imone Biles competing in Tokyo

Tokyo, Tuesday 27 July 2021, is a date which the world should never forget. It is the day that American gymnast Simone Biles provided us with an invaluable lesson in how to set boundaries for ourselves and demonstrate fierce self-compassion, under what was immense pressure. A day when, despite having the weight of the world’s expectations on her shoulders, she was clear on what she would and wasn’t prepared to sacrifice. The day she realised that she was more than just her series of awe-inspiring accomplishments – she was a human being. It followed the French Open in June 2021, when Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka withdrew from competition in the second round of the tournament, following the threat of disqualification from officials, after she refused to take part in media interviews citing mental health concerns.

I trawled (rather than trolled) the Twitter feeds of those who appeared to have a strong opinion on the topic either way, to help me gain insight and perspective into how the actions of these two women resonated around the world. For some, their actions appeared to represent the epitome of courage; for others, they appeared to represent the epitome of failure, selfishness and weakness. How can the same act, elicit such different responses from different people?

Whichever side of the discussion you find yourself on, it might be tempting to rubbish those with the opposing view. Yet, I worry that doing so, only strengthens the divide and causes the resulting void to grow ever wider, and the resulting wounds to grow ever deeper. If an athlete had made a stand to protect their mental health ten years ago, I may well have bought into the rhetoric that their actions were weak. After all, surely someone who is strong doesn’t give up or, as several Twitter users pointed out, selfishly let their teammates down?

While I cannot speak for the people who made those comments, I can share a brief insight into the inner workings of my own mind up until ten years ago. I was brought up to believe that showing weakness was tantamount to failure and that failure was unpalatable to many of those around me. Therefore, if I wanted to be acceptable to (and accepted by) those around me, I must not show weakness. Weakness encapsulated many things, including letting others down, looking foolish, showing fear and giving up. Each of those concepts has its own sub-definitions. Invariably, it resulted in a long list of things that I must do or not do, in order to be perceived by others as acceptable. 

I should point out that not all of these expectations were explicit. Many were in fact implicit expectations that I had concluded – whether correctly or incorrectly – others required of me. Holding such expectations invariably resulted in me holding similar expectations of others and, whilst I held little compassion for them, I recognise now that I held even less compassion towards myself. The problem with all of this, is that with such lofty expectations, it becomes almost impossible to assert sustainable boundaries for ourselves or support others doing the same for themselves. 

Perhaps we’re tempted to latch onto someone else’s public failure, to help us feel better about our own private failings which weigh us down in shame. Perhaps by holding others to impossible standards, we can cherry-pick a couple of examples when we persevered regardless of the cost to convince ourselves that we aren’t a failure and that we are worthy of acceptance. Perhaps it’s a matter of perceived justice or injustice – If I wasn’t afforded compassion and the opportunity to say no, why should they. Whatever the reason, the resulting outcome is that everyone loses and no one is victorious.

Rather than rebuke Simone and Naomi for their ‘weakness’, can we instead be inspired by their tremendous courage? The courage to speak up against a culture that shames people for daring to be vulnerable. The courage to say no, when everyone is willing you on. The courage to stand your ground, knowing the vile rhetoric that will likely ensue. Simone had trained for years to make it to Tokyo. Her entire life until that point had been dedicated to gymnastics. She is considered by many to be the best female gymnast to ever grace this planet. The decision to step aside to protect her mental and physical health was likely not something she made lightly. 

There are a multitude of ways to interpret Simone’s actions. What if Simone stepped aside, not only for herself, but for her team? What if she knew that she would have been a liability in the team event had she continued, and that would have likely cost her country and her team an Olympic medal? What if her stepping aside was selfless, not selfish? We can often convince ourselves that we demonstrate strength in our martyrdom. Yet, is it possible that, rather than a show of strength, it might be a sign of our own insecurity?  Surely, we do others an injustice by suggesting to them that we are indispensable to their success.

At a time when burnout rates are mounting and that exhaustion appears to be a badge of honour for far too many in the corporate world, is it time for us to take a look inside ourselves and recognise that we too are worthy of compassion? Having the courage to say no is not weak, rather a sign of immeasurable strength and fierce self-compassion. There is no courage without fear, and let’s face it, saying no will likely elicit many fears. Not least, the fear of rejection, which a few thousand years ago was tantamount to a death sentence. Today, my hope is that the courage to say no, will elicit in others the utmost respect it rightly deserves.