Always the eternal motivators, many joyful health and exercise professionals can find themselves stumped with how to deal with clients who struggle with negativity, especially if they’re not personally predisposed to a pessimistic outlook on life. A great first step comes with understanding why not providing space for your clients to express the dismal aspects of their day may actually be detrimental to their health. 

One study that looked at the benefits of audibly expressing our stressors found that “when individuals are asked to write or talk about personally upsetting experiences, significant improvements in physical health are found.” And a similar study found that “verbally expressing traumatic experiences by writing or talking improves physical health, enhances immune function, and is associated with fewer medical visits.” The general consensus is that if we attempt to hold in our less-than-positive thoughts and feelings, they’ll eventually take a toll on us physically. 

As with most things, balance here is key, as the other side of the coin also holds true. Too much negativity works to our detriment, which is why it’s crucial to do emotional and mental check-ins with your clients and then help steer them in a more positive-minded direction when possible.

“Constantly focusing on the negative will have physiological effects,” says Vera Ross, MPH, a certified health education specialist and personal trainer. “Chronic stress can damage the heart and even lead to stroke. Stress also directly leads to weight gain. During times of stress our bodies produce a larger amount of the hormone cortisol, which causes us to put on and hold on to excess weight. If a client does not effectively address the root causes of their ill-health and deal with their mindset, any health and fitness program will ultimately fail them in the long run.”

Sometimes we can forget the simplest and most obvious suggestion: Ask your clients about their lives. Take notice of changes in their daily dispositions, remember important life events, practice empathy and compassion, and engage in active listening. But also know when it’s time to set boundaries with an overly negative client and recognize when it may be best to refer the client to a mental health professional. 

“There is a difference between working with a client on their mindset and being the recipient of verbal and emotional abuse from a client who lacks professional boundaries,” explains Ross. “As a health and exercise professional, it is important to understand the difference and to remember that respect must be a two-way street in any client–professional relationship.” If your client starts to get heavy-handed with the gossip, drama or other commentary that makes you feel uncomfortable, find a way to shift the client’s focus back onto the session. If this proves to be an ongoing issue, let the client know which type of venting may best be saved for a friend or mental health professional. 

So, when is the unloading of negative emotions too much? Each professional will have different thresholds for what they’re willing and able to tolerate, but the bottom line is that discovering if this is a seldom-seen occurrence or a pattern can help you to formulate a strategy or decide if a referral is necessary.

“It’s important to be able to distinguish the difference between episodes and patterns,” says Galen Lundin, certified nutritionist and strength and conditioning specialist. “Everyone has a bad day here or there and we would consider that an episode. On the other hand, a pattern would be repeated and frequent episodes of negativity.”

How to Support Your Clients When Negativity Arises

Now that we know that expressing negative emotions can, to an extent, be beneficial to your clients’ health and well-being, let’s examine some ways you can help support them in the process. A good place to start is to realize that a consistently negative outlook on life is often a reflection of a stressful home or work life, which can sometimes be compounded by the fears or insecurities a client has about achieving the health goal(s) he or she has come to you for help in achieving. Allowing your client an empathetic space to vent while simultaneously providing a meaningful coaching or exercise experience can oftentimes be just the positive boost he or she needs. 

“When someone is constantly expressing negative feelings and/or behaviors it is due to a lack of self-efficacy [or] the absence of a belief in oneself to accomplish a stated goal,” explains Ross. “If we have never experienced success in a particular area or we have not seen it modeled in another close relationship (such as a parent, spouse or friend), we have no idea what achieving success in that area looks like and we do not know how to accomplish it for ourselves." 

To help clients turn a negative mindset into a positive one, Ross asks them to think back over their lives to another major life accomplishment that they have achieved, such as a professional degree or buying their first home. “I remind them that those successes did not happen overnight, and that the process of overcoming barriers in order to achieve success with their goals will be the same for this new health objective as it was for those major life goals they had achieved in the past,” she says.

It may also prove beneficial for you to encourage your clients to look for people in their lives (friends, family, etc.), celebrities, or book characters who’ve achieved the same goal they’re trying to achieve and who also have similar backgrounds and obstacles. Finding an example of someone reaching a seemingly unreachable goal with similar life experiences can help them feel more optimistic and upbeat about the task at hand. 

While helping our clients work through emotional baggage is oftentimes part of the process, their physical activity should not be taking a backseat, even when schedules may change based on your client’s needs for that day. 

“Sometimes it is in the best interest of the client for the coach to be firm and help to hold the client accountable to the client’s stated goals,” says Ross. “I provide a supportive atmosphere for clients to help them cultivate the discipline necessary to achieve long-lasting results. Reminding my clients why they originally began their journey to improved health helps them remain focused on big-picture goals; often, this is a great way to shift a client out of their negative mindset.”

How to Protect Your Own Emotional Well-being

This idea of holding space for your client’s emotional expression is a great one, but it can’t come at the expense of your own health. 

“Health and exercise professionals must consider self-care as a part of the job,” says Ross. “There are a thousand versions of the phrase ‘you cannot give from an empty cup’ because it is very true. Our jobs are physically and mentally demanding—from demonstrating and leading classes to being emotionally present and energetically ‘on’ for clients for hours at a time—and our jobs take a toll, so we must prioritize our own healthy habits (such as physical activity, healthy meals and sleep) to ensure we are able to give quality energy to each client.”

Burnout is a common problem for personal trainers and health coaches and having emotionally draining clients can exacerbate this phenomenon. Just as your client likes having you to vent to, it’s crucial that you have a safe space to share about your day. Whether it’s with a counselor, family or friends, it’s imperative that you don’t fall into the same negativity trap. Ross warns that “a persistently negative client’s gloomy attitude is like a bad rumor—unhealthy energy will spread throughout your practice and affect you and any other clients sharing that space.”

At the end of the day, you are a good-hearted health and exercise professional, not a therapist or an emotional dart board. Along with some of the suggestions mentioned above, it may also be useful to implement some sort of process between client sessions that can help prepare you to release any negative emotions you experienced in the previous session so that you can show up fully present for your next client. This could look like stepping outside for a few minutes, listening to a three-minute meditation on the Calm app, doing 20 squats or anything else that helps you reset.

“It can be easy for [trainers and coaches] to be involved in the lives of our clients because we truly care about them and want to help them,” says Lundin. “But we have to be careful of transference and not let that affect our own energy, our well-being and our ability to coach.”

You may also find it beneficial to consider continued education in behavior change that can shed more light on how to promote behavior change and how to coach clients away from counterproductive behaviors. 

Expand Your Knowledge

ACE Health Coach Certification [certification]

Foundations of Lifestyle Medicine [webinar]

ACE Behavior Change Specialist [ACE Specialist Program]