“You’re being ridiculous, Chris…”

Becoming a Personal Trainer is one of the best decisions I have ever made, but to pretend like it’s not come at a great cost would be deluding myself and everyone reading this article

What you’re in for during this 5-10 minute read:

  1. Why I found myself lonely in one of the most people focussed jobs there is
  2. What I was missing in my day to day life & how I fixed it
  3. The importance of feedback
  4. 8 ways to prevent this job from stealing your life

If you are after a sunshine and rainbows tale of how Personal Training is the best Job ever and that everything is going to be ok, this isn’t it. Yes it is the best Job in the world but if you let it steal your identity it will beat you and every reason why you started in the first place.

I’ve been a Personal Trainer for around 10 years now, and for much of that – certainly 7+ years I have felt pretty lonely.

Most non-PT folk can’t comprehend this because factually I spend all day every day with people, training clients both in 1-2-1 and group format – nearly all day, every day, is spent around other people. For years I gave myself a really hard time for feeling this way

I would tell myself that I’m being ridiculous and that being around other people all day meant that it’s impossible to be lonely. But no matter how hard I tried to convince myself, I was living a lie

Day after day I would put on my game face, turn up to sessions and perform to my absolute best ability, but the lonely feeling wouldn’t go away

No matter how many times I told myself I was irrational, the feeling wouldn’t go.

The great revelation:

After years of struggling with the lonely feeling, coupled with a series of hugely unfortunate events in my private life, I decided to seek help from a counsellor, a move that improved my life for the better in a way that is impossible to measure because it gave me the ability to ask myself better questions which in turn lead to better answers and an ability to find out for myself why I was feeling the way I was.

So to understand the context of why I felt lonely as a trainer, I started asking myself what life was like before I changed jobs – and this context is vital to understand for all self employed workers.

Take home 1: For the love of god, if you need help clearing your head and gain an ability to ask yourself better questions and get better answers about who you are and why you feel a certain way, counselling is one of the best things you’ll ever do for yourself.

Days of Futures Past…

Before I became a Personal Trainer I worked at an amazing company called Future Publishing as an advertising sales executive, and for the most part my life was amazing.

My Working Week:

When a week started and when the week finished, I would feel a sense of belonging.

Feeling like I belong somewhere or to something is vital to me, it’s something I hold incredibly dear and underpins how I want my life (and business) to treat others.

(Some people at this stage might think I am needy, and those people are completely right!)

At ‘Fewtch’ I worked a few seats away from  2 of my closest ever friends, and it’s hard to look back on the times when I would see them for 8 hours a day, when these days I might not see them for 8 hours a YEAR.

Sure the work itself had it’s highs and lows, and for the most part wasn’t rewarding on a deeper level – but spending the week with my friends, as a part of a team, was more vital to me than I had realised.

Structured/Predictable finances are obviously a big “perk” of full time employment and my salary would hit my account every month regardless of how I performed. My pay was linked to showing up.

When moving careers, I quickly replaced my salary with Personal Training clients but going from a salary that was paid based on showing up to an income that was purely dictated by how much effort I made to generate it was a pressure that had implications in other parts of my life – when I was stressed about paying the bills nearly all of my mental energy went to that task and I found it waaaay too easy to neglect friendships and hobbies that made “me” who I am

But it’s not just finances that provide clear headspace, there are other seemingly innocuous “perks” that can create a really great environment to live within, and alongside  feeling like I was in a team and that I belonged, anything that could be defined as ‘Definite’ also freed up valuable headspace that meant I could actually remember to ‘have a life’

These ‘Definite’ things include:

  • My start time – was fixed
  • My finish time – was largely consistent
  • My lunch hour – was consistent
  • The day in the month I got paid – set, fixed
  • Where my desk was located – fixed
  • Our staff meetings (Yawn!) – even they provided structure and feedback that I now crave
  • The accounts I looked after – fixed, definite.

Take Home 2: Definite things, no matter how trivial,  provide structure rarely offered by self employed life. That structure isn’t just important for your job security but also for freeing up valuable headspace to focus on other things that make you who you are. Finding ways to create ‘definites’ can provide balance and structure to what is an often volatile world for self employed people.

Job descriptions, Scoring goals and accountability

Having a job description and a manager allowed me to know my status and role within the company along with the accountability to ensure I fulfilled what was required of me.

I had a role inside a team pulling in the same direction, and because of the (admittedly mundane) structure afforded by 9-5 life it meant I had time to play team sports too on evenings and weekends.

Too many trainers fall into the trap of losing touch with their hobbies outside of the gym, and I was no different and it has taken me years to ‘seize back’ elements of my old identity.

