Ever downplayed how much exercise you do or how good you are at it? Then, my friend, you’re probably a fitness people-pleaser. Here’s why it’s time to crack out of that habit once and for all.
The other morning, I was chatting with a new gym friend who asked what I did. Sheepishly, I admitted to being a fitness journalist and immediately followed that admission up with “not that you’d be able to tell that from my fitness level”. Now, my fitness level is pretty decent; I’ve run umpteen marathons, go to the gym four times a week, cycle every day and yet… I was so keen not to make things awkward, that I downplayed my own ability.
I’m not alone. Whenever people ask writer Alice what exercise she does, she always says: “CrossFit, but I’m not a wanker.” It’s not just the activity itself but how frequently she does it, she tells Stylist: “I definitely do get a bit embarrassed if people ask me how much I train because I feel like I’m boasting and/or like I’m obsessed with how I look, even though that’s not the reason I do it.
“It’s also awkward when people say things like ‘Oh, you’re so good, I need to go to the gym more’ after I’ve explained my own regime. I feel like me being honest about the amount of exercise I do automatically makes other people feel bad so I play it down.”
Alice and I are both people-pleasers when it comes to fitness. It’s almost as if our sporting achievements are as taboo as shouting about our salaries and relationships. “People pleasing at its basest level comes from a psychological procedure known as ‘fawning’, explains leading psychologist and psychotherapist Dr Alison McClymont. She explains that fawning “is the desire to appease another in order to avoid being shamed by them.”
Women are socially conditioned to downplay their physical abilities
When it comes to fitness, particularly for women, Dr McClymont says that we’ve not been socialised to champion physical competition. “Some women may carry an inherent embarrassment around projecting themselves as a physical competitor, for fear of being considered ‘arrogant’ or ‘full of themselves’,” she explains. Men, on the other hand, don’t have those same internal conflicts as they’re told from a young age to present as a physical competitor.
“This becomes more complex for women when we consider the inherent competition around physical beauty; it can feel uncomfortable to declare one is exercising as it may be perceived as declaring ‘I’m trying to make myself look better’,” Dr McClymont explains.
That, she says, can produce feelings of jealousy in other women and this may seem socially dangerous. “Women are far more likely to resort to self-deprecation in order to protect social relationships.”
Of course, in many of our cases, it’s got very little to do with the person you’re interacting with. That person in the gym probably couldn’t give a damn what I did for a living and, given the full-on nature of the classes we go to, definitely won’t have time to scope out my performance next week. But Dr Zoe Cross, clinical psychologist at My Online Therapy, tells Stylist that it’s common to “downplay your own strengths, defer to others and worry about how people perceive you” if you are a people-pleaser.
Why do we make out that we’re worse at fitness than we really are?
The question is: why? Why do we make ourselves look weak in safe spaces like a gym changing room or, say, when you’re warming up on the startline at a race? “I feel embarrassed when someone who doesn’t run or workout asks me about running,” says Bernie, who ran her first marathon in well under four hours back in October.
When asked about her running, Bernie tends to downplay her abilities – despite having competed at a high level when she was younger and clocking in seriously impressive times over new long distances. Despite that, she says that she prefers “to only talk about running with people who I know are also into it so that I can talk freely about the areas I need to improve in and the realities of being a runner.” Perhaps that way, it feels less like boasting when talking about times and pacing.
Chloe Guest is another runner who struggles to be open and honest about her regime. As the leader of Run Talk Run Hackney and multi-marathoner, she runs a lot but, she tells Stylist, she still avoids talking about how much she does. “It’s mainly because someone once said to me: ‘I thought you’d be skinnier considering how much you run.’”
That’s common; you don’t have to subscribe to diet culture to be aware that other people are still ensconced in old fashioned ideas of what ‘fit’ looks like.
People-pleasing is all about not feeling good enough
“(The need to people-please) can come from developing a pattern or ‘schema’ of subjugation,” explains Dr Cross. “This might be because we fear abandonment and believe that going along with other people all the time will keep us safe. Or perhaps, deep down, we don’t feel ‘good enough’ and try to make up for it by playing down our needs.” She stresses that you can change that pattern of behaviour by having therapy.
Laura Hoggins, director of The Foundry, feels awkward talking about her fitness regime for a completely different reason – to avoid people taking on an inappropriate training plan or load.
“Think of exercise like medicine: it’s given out by a professional, in the appropriate dose to the individual based on their specific goal,” she says. “On Instagram, we can’t help but compare and assume we need the same dose as our favourite influencer but it’s likely you don’t. You wouldn’t blindly take someone else’s prescription, would you?”
In other words, not wanting to share your regime isn’t the problem – sometimes that can be a really good thing. The issue comes when you’re uncomfortable for fear of judgement from other people on your looks or intentions.
Think about why you care about other people’s opinions
“If people are downplaying their physical achievements, they may wish to consider why they don’t wish to stand out from the crowd, and what they fear will happen,” Dr McClymont advises.
“Do you fear that telling someone you run 50km a week might ruin a potential friendship? Is it the worry of being thought of as arrogant? “Think about why it’s not acceptable for you to simply be a successful competitor or a person who is dedicated to their health.” Food for thought indeed.
For more first-person features, fitness ideas and healthy recipes, check out the Strong Women Training Club.
Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.