4.2
July 31, 2021

Boundaries, Baby—Because if it Destroys you, it’s Not Worth It.

Simone Biles shocked the world this past week with her decision to withdraw from the team competition midway through at the Olympic Games. 

Her move elicited a range of responses from anger and judgment to respect and awe. While some people applauded her as a role model for setting an important boundary and prioritizing her mental health, others attacked her for being a quitter and letting down her team.

For me, this issue became a point of reflection: how do we know when to push ourselves and when to pause our efforts and take time for self-care?

Simone Biles had gotten the “Twisties.” This is a term for becoming disoriented midair. From my layperson understanding, it sounds like a terrifying mind-body disconnect leaving you completely vulnerable to land in any number of dangerous or even deadly ways due to having no awareness of where your body is in space.

There was no long debate or tears or trying to go one more time. We watched Biles say to her coach, “I don’t trust myself,” then she walked off stage and returned soon after with a sweatsuit on over her leotard to cheer on her teammates from the sidelines. The pressure to continue was unimaginable: the world was watching, her team was depending on her, and the expectations for her performance were sky-high. Yet pushing herself to continue would have been dangerous.

The outrage that this decision sparked is an indicator of the high-value people place on pushing through stressful situations, but I was heartened by the equally vocal response of supporters who recognize the value of pausing for self-care.

Our culture is one that celebrates pushing through stress and is ultra achievement-oriented. Our value on measurable outcomes of success turns into an “ends justifies the means” attitude toward stress. If you can have wealth, degrees, or awards to show for your efforts, then it hardly matters if your health has been destroyed along the way. Athletes like Biles are challenging these beliefs head-on at a time when there is also a cultural shift toward recognizing the need for self-care due to a growing mental health epidemic.

But how do we know when to push through versus when to pause for self-care? Biles’ decision came down to her physical safety, which made it more clear-cut. For the rest of us: 

Where is the boundary between grit and danger to our mental or physical health? 

Grit is an important quality for building resilience and handling stress. It is our ability to pull from our internal resources, dig deep when times are difficult, and remain focused on our goals despite challenges. There are recent popular books on the topic. Yet, there is also a line that we threaten crossing if we are not mindful in pursuit of our goals; if we are all grit without mindful awareness of our health, we can do real damage. There has to be a balance.

Pushing through difficult situations is an admirable, gritty approach and can lead to great success and accomplishment. But everyone needs to pause along the way for self-care, or else there are no reserves from which to “dig deep.” We also need to recognize when our grit might put us in danger. Mindfulness, connecting with our body and mind to “check-in” with our boundaries and our internal reserves, is critically important for this decision-making process. I call it a “pause” because it doesn’t have to be fully pulling back from a situation, just taking moments to check in with ourselves to see what we need.

Our needs might be for rest, for processing emotion, or a physical release of stress. These needs might be met by sleep, deep breathing, meditation, movement (exercise, a walk, yoga, stretching), processing emotion through talk or other expressive forms (art, writing, music). Or, we might need to fully step away from a situation that is causing too much stress if other skills aren’t working or if danger is present.

Anxiety, like the twisties, is a mind-body disconnect where the body is in fight-or-flight mode even if the mind says that it is safe to proceed. As a therapist who treats anxiety disorders, my clients often have trouble with this type of decision—their fears will draw them toward pausing rather than pushing. Parents frequently ask me, when do I push my kid to do something they’re anxious about versus let them pull back? When is it okay to take a mental health day, cancel plans on a friend because of stress or exhaustion, and ask for an extension on a test to do performance anxiety?

Simone Biles actually modeled how we can know when to push forward and when to pause: she was visibly calm when she made her decision. It was not fear-based; it was a self-aware, grounded decision based on realizing that her mind and body weren’t communicating with each other and it wasn’t safe to proceed. 

When we can quiet our bodies into a calm state, we can have the self-awareness required to assess our needs. 

In my work, I tell people to “first soothe, then solve.”

Practicing mindfulness builds our ability to take a pause, to self-reflect, and to notice our needs. It gives us skills for self-soothing so that we can make wise decisions. 

Grit is critical for success, and mindfulness is critical for our health; we need both, and we need to be wise in deciding what to use and when. Pushing forward without awareness of boundaries could lead to real harm, burnout, and injury or illness; pulling back when we still had reserves could limit our potential and lead to shame and patterns of avoidance.

Using mindfulness to pause and make wise decisions about our boundaries is crucial. It enables us to achieve success while maintaining mental and physical well-being.

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