Years ago, as I cast about in search of my athletic identity, I signed up for CrossFit. About three days a week, my alarm would go off at 5:30 AM. I'd scrape my sorry carcass out of bed and drive wearily down the highway to a warehouse for the 7 AM WOD.
It was a rough time in my life. I was struggling to find my place in a new town, my mental health was in decline, and I was marinating in the self-worth-corroding vat also known as grad school. Finding a space with structure, community, and loud music was a much-needed respite from the emotional turmoil. I was new to the sport, but I'd been lifting heavy for a while and I was ready to throw down.
After a few weeks of suffering together, I was on friendly terms with my fellow 7 AM regulars. One of them was a muscular, middle-aged dad who was very good at CrossFit. He was the opposite of me in a lot ways. He gave me a nickname, "Lil Beast", and would always cheer me on as I finished my workouts. Every so often, as I sat wheezing on the floor recovering from--I don't know--50 reps of flailing a barbell for time or something, he would walk over and say: "I'm proud of you, Lil Beast."
In a time when I was struggling to feel legitimate as an athlete, not to mention struggling in life in general, those affirmations meant a lot to me. There is unique impact in that statement: "I'm proud of you." To me, it feels different than saying "good job" or "strong work." While those are great too, telling someone you're proud of them is more personal and more earnest. Even now, many years after those days in the airy CrossFit gym, I still cherish the same words from my running coach, athletes I look up to, and my loved ones.
Speaking genuine words of affirmation is a lot like practicing joy. The practice of affirming can feel loaded for a hundred reasons; many of us have complicated relationships with affirming and being affirmed. Maybe we have lingering wounds from a withholding parent. Maybe we've felt foolish for generously giving away affection to someone who hurt us later. Much like experiencing joy, offering affirmation freely is a vulnerable act, and we have to contend with that vulnerability consciously.
But much like other forms of vulnerability, practice takes away some of the fear and self-consciousness. At first, trying to tell someone I was proud of them felt like choking the words out. It's easy to come up with excuses: "this is a minor thing, I should save the important words for the big stuff. They know I'm proud of them, I don't have to say it. I'll sound like a try-hard." I've felt a compulsion to make words of affirmation sound silly or playful, which might seem well-meaning, but ultimately buffering my own vulnerability with jokes only serves to dilute the impact. I try to notice those feelings, but ultimately hold myself to the standard of saying what I mean plainly, and letting it hang in the air without qualification and without rushing to the next topic. As with many things, it gets easier with practice.
At the end of the day, everyone wants to feel affirmed and validated, especially in the pursuit of their passions. So give people what they want. This is your sign to tell someone you're proud of them.