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How to overcome feeling insecure at the gym

By Bri WilsonOctober 21, 2015

Woman looking at her phone at the gym.
Woman looking at her phone at the gym. iStock

Raise your hand if you’ve had an internal conversation with yourself similar to this when you went to the gym, a fitness class, or out for a run for the first time:

I feel so exposed and out of place. Everyone is going to know I’m new at this. Okay, play it cool. Just do what the others are doing. *Pretends to look at phone while watching other runners/weight lifters/group exercisers* Okay, I’m going to try to follow along. *Starts exercising* This seems to be right, but feels weird. I’m not sure if I’m doing this right. I feel so uncoordinated. Oh god, that man looked at me. He’s totally making fun of me for not knowing what I’m doing. And look at what that girl is wearing. Should I get pants like that? I look so out of place in my sweat pants and cotton t-shirt. I don’t fit in here. I wish I just knew what I was doing. This is too humiliating. I give up.

Sound familiar? I know I’ve experienced this, along with probably almost every other person who has ever tried anything new. And while you’re busy having this torturous internal dialogue with yourself, there’s a good chance that others around you are too busy thinking about themselves to even notice you don’t know how to do a plank properly. They also probably don’t notice that you’re wearing an oversized cotton T-shirt—with a colorful, sombrero-clad gecko on it—from your trip to Cancun instead of a sweat-wicking Under Armor tank top.   

I wish I had known that when I first started going to the gym about seven years ago. Gyms—and weight rooms in particular—can be intimidating places, especially when the majority of the clientele are grunting, muscle-bound men. The first gym I went to was at a local rec center, and I would only go late at night when it was quiet to avoid embarrassing myself in front of the hard-core exercisers. After a few nights when it was busier than usual (and therefore the embarrassment risk factor was greater), I decided to quit. I didn’t know if what I was doing in the gym was the “right” way to do it, and I couldn’t afford a personal trainer at the time to give me confidence in my abilities. 

Every other gym-goer is only concerned about one thing: themselves.

After a few months of studying workout routines in women’s health and fitness magazines and practicing them at home with a set of pink, neoprene-covered, five-pound hand weights, I decided to sign up for a membership at a women’s-only gym. “Perfect,” I thought, “No muscle-bound dudes to cast a snarky stare my way from underneath the hood of their black Everlast boxing hoodies while I do a lunge-and-bicep-curl combo in front of the mirror in the free weights area.” Although the female-only environment felt a lot less intimidating, I still found myself going to a quiet corner to workout, and comparing myself to the much fitter and stronger women in the gym. I still didn’t know if what I was doing was right, and found myself missing more and more scheduled gym days as time went on.

To be honest, I didn’t feel totally comfortable in the gym until I actually became a personal trainer. Even though I had been going for years and even had a few in-person training sessions with a personal trainer, that “everyone is watching and judging me” feeling didn’t go away until I became entrenched in the fitness industry and realized every other gym-goer is only concerned about one thing: themselves.

Everyone feels insecure and vulnerable when they try something new, but what makes you feel that way is not coming from an external source. It’s not the judgment of others that makes you feel vulnerable, it’s the fear of judgment from others, a fear that you create, that makes you feel that way. As author Brené Brown says in her book Daring Greatly, “Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.” So what if someone happens to glance your way when you’re doing an awkward squat? Maybe they are admiring the sombrero-clad gecko on your shirt, or perhaps they’re just thinking about what they’re going to have for lunch. Either way, who cares? You’re not in any danger. That person is not going to harm you, so why feel vulnerable and afraid? 

Although I could suggest a few tips to make working out around other people less intimidating, such as the tactics I employed in my early days of exercising, I’m not going to. Because you truly don’t have anything to fear. The more we show up and don’t care, the better it is for everyone. Because as Brené Brown says, “True belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”