl still chimed in occasionally (she was the worst sort of back-seat driver), her voice gradually quieted as Drill Sergeant pushed my limits. I got stronger and fitter than I’d ever been.
But working out so hard for so long had negative consequences, too. Demanding and rigorous, this all-or-nothing approach took its toll on my psyche — and on my body. My progress flatlined.
Eventually, Drill Sergeant moved to the back seat and made way for a new driver: my inner Cheerleader.
Kindness, I’ve learned, isn’t coddling — it’s caring.
And showing myself care is what helps me truly thrive.
Although the previous personifications of my inner voice had emerged organically, Cheerleader surfaced as a result of my intentional cultivation and my need to drown out the inner critics. I required a voice that was loud, excited, and supportive.
I practiced positive self-talk, meditated on encouraging mantras, and plastered my workspace and journal with affirmations. My workouts became a time and space where only good thoughts and good words were permitted.
These efforts were my attempt to adopt a fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude. I felt a strong need to be kind to myself, regarding my body and fitness or other things and situations, and I showered myself with positive messaging inside and out.
It was hard. My inner critics still spat venom from the backseat. But I finally began to be able to hear how that harshness was reflected all around me: in friends and workout buddies who motivated themselves with negative self-talk, and in popular media, which promoted the same sort of cruelty.
But the more aware I became of how hard I had to fight to hear the Cheerleader’s voice, the louder and stronger that part of me became.
My preteen self suspected kindness was coddling, and coddling would lead to weakness — that the only way to reach my fitness goals (or any goals) was to be my own worst critic. Yet real life hadn’t proved any of that to be true. Progress was possible without punishment.
This inner-voice transformation was more than two decades in the making. In hindsight, my awareness of it came largely thanks to intentional self-reflection.
Lately, I’ve been reflecting on whether Cheerleader is still my predominant voice. I’ve been paying attention to my inner monologue during workouts. And it seems that although Cheerleader is still there, she’s in the back seat now, too, keeping Mean Girl and Drill Sergeant company.
So who is in the driver’s seat? I don’t know what to call her yet. There’s something maternal, even grandmotherly, about the way I talk to myself now. Yes, sometimes I can still be mean, or pushy, or full-on rah-rah. But the prevailing voice is kind and understanding.
Kindness, I’ve learned, isn’t coddling — it’s caring. And showing myself care is what helps me truly thrive.
This article originally appeared as “From Mean Girl to Cheerleader” in the November 2022 issue of Experience Life.