What To Do When Your Client Offloads Their Emotional Junk On You

This article was updated May 2023.

Personal trainers are the new bartenders of this world. These days when someone  has a problem they don’t run to the local pub and dump it on the bartender, they offload on to their personal trainer. And while you are amazing at giving clients everything they need to be their physical best, you might not know how to respond when clients start talking about their relationship problems, stresses, anxiety or depression; and it can put you in a really uncomfortable and tricky position

A client may divulge their marriage is falling apart, their sister is terminally ill or that their self esteem is at an all time love, and you’re standing there thinking “I don’t know what to do with this? I don’t know what to say”. And boom you have just become a therapist, and your client leaves feeling better because they’ve just  dumped on you, but you leave the session feeling tired and drained.

Looking after your own mental health:

While being an active listener and allowing someone to ‘vent’ to you is both compassionate and sometimes as beneficial to your personal training client as the workout itself, it’s important to preserve your own mental wellbeing. Here are five tips to use next time a client goes for the emotional outpour so that boundaries are maintained and you stay sane.

1. Reflect back to them what they just told you. If a client says “My husband just doesn’t listen and it’s so frustrating! He just watches footy, gives me nothing and I’m getting really sick of it”, reflect back “Uh huh, so you’re feeling frustrated because your husband’s not listening to you, is that right?”. That statement alone will make your client feel heard, validated and understood and is often enough to stop the conversation going unnecessarily further.

2. Designate time for an emotional offload, but then switch focus. Say at the start of the session “Let’s do 10 minutes of warm up and a weekly vent, and then let’s focus on getting you fit”. When the warm up is over with a smile in your voice say “Ok. Warm up and vent done, now it’s training time”.

3. Empower them to take ownership of the situation. People often vent because they don’t know what to do and feel stuck in a situation. So put it back in their court. Ask questions like “What can you do to feel better right now?” “What is a way you can improve the situation?”, “What can you do to support yourself?”. These questions encourage the client to find their own solutions, feel more empowered and it takes the pressure off you.

4. Bring them in to the present moment. You could be bold and say “Ok, right now what I want you to do is be present in this moment, and concentrate only on your personal training”. This will stop them talking, it will bring them into the present moment and it will lessen their negative state. If you’d rather use a more subtle way of narrowing their focus, try incorporating tools into your training that require them to be mentally alert and engaged. Balance training is a good way of forcing concentration, as is anything that requires quick reflexes!

5. Make sure that when the session is over you’re not left with the emotional baggage. Have a ritual that stops you from taking that energy home. When I worked in a psychiatric hospital I made sure that every day when I walked out those hospital doors I visualised leaving all heaviness and negative energy inside the hospital. If you’re in the gym, maybe do a few jumps to release any residual negativity. If you’re outdoors drop a weight on the ground to symbolise you dropping any heavy energy; or do whatever works for you. 

client offloads mental health to PT

Photo by Julia Larson 

Identifying and responding to a Mental Health crisis

The mental health crisis is frightening and in the years since the pandemic, more dire than ever. As a personal trainer, you are in an excellent position to identify and respond to someone who is struggling with their mental health. There are some great free resources online through the Black Dog Institute and it’s worth considering enrolling in Mental Health First Aid Training of some sort. Becoming better educated around mental health not only empowers you to better help those around you, but it also raises your awareness of your own mental health. If you think your client is struggling, it’s important to know where you can refer them on to. You are not paid to be their personal emotional problem solver, nor are you the best qualified person to assist them – let the experts do that. Inform them about some psychologists, life coaches or counsellors that they can access or if you think it’s relevant, direct them to the Black Dog institute’s self assessment tool and get back to enjoying your sessions.

Original article by Vanessa Aitken in May 2015 and updated by the WNiF Wrting Team in May 2023.

Vanessa is a qualified Life Coach with a special interest in stress and anxiety. She is Melbourne based and consults one-on-one with clients over the phone or via Skype. Take The Stress Test here, or to connect with Vanessa click here.

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