At 24 I failed miserably with my first personal training business and moved home to Galway from Dublin with my tail between my legs, financially broke and emotionally broken. I took that failure pretty badly and fell into a really dark place of isolation and shame, trapped in my head, constantly confronted by my own biggest critic – me.
I have often been asked in the years since, why I’d had such high expectations on myself at 24 and why I’d been so hard on myself at the time for my perceived shortcomings in business and life. People reminded me that it’s not out of the ordinary to be broke in your twenties, and that lots of people moved back in with their parents whilst trying to find their feet in life. I was also reminded that most small businesses fail and that I should take the lessons from it and move on.
Despite these reassurances, my isolation and shame magnified. I’ve since come to learn and understand that when our difficult feelings and narratives live in isolation in our minds, they only grow bigger and darker. It’s essential to talk about the struggles we experience and bring the “darkness” into the light with people we trust to ease some of the tension and pain that we feel. “The mind can be a wonderful servant, but a terrible master”.
After a few difficult months, as can often be the case, my pain and low points moved me to action and proved to be the catalyst for me changing direction in life. I got pissed off enough with where I was that I wasn’t willing to stay there anymore.
I took that failure pretty badly and fell into a really dark place of isolation and shame, trapped in my head, constantly confronted by my own biggest critic – me
In the five years following, my whole life changed. I started a new fitness “business”, training five clients on my local beach. I promised myself I wasn’t ever going to be broke and unable to buy Christmas presents for my family again. I worked every waking hour and studied the most successful trainers in the UK and US, looking to follow in their footsteps and build a successful fitness brand.
Within five years I’d opened a gym, brought out three best-selling books, trained over 20,000 clients globally through online training programs and helped raised over €250,000 for local charities.
I’d love to say “and then I lived happily ever after”, but in reality I woke up at 29 having “ticked all the boxes”, and again felt that sense of being “emotionally broken”, only this time I didn’t have any external thing I could point to for my feelings of sadness and emptiness.
At 24 having failed, I could easily point to external reasons for my sadness, frustration and shame. At 29, having achieved everything I thought I’d ever wanted, there wasn’t anything external I could point to – which further confused me and led me to think I was destined to feel these struggles forever.
I got pissed off enough with where I was that I wasn’t willing to stay there anymore
Although my whole external world had changed, the internal feelings of emptiness felt familiar and it became clear to me that how you feel in life is much more important than how your life looks on paper.
That sounds glaringly obvious as I write it now, but the need for acceptance, approval and validation that we all feel as social beings often seduces us into living a life of chasing more for the sake of more and telling ourselves “I’ll be happy when….”, rather than allowing ourselves to be happy now.
Going back to the question, people had asked me why I’d had such high expectations of myself as a 24 year-old to be “successful”.
Growing up I’d always struggled with confidence. As a kid I was bullied a little, maybe no more than anyone else, but I was sensitive and took it to heart. Later, when I met new friends, I became convinced that someday they’d find out what I was really like and they wouldn’t want to hang out with me anymore (I’ve since come to learn that this is something many of us experience called imposter syndrome).
At 29, having achieved everything I thought I’d ever wanted, there wasn’t anything external I could point to – which further confused me and led me to think I was destined to feel these struggles forever
In college, I used alcohol as a crutch to mask my insecurities and give me a false sense of confidence, and then when I came into the “real world” I placed all of my self worth and value in becoming “successful” in terms of finances and public profile.
I had always put my self worth in things outside of myself: what I wore, who I hung out with, how much money I earnt, what I achieved or how I was perceived.
For me, thinking that my self worth was wrapped up in my business led me to feel completely lost when my first business failed. It then led me to feel an enormous pressure in maintaining and growing this new business, which had seen great initial success. I’d started this second business with a “nothing to lose” attitude, being that I was starting from scratch but the more I achieved ironically the more fearful I felt of losing it all.
We become attached to things in life, thinking who we are is what we do for work, who we are going out with, how we are seen publicly or what we own. We become more caught up in how our life looks than how our life feels.
We become more caught up in how our life looks than how our life feels
My pivotal moment brought me to a psychiatrist at 29 asking why I wasn’t happy despite having achieved all of the things I’d been told would make me happy. I’d bought the car and house, built the business, had work that provided me with purpose, had a great girlfriend, friends and family – but was a ball of anxiety.
In that meeting with the psychiatrist the penny dropped for me. The shame I’d felt after failing with my first business was the result of me living in the past and not taking any lessons from the experience, instead using the experience as a reason to berate and belittle myself. The anxiety I was feeling with this newfound success stemmed from constantly deferring my happiness to the future.
I made some key changes at that time about four years ago now.
The anxiety I was feeling with this newfound success stemmed from constantly deferring my happiness to the future
I reflected on the times in my life when I had been at my happiest and considered what elements had contributed to those feelings. I committed to daily practices, recognising that things as important as happiness, relaxation and peace shouldn’t be left to chance or deferred to the weekend or to the next holiday. They needed to be prioritised and practiced daily.
Memories of the happiness I’d felt studying martial arts as a teenager led me to take up Brazilian Jiu Jitsu at 29. I started meditating and journaling more to make sense of the madness of my mind. When I found myself ruminating on past regrets or mistakes, I’d look to take the lessons from the experience rather than be caught up in overthinking. When I’d find myself living too far into the future, I’d consider what I could do today to put me into action. I took up mountaineering. What better way to learn to enjoy the journey than to spend up to21 days climbing a mountain, only to spend 15 minutes on the summit?
Finally, although I continued to set goals in the different areas in life to give me some direction, I became more concerned with the practices and daily rituals that would help me on the way than obsessing over the end result.
What better way to learn to enjoy the journey than to spend up to21 days climbing a mountain, only to spend 15 minutes on the summit?
Peace, happiness, confidence, connection and contentment don’t live in the future, they live in the now. A statement like that can seem very far removed from the fast paced lives that we now live, where screens and noise vie for our attention.
I’m not suggesting any of us go to meditate full time in a cave! I would, however, strongly encourage everyone to consider and prioritise a daily practice of something that promotes happiness and something that promotes calm. It will be different for everyone, and that’s what makes life interesting. These daily practices deepen your connection with yourself and establish the self worth that is too often put into external things which can be taken away from us.
I still have to frequently remind myself of this. Ultimately, what’s most important is how we see ourselves, how we treat ourselves and how we prioritise our own self care.