Have you ever felt ‘gymtimidated’? Many people have felt like they don’t belong on the gym floor, too. Stylist’s fitness writer asks a psychologist why – and how to get around it.
‘OhmygodwhereamIgoingtogo?’ my brain raced. I had just stepped onto the gym floor, only to realise that there was no space left in the section where I had planned to do my warm-up. Very quickly, my usually strategic brain turned into confetti – thoughts, problems and ideas blowing everywhere.
That on-edge alertness is something that I thought would leave me after my first few sessions in the gym. That alert, panicked, brain-running-1,000-mph feeling. But, if you’ve gone back to the gym after lockdown, you’ll know that it can come back. Many people are probably suffering with a feeling of anxiousness of training in public again. For me, if was made worse by the fact that I was working out in a branch in my hometown of Sussex, rather than my usual gym, too.
Despite being a well-seasoned exerciser, I was dealing with low-level anxiety about training. Stylist’s digital deputy editor Jaz Kopotsha says she deals with the same feeling of stress when going to work out, so much so that she avoids going to the gym except to go to classes. When she does, she walks across the gym floor and into the changing rooms almost shielding and hiding herself so not to be seen.
It turns out, this is a type of imposter syndrome. “This refers to self-doubt, a feeling of being a fraud or a sense of not being deserving of an achievement or presence in a situation,” explains sport and exercise psychologist Dr Jill Owen. “It isn’t an officially classified psychiatric diagnostic condition but is a term often used that can be useful in describing this type of experience. Some studies have linked it with low self-esteem (eg Schubert and Bowker, 2017) and low confidence can play a part.”
Why do you get imposter syndrome in the gym?
While ‘imposter syndrome’ is typically a term we use to describe feelings of inadequacy in our careers (affecting over 60% of women in the workplace, according to a 2019 survey), it can turn up anywhere. But the embarrassment or awkwardness experienced when walking into the gym feels slightly different. After all, the gym is very much a public, rather than professional space, and we don’t feel this same shame when we walk into a new pub, restaurant or shop.
“The gym is a space where there can be perceived levels of competition and training usually occurs in the company of other gymgoers so is visible to those present,” explains Dr Owen. This can make new members very aware of their own current inexperience, but especially “if a lack of fitness has occurred as a result of a lifestyle that may not have been the healthiest or a general tough time when health may have been rather neglected, confidence may be particularly low and negative thoughts and comparison may prevail,” Dr Owen continues.
But why do even the most frequent of exercisers still feel uncomfortable on new gym floors? “Seasoned gymgoers may place more expectations on themselves as a result of their greater experience and in a new environment may concentrate on whether they still measure up in the scenario,” says Dr Owen. This rings very true for me. Being a fitness writer, I feel like there is not only a certain standard on myself to lift certain weights or perform a certain amount of burpees without wanting to cry, but also to have a magical knowledge of how every gym works, even if I’ve never stepped foot in it before.
I also think that it is heightened by the fact that I grew up not at all interested in sports or exercise. Now, training is part of my identity and it’s very weird to reckon with that when I see the faces of those I knew when I was younger and a very different version of myself. Especially when in the middle of a set of squats.
“Former negative beliefs, for example, those developed during a period of apparent low athleticism at school may be stubborn even in the face of consistent training success as an adult,” explains Dr Owen when I ask her about this.
“The gym member may feel their new fitter or stronger status can’t be deserved and doubt may occur as to whether it is even true despite evidence to the contrary. An image of how they perceived themselves at school or at a different time may prevail and comments from teachers or cruel ‘banter’ with siblings might still influence their beliefs as to whether they can really be part of a gym environment.”
Honestly, it does sometimes feel like someone from school is going to come over to me and ask what I think I’m doing, exposing the fact that I am not naturally strong, muscular or sporty. Luckily, I can beat this out of myself when I return to my London gym. But for others who feel long-term imposter syndrome in gym environments it may be because they “believe subconsciously that if they’re aware of their faults, they will drive themselves harder or better and may be reluctant to focus positively on their attributes,” continues Dr Owen.
“They may feel that if they allow themselves to enjoy their confidence, they may become complacent and miss an opportunity to progress. There can be a tendency in humans to focus on the negative as in primitive times this would lead them to avoid danger but in modern-day life, this often just leads to misery.”
How to deal with imposter syndrome in the gym
I think back to when I last noticed someone new in my gym. It was two men, and they were recognisably new because they were asking people where some kit was. I compare how they acted (strutting in, loudly asking questions, performing CrossFit style workouts, including handstands and extremely heavy squats in a commercial gym, even striking up a conversation with me on a whim) to how I acted in my new gym (shy, awkward, stressed).
The difference is apparent but not surprising. While studies suggest men and women may experience imposter syndrome in similar degrees, gyms are still seen as male-dominated spaces – the phenomenal This Girl Can campaign was based on insight showing that women felt distanced from exercise due to the lack of portrayal of women in fitness. Anecdotally, imposter syndrome does affect us more.
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Dr Owen says that the knock-on effect of this is that women either overtrain to prove they are deserving of their fitness or, at the other end of the scale, may avoid training during busy times, in particular areas of the gym, or stop exercising altogether. “Alternatively they may continue without avoidance but with high levels of discomfort,” says Dr Owen. That’s me – and when I feel uneasy during my workout it counteracts the amazing mental health benefits I would usually be reaping.
Honestly, a lot of the change needed here is social and industrial, making women feel more included in fitness. Until then, Dr Owen suggests that we should acknowledge that it is normal to feel uncomfortable in a new scenario and “acknowledge that this discomfort absolutely does not indicate an inadequacy or lack of deserving to be there.”
For people joining a gym for the first time or going back after a long lockdown break, remember you can always ask to be shown around or have an induction session so that you can work out where things are and how to manoeuvre yourself around the gym before signing up. If you can afford it, training with a personal trainer until you feel comfortable with the gym environment can also help and, if not, even just taking a friend can help to “keep perspective and maintain focus on the aims and enjoyment of training,” says Dr Owen.
My number one piece of advice is to always go in with multiple plans so that you have a backup should you get thrown off. Can’t find a squat rack? No problem, you have another exercise to do instead.
I don’t want this to scare women away from joining a gym. I am evidence of the fact that once you settle into a gym you can overcome these nerves and love your workouts. But one of the earliest studies into imposter syndrome found that validating doubts and fears helps sufferers feel less isolated in their experience, so perhaps sharing the fact that I feel anxious about training can make others feel more at ease.
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Images: Getty / writer’s own