Did Simone Biles have a mental break down? The world stands stunned, as “gymnastics super-star and defending Olympic champion, Simone Biles, withdraws from Thursday’s individual all-around competition at the Tokyo games to focus on her mental health,” as ESPN put it.
But the backlash I’ve heard from people reacting to Biles’ decision with such negativity and disdain is a reality check of how backwards we are in our society.
We push people to a breaking point, and then we are shocked when they break.
It’s our cultural narrative. We do it to Olympians, but we also do it to each other and to ourselves.
Think of all the ways we perpetuate the cycle of pushing ourselves to the point of complete and total mental exhaustion, as though we have no limitations. As though “having no limits” is something to be proud of. As though stopping to take care of ourselves is wrong.
Think of all the phrases we throw around to push people to the next level, ignoring our physical and emotional needs, without ever stopping to consider the impact on our mental health:
“Just do it.”
“Never say die.”
“Do the impossible.”
“Never give up.”
Further yet, reading through some of the phrases used to motivate professional athletes, makes me wonder how we don’t see more mental damage on the playing field:
“Losers quit when they’re tired, winners quit when they’ve won.”
“Winning isn’t everything – it’s the only thing”.
“A champion is someone who gets up when he can’t”
“Remember that guy who gave up? Neither does anyone else.”
So much of the way we “motivate” pushes people to do, to perform, to reach the top, to ignore their needs, limitations, and struggles — to be the best. And if they don’t? They’re nothing. They won’t be remembered. They’re losers. “Selfish sociopaths”, as one famous influencer cruelly referred to Simone Biles.
From my perspective as a mental health therapist, that sounds less far like motivational speech, and much more like shame speech.
Think of the danger of the underlying message that you need to ignore your mental and emotional signals — push through — and just get to the other side. Think about how many people we lose to burnout, breakdowns, panic attacks, and even suicide.
But what would happen if we started encouraging people to actually listen to their body’s signals?
What if we started to change the narrative, to focus on overall health and well-being — not just overall success?
What if we were to start applauding people for focusing on their mental and emotional health?
What if we were to start affirming them for going to counseling, just as much as we affirm them for going to the gym?
What if it was actually the norm to take care of our mind and heart and spirit as much as we take care of our body?
What if we began to check in and open up about our mental and emotional health, long before we hit a wall. Long before depression and anxiety brings us to a point of paralysis. Long before we crash, and burn-out, and break-down?
Hear this: there’s a level of preventative maintenance that we need to highlight in our American culture — not just for our professional athletes, but also for ourselves.
We can’t just go-go-go until we can’t go anymore. We have to tune in to our body’s signals and what’s going on underneath the surface mentally and emotionally. We have to have checkpoints along the way to make sure we’re equipped for the journey.
We live in a culture of the opposite. We push people to their breaking point and then we’re surprised when they break.
That’s the narrative that has to change, and it starts with us as individuals recognizing the narrative in our own life, and beginning to tune in to our mental and emotional needs. Beginning to actually take care of ourselves and not feel bad about it. Beginning to realize that none of us are super-human, and to be healthy means to be in-tune not just physically — but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
Funny thing is, I actually think we’d have more “gold medals” in the end — maybe not in the Olympic sense of the word, but in life. In happiness. In fulfillment and satisfaction. And ultimately, in our health and well-being.