As the Tokyo Olympic games wrapped up, I found myself remembering the moment when Simone Biles withdrew from the competition she was expected to dominate. It seemed tragic; the greatest gymnast pulling back just when even more glory was within her grasp. Her withdrawal was explained by both physical causes (“the twisties”) and emotional ones (“mental health.”) But I wondered if the real cause was our expectations for our best performers.
Even before the Olympics, there was constant speculation about how many medals Ms. Biles was going to add to her record, now that she was the greatest of all time—the G.O.A.T. She had faced outsized pressure with grace, cheerfully doing interviews that required her to open up about her feelings as she prepared to do preposterously difficult feats in front of millions of fans. Her smiles normalized interviews where she had to speculate about doing the next impossible thing. Not only did she have to excel for us, she had to give us commentary on her feelings, thoughts, and preparations as she did so.
To her credit, after Ms. Biles pulled out of the competition, she also dropped the facade. She looked somber and preoccupied, just like anyone would who was being filmed at his or her most vulnerable moment. She looked like a person who had had enough and wasn’t trying to disguise how much it had cost her.
Ms. Biles’ withdrawal was framed as a mental health issue. The implication—intended or not—was that Ms. Bile’s mental health had become precarious and she protected her vulnerability by not pushing herself to go further. Whichever way you cut it, it still sounded like the problem came from inside herself.
But what if the problem was not internal, not in her mental health, but in what was being expected of her? What if she was a mentally healthy person being expected to do the impossible over and over again, while delivering cheerful, intimate commentaries? What if she was just over-taxed at a very deep level, tired of performing miracles of agility with the spotlight in her eyes and the microphone in her face? In that case, stopping wouldn’t be for mental health reasons, as in “I can’t take the pressure.” It would be about declaring that she finally had been asked to do too much, expected not only to execute a perfect routine but to share her soul as well.
Physician and author Gabor Maté reminds us that when someone asks you to do too much, sometimes your body will take over and say no through a symptom that makes it impossible to keep going in the same old way. Just because unnatural expectations become common doesn’t make them healthy. It’s unfair for us to label being overworked and scrutinized as a mental health issue. Fatigue and depression are healthy body responses to extreme expectations. Recoiling from something that you feel forced to excel at is a sign of health not sickness.
What if the G.O.A.Ts who pull out are really the healthy ones, the ones who speak the truth, which may be that we have asked too much and they’re not going along with it anymore. Maybe Simon Biles didn’t have a mental health issue; maybe she just listened to herself. Perhaps she was experiencing a healthy mental issue about being over-pressured.
When people put you in situations that aren’t good for you and then expect you to act happy about it, maybe they’re the ones with the mental health problem. Extreme expectations may push stars to ignore their feelings and act like it’s fun to accept other people’s insatiable curiosity and boundary-crossing.
Maybe the mental health issue in this story was how her audience wanted more and more from someone bighearted enough to hurt herself trying to give it to us.
What’s the moral of the story here? It’s this: regardless of what others expect of you, or what they say you should be enjoying, you are the only one who knows what it costs you. Don’t cooperate until it hurts. Say no before your body has to do it for you.