Toxic PositivityEstablishing rapport is the first step towards developing successful and sustainable relationships with fitness clients. Rapport indicates a mutual trust and respect is present within the relationships. While there are many strategies one can apply in the rapport-building process, offering what’s considered toxic positivity in client communications can erode the foundation of trust and understanding.

What is Toxic Positivity

Toxic positivity is the encouragement of a positive-only mindset. True, there is power in positive thinking, but it’s also unrealistic to expect that if individuals only think positive and avoid being negative, they won’t experience frustration or – worse yet – have a right to feel frustrated and express that feeling accordingly.

Offering Validation and Hope

Every personal trainer (most likely) has had to respond to difficult disclosures made by fitness clients. Clients make statements such as “I had a fight with my supervisor at work” or “I don’t feel like I’m making much progress”. Clients disclose these types of life events and feelings because they believe they can trust their personal trainer with those feelings. They aren’t likely sharing how they feel because they have an expectation that their trainer can “right the wrong” or “fix it”. Our venting clients want what everyone wants – validation and hope.

Making Supportive Statements

While it’s not appropriate (or within the scope of practice) for a personal trainer to counsel his/her clients, it is acceptable and encouraged for fitness pros to acknowledge their clients’ feelings and perceptions of barriers or struggles. Rapport is a quality that evolves over time and each time a client shares how he or she feels is an opportunity to nurture the existing relationship.

While responses such as “think positive” or “don’t be so negative” or “just be happy” might be well-intended, they can – ironically – carry a negative impact. The client may feel invalidated or shutdown rather than supported and heard. Try some reflective listening statements that are meant to validate and really “hear” the emotions being conveyed and simply allowing them to be. This integral practice of Motivational Interviewing (a style of communicating employing empathy to encourage behavior change) is a great habit to get into, though not necessarily an easy one to integrate naturally.

You can respond to difficult disclosures by making statements such as, “I can appreciate how frustrating a conflict with your supervisor can be,” or “This is hard. You’ve done hard things and I believe in the progress you’re making.”

Instead of this… Offer something like this…
Think happy thoughts!  

I can appreciate that it is difficult to feel happy at this moment. I’m here for you!

Don’t be negative!  

It’s normal to feel a little negative from time to time. What can we do today that will help?

Don’t worry about it!  

This must be tremendously difficult for you. What do you feel you need right now?

Never quit!  

It sounds like you’re feeling a little down about the progress. Let’s revisit your goal and make some changes.

I wouldn’t let it bother me.  

I understand how something like this feels. I’ve been there. It’s ok to sit with your feelings and accept them. What would you enjoy doing right now?




If it feels a bit forced if you use language that you don’t normally use, take the essence of these alternative statements and use phrasing that feels natural to you yet still validates your client’s feelings.

Negative Feelings are OK

We all have those days and moments where we just cannot be positive. Those days and moments are not just ok, they are a normal part of life. In fact, personal trainers should expect that their clients will experience bad days and negative emotions. Think about the number of times something, some event or someone has disrupted your otherwise happy mood. It happens. It’s not uncommon nor is it something to be buried or dismissed.

The lesson here is to avoid ignoring how the client feels and exercise empathy. Step into their shoes and imagine what it feels like to be them for that moment and respond accordingly – without trying to disavow the way they currently feel. Accept. Allow. Don’t judge. You never know when you will need someone else to do the same for you.

Erin Nitschke

Dr. Erin Nitschke, NFPT-CPT, NSCA-CPT, ACE Health Coach, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Therapeutic Exercise Specialist, and Pn1 is a health and human performance college professor, fitness blogger, mother, and passionate fitness professional. She has over 15 years of experience in the fitness industry and college instruction. Erin believes in the power of a holistic approach to healthy living. She loves encouraging her clients and students to develop body harmony by teaching focused skill development and lifestyle balance. Erin is also the Director of Educational Partnerships & Programs for the NFPT. Erin is an editorial author for ACE, IDEA, The Sheridan Press, and the Casper Star Tribune. Visit her personal blog at