Monday to Friday – I had a role in a team: Make sales for our photography magazine

Saturday and Sunday – I had a role in a team: Score goals for our football team.

Monday to Friday – I had feedback on my performance

Saturday and Sunday – I had feedback on my performance

If I was failing at something, I had plenty of people to help me identify it because they wanted me to win, because it meant they win too.

Take home 3: Feedback (Yes validation too) means we are able to make sense of our performance and make reasonable changed to improve. Feedback is both a gift and data.

The Personal Training Years:

When I qualified as a Personal Trainer (still the best choice I have ever made) I knew immediately that I had found my calling. What I was brought into this world to be good at.

(Ironically I was a pretty crappy trainer technically in the early days but my intention and integrity have always made up for a shortfall in skill)

I knew that I would make a lifelong commitment to this job, but what I hadn’t bargained for is that by moving to self employed life that I immediately felt like  I didn’t feel like I belong anywhere anymore.

I didn’t have a fixed working space outside of sessions. I would float from coffee shop to coffee shop, or just hang around the gym hoping I would see someone I could chat with.

I wasn’t aware that most PT’s have no interest in being team mates, co-conspirators and colleagues.

My earliest clients wanted to train in the evenings and weekends – So I had to quit my nights out with friends and playing in my football team.

I stopped belonging in a work team – Which was my choice

I stopped belonging in my sports team – Also my choice

Ultimately I decided to be so incredibly committed to proving I could make a living out of this job that I completely neglected some of my most basic needs – and after a lifetime of being a team player, I started to resent myself and got sick of the voices in my head telling me to stop being so weak for needing a team, for needing to feel less alone, for needing a few structured and definite things in my life.

I was too busy working to see what I was losing grip of

Too busy trying to get good at the career that was making me feel alone.

Of course this was largely of my own making and in hindsight I would go back and handle things WAY differently.

I was so busy trying to make sense of a largely indefinite world that I lost huge chunks of my own identity:

  • Client payments: erratic, different days of the month, different payment methods
  • Working day start times: erratic, inconsistent
  • Working day finish times: erratic, inconsistent
  • Working location: erratic, kit dependent on how busy the gym was
  • Pay situation: Completely dependent on me generating sales. If I had an off day, my bills didn’t get paid.

Being lonely, tired from working so much, and under so much pressure to become good at something that I was so clearly flawed at in the early days…I became socially awkward, I became anxious the whole time, and ultimately after 2 years of going “all in” I realised I depressed and need to get help.

Then I realised that I was no longer the husband Sam had signed up to, the brother that my sisters could rely on, and the son my Mum was used to seeing happy. Whether they felt that or whether my friends felt like I was different is largely irrelevant.

I felt lonely, anxious, incompetent at my job and just a burden on those around me.

In public – I had never been so “popular”, but the truth of my life when nobody was watching told a different story.

Slowly learning the ability to reframe my life, to take control of my actions, to not let things slip with my friendships, to make stricter rules on my time and ultimately to control my isolation issues rather than letting them drift along out of control – is the most important skills I have ever learned.

People ask me the advice I would give myself if I went back to the start of my PT life and did it all again and here is the HONEST answer…

How to prevent Personal Training from stealing your life:

Take home 4: This job will try it’s hardest to take you away from your old life. Make sure that doesn’t happen. Being around people and feeling utterly alone is not just avoidable, you must strive to make it impossible.

If you can’t see yourself hanging out for a beer (or whatever) with someone, they are not a friend…even though that may be the case on Facebook. Write down the 5 people in your life who you’d call in an emergency…then make sure you have AT LEAST weekly contact with these people, ideally in person.

Take home 5: There is no rush to be the best at this job.

Don’t pressure yourself…especially if your clients are happy.  Block out 1-2 hours each week in the times when you are quiet and have no other commitments or plans to do your study, marketing and admin. Book it in as you would a client and stick to it – and avoid doing these things during ‘down time’ with friends and family.

Take home 6: Control your working hours and have cut off points – especially when you are low. (I am still learning this one #Hypocrite)

Take home 7: Through your best and worst points in this career – your closest friends won’t care how good you are, how much money you are or aren’t making, or any of that shit. They will only care for YOU.

They might never understand your working hours, what you do for a living, but they do understand YOU. You are less alone at all times than you think, but you need to be active in your friendships.

Take home 8:  Most important of all – Talk. If you are increasingly anxious, socially awkward, or depressed – Allow yourself the space of having someone listen to you, someone who doesn’t know your world and can only understand the context in your head.

Thanks for reading


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