Simone Biles’ decision to put her mental health first and withdraw from Olympic competition has sparked a crucial conversation. It takes incredible strength and courage to have the entire world watching and expecting you to make a flawless reach for yet another gold medal, but the importance of Simone pressing the pause button in order to take care of her mental health cannot be overstated.

I don’t think I have felt more proud and excited watching the Olympics than when I saw Simone’s incredible example of balancing tenderness and fierceness (Yin and Yang) to protect herself, even when billions around the world were watching with piercing eyes and judging tongues. There is tremendous pressure for these athletes to always be perfect, and many don’t realize how deep it gets into every fiber of their being. 

Since the start of my career in the 1990’s, I have worked with professional athletes like Olympians, NFL players, NBA players, tennis and golf pros, and professional dancers. They often come in with PTSD, panic, and depression due to living such an intense life. In my psychotherapy practice, I use interventions such as EMDR Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Mindfulness, and Mindful Self-Compassion to help heal so that they can lead an authentic and fulfilled life.

Since Simone openly advocated for her own mental well-being, other athletes have spoken out also. It is my hope that these brave athletes’ examples will lead the way for all of us in mental health awareness and prevention.

Perfectionism Doesn’t Make Us Better

Perfectionism is not the same as healthy striving or perseverance. The focus of perfectionism is avoiding mistakes and getting approval from others. When we are not allowed to make mistakes, we can’t take the risks necessary to grow and improve. Perfectionists are prone to hiding their mistakes, and they often experience depression and severe anxiety, both of which impede not only their ability to perform, but to be present in and enjoy life.

Perfectionism can also make it impossible for us to celebrate our accomplishments. After winning her second Olympic bronze medal in Tokyo, British Taekwondo athlete Bianca Walkden said, “I feel a little bit dead inside and it’s killing me… It’s a medal, just not the color I wanted. I might paint it over when I get home, no one has to know.”

Antidotes to perfectionism include self-compassion and mindfulness. When we are kind to ourselves, and listen to our bodies and our emotions, we end up going a lot farther.

“Your anger? It’s telling you where you feel powerless. Your anxiety? It’s telling you that something in your life is off balance. Your fear? It’s telling you what you care about. Your apathy? It’s telling you where you’re overextended and burnt out. Your feelings aren’t random, they are messengers. And if you want to get anywhere, you need to be able to let them speak to you, and tell you what you really need.”

Brianna Wiest

When Positivity Becomes Toxic

The first time I heard the phrase “It’s OK not to be OK,” was from Michael Phelps, talking about the intense pressure that professional athletes like Olympians feel but have to keep on pushing themselves. Pretending to be OK when we are not is isolating and emotionally taxing.

We might have the best of intentions when we tell a friend, “Just stay positive!” or “It’ll be fine, you got this!” But the person on the receiving end of toxic positivity is actually getting a double dose of negativity. First, we are invalidating their emotional state – giving them the message that the way they are feeling is not how they “should” feel. Second, we are bringing up emotions such as guilt, shame, or embarrassment for feeling that way. So now our friend is coping not only with the original difficult feelings, but additional difficult feelings about those feelings. This is emotional quicksand, and they are left to struggle with it alone. When we push down our real emotions, they don’t go away. They get louder and stronger and more destructive, begging to be heard.

To be truly supportive to our friends (and ourselves), we can say instead, “I am here and I am listening,” or “Whatever you’re feeling is OK.”

Speaking About Our Mental Health Benefits Ourselves and Others

Simone Biles recently posted on Twitter: “the outpouring love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.”

Speaking openly about our mental health moves us towards self-acceptance, breaks the stigma of mental health challenges, and increases connectedness with others. Those who share their stories are also more likely to seek support for themselves.

Brazilian rugby player Isadora Cerullo speaks of the importance of caring for our brains as much as caring for our bodies: “Every international event, especially the Olympics, has its own mental struggle and additional mental weight attached to it. You see that with Simone Biles putting her mental health ahead of everything, and it’s opening up a conversation about how important mental health is for athletes – and everyone else. Athletes are just the tip of the iceberg.”

Photo by Sam Balye