What Writers Can Learn from Simone Biles
Last week, the big story out of the Olympics was US gymnastics legend Simone Biles’s decision to step down from competition, citing concerns for her mental and physical health as well as the wellbeing of her team. "I have to put my pride aside,” Biles said in her announcement. “I have to do what’s right for me and focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being. That’s why I decided to take a step back.”
As one might expect, her decision broke the Internet.
Many people shared support for Biles, as well as painful stories of past Olympic hopefuls who collapsed under pressure and drove themselves straight into life-altering injuries. Others criticized her for “not being able to take the pressure.” I think, however, that Biles sets an incredible precedent for how athletes should prioritize themselves over a desire to win.
And not only athletes…but writers and creatives as well.
I have struggled with mental health concerns for more than half my life. I take an antidepressant, a mood stabilizer, and use an anti-anxiety medication when needed.
When COVID-19 started ramping up, I recognized the devastating effects the pandemic was bound to have on my mental health and started seeing a counselor at my church. This has taught me new coping skills and ways of managing my emotions, often from a spiritual and biblical perspective.
Depression is not sadness or shedding some tears and then moving on with your day.
It is a physical illness that requires physical treatment as well as mental health counseling. I’m sharing this not because I want to make myself the poster child for mental health treatment, but because it’s important to me that my readers know how deeply personal this issue is for me.
Every time I hear someone say that people who face these challenges just need to “toughen up” or “believe in themselves” or “think positive,” it makes me angry. This is especially true in Simone Biles’s case. The majority of people who criticized her decision to step back aren’t gymnasts, Olympic hopefuls, or athletes. They’re basically just Internet trolls who have no idea how much their careless, ignorant comments can hurt those who face these problems. Let me say this loud and clear: if you are reading this and are suffering from a mental illness, I see you.
Affirming someone in their struggle can save lives. Denying or minimalizing their experience kills. I am alive today because someone saw me.
Okay. Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about writing. I think that writers have a particular penchant for struggling with their emotional and mental health. There are obviously more cases of legendary authors who faced these issues than I have time to name, but I don’t think focusing on their stories is relevant to our discussion.
The reason we are at risk for these struggles is that we are naturally empathetic. We see the world around us in a detailed way that few others can, and that includes the emotions of others. I’ve spoken with many writers who have said they “feel too much” about the world in a way that is overwhelming to handle.
This is a strength when it comes to our writing. As Robert Frost famously said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”
We need to recognize this truth about our emotional vulnerability. It’s not a weakness. It empowers our writing and our relationships.
But it also means we can be more susceptible to stress and other emotional pressures. And when that happens, we need to be prepared to separate what is necessary for us to do from what isn’t. More importantly, we need to recognize that taking a step back does not make us less-than.
As a creative entrepreneur, I’m disturbed by the rhetoric surrounding the pursuit of personal goals. It’s all over social media and is preached in the public sphere with evangelical fervor on coffee mugs, t-shirts, and colorful Instagram posts. Rise and grind.
Work hard, play hard.
And yet, countless studies are showing that the “hustle” mentality doesn’t produce great motivation and drive.
It produces fear of missing out, despair, toxic perfectionism, and self-doubt.
One study published by University of Cincinnati Law Review showed that CEOs suffer from depression at more than double the rate of the general population. My readers may not be leaders of major corporations (unless Jeff Bezos happens to be reading this post from space), but in a sense we are all CEOs of our writing lives. I know that Inkling Creative Strategies has a lot of followers that run their own consulting businesses as well.
When you are pursuing a goal and are the sole person responsible for reaching it, it’s easy to feel like you need to take every opportunity to be better and reach more people with your message. But trying to do all the things never goes well. It can create a snowball of a vicious cycle that can be impossible to stop.
You need to practice saying no and stepping back. If you don’t, you’ll face more setbacks and more importantly, your mental health will deteriorate.
Like I said in my post from a couple of weeks ago…it’s okay to stop.
Just like Simone Biles, you can’t be at the top of your game as a creative person if you aren’t aligned physically and mentally. You have to practice mindfulness, unplug from your life (literally—just turn your phone off), and take care of yourself so you can truly be at your best. Biles also thought about her teammates in making her decision, and that’s also something we should consider. You may be physically alone when you write, but the people who are closest to you—your spouse, significant other, family members, children, siblings, etc—are still your teammates. When you are suffering from high stress levels, it affects your relationships. No professional opportunity is worth hurting a loved one with careless words.
Don’t just pursue opportunities. Pursue the right opportunities, and have the intuition and insight to know what they are.
I’m grateful to Simon Biles for the example she’s setting, not just for athletes, but goal-oriented people who are so driven that they feel like they can’t stop.
Let’s pay attention to her message so that we can be real creative champions. One big part of tackling a big project that can help you subdue stress is to bring someone else on board, and I’m standing by ready to help. Just schedule a complimentary Virtual Meetup with me to talk about your goals, ask your burning writing questions, and get some direction about what’s next. It’s 30 minutes of a professional’s time, absolutely at no cost to you. Click here to read all about it and grab a slot on my calendar! Addendum: This week, Biles returned to the Olympics for the balance beam competition, where she received a bronze medal.