For the past two years at our gym, we’ve run an annual competition in the winter time, and there’s always something about it that utterly exhausts me for weeks, if not months afterward.
I’ve chalked it up to different things: dealing with people outside our gym, the seeming unprofitability of such large-scale events, or the fact that it doesn’t grow the gym itself, at all.
But one thing is always for sure: I feel like dog poop and I can’t shake it.
Yesterday, I was watching a TED talk by Brene Brown, renowned researcher of vulnerability, and I learned a term that was quite applicable: vulnerability hangover.
The lightbulb went on for me when I heard her describe a vulnerability hangover she had, for two big reasons:
1. Vulnerability hangover is a real thing
2. Unlike a real hangover, just because you feel like shit doesn’t mean you did a shitty thing
In Brown’s case, she experienced a vulnerability hangover after giving a TED talk, a TED talk that ultimately garnered over 37 million views. Again, feeling badly doesn’t mean you did badly.
Let’s dive in, because I think this phenomenon is uniquely relevant to gym owners.
What is a vulnerability hangover?
A vulnerability hangover is what you experience after a situation or time period of being very vulnerable.
Let’s define what it means to have been very vulnerable, because that’s a word that can mean different things in different situations. For the purpose of this article and by the definition Brown uses it, to be vulnerable means to “dare to show up and let ourselves be seen.”
To be vulnerable is to be the man in the arena, the person who engages with life at all costs, always trying, often failing, and hopefully, at some point, succeeding.
Whether it is in relationships, in running a business, or otherwise, we all have opportunities in our life where we must be vulnerable in order to do it right. We take stances, we rely on others, we compromise, we sacrifice, we bite our tongue, and we confront. Unless we have chosen to step away from the center stage that is our own life, we are all vulnerable, to varying degrees, in many different facets of our lives.
How does this apply to gym owners?
Gym owners don’t get the credit they’re due for doing such exceptionally hard work.
There are many lines of hard work, whether you’re on the cast of Dirty Jobs, a mother of three, served in an operational capacity in the military, or somewhere in between. While there are countless easy roles out there, there are also endless ways to define what “hard work” is.
When it comes to being a gym owner, the hardest work we do–the work that most often contributes to our burn out–is the work of being vulnerable.
We put ourselves out there, to be observed, critiqued, ridiculed, and praised.
From the second we become gym owners, we have planted our personal flag in the ground and, with it, our brand and values are out there for the world to see and digest. We are CrossFit gym owners, who care about the sport of CrossFit/longevity/health/nutrition/people/our ego/money.
We do this for returns that are minimal, at least initially, and are undoubtedly not guaranteed.
We have sacrificed corporate careers/families/savings/credit scores/steady paychecks/status/other life plans/work-life balance in the name of what we believe and what we envision.
To have any inkling of success as gym owners, we are always having tough conversations with leads/new members/at-risk members/coaches/family members who don’t understand/landlord/Yelp.
When we’re not having tough conversations, we’re doing our best to keep those same people happy, every day, understanding that many of these people pay us for our service and more importantly, our vulnerability.
And the hardest part of it all is that there is no defined end in sight.
To do this right, to do this well, we must continue to be vulnerable in the many ways we are, in hopes of more members/more money/financial freedom/work-life balance/happiness.
We must behave courageously, every single day.
How do you NOT experience a vulnerability hangover?
To be a CrossFit gym owner is exhausting.
I’m not creating excuses for people, and I’m not in the business of making people feel good about themselves undeservedly. Yes, we chose this line of work, and blah blah blah.
But I think we can all just take a second to acknowledge how hard we have it.
Now that the masses are berating me to get back to the normal self-flagellation that is typical of gym owners, let’s talk about why vulnerability hangovers are normal and what we can do about them (trust me, this is as much for me as it is for you).
Vulnerability hangovers are normal, but they also suck, so what can you do?
A vulnerability hangover is manufactured by our own minds, so in that sense it is normal but not necessarily grounded in reality.
Whether it’s a long talk with a member, a tough discussion with a coach, or us reaching out to someone for help, we put ourselves out there then leave these situations unsure what will happen next.
Will that member stay for another year or put in a cancellation notice tomorrow?
How will a discussion change the coach’s behavior?
What will we hear from the person who we asked for help?
The thing is: we don’t know. And we may not know for an hour, a week, or indefinitely.
Here are some things to remember:
1. You are not psychic or a mind-reader. Uncertainty in our minds is the perfect breeding ground for negative thoughts, anxiety, and helpless anticipation of the future. As visceral as these thoughts and feelings are, unless you have been given an actual response from someone or data to back it up, they are not real.
The best thing you can do is remind yourself that you simply don’t have enough evidence to validate any of the shit swirling in your head.
2. Self-care applies for hangovers of all types. Maybe pass on the IV bag and extra dose of Ibuprofen, but don’t skimp on giving yourself the time, space, and care needed to “recover” from vulnerability. I’m a huge proponent of the anti-hustle and proudly indulging in your hobbies and interests.
What are you trying to prove with your incessant, unproductive busyness? Chill out. This gym owner thing is a marathon, and there is always a tomorrow.
3. Vulnerability is the key to success. When we’re already halfway to insanity, it helps to imagine we are the hero in our own movie.
A hero confronts a challenge then overcomes it, and as a gym owner, you are no different. You confront and tackle countless challenges every day. It is this vulnerability, the bittersweet mix of risk and hope, that allows you to grow personally and, more importantly, find the connection and sense of purpose we as human beings all fundamentally crave.
To refuse vulnerability is to live life disengaged, half-heartedly, and worst of all, in a manner you will always regret.
So there you have it.
Vulnerability is important to have as gym owners, but even beyond gym ownership, being vulnerable in life will allow us to discover a fulfillment in our own lives that we cannot experience otherwise.
You can be the tough gym owner and roll your eyes at the weakness behind the concept of vulnerability, or you can embrace that it is only through the very human trait of vulnerability that we will find success as gym owners.
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