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Simone Biles Shows Us the Importance of Setting Boundaries to Protect our Minds and Bodies

When Simone Biles withdrew from the Olympics and chose her mental health over a potential Olympic medal, it showed that mental health issues affect everyone—no matter how successful you are. While we are all curious about what caused this interruption, it's her story—not ours. Experts say she has the right to draw boundaries around what she feels capable of doing and not doing.

"We draw boundaries to define where we are and where our responsibilities begin and end," says Jess Holzbauer, a licensed clinical social worker at Huntsman Mental Health Institute (HMHI). "Elite athletes don't draw these lines easily—not after sacrificing so much to get where they are. Athletes are the very people who should be creating and communicating boundaries when they are not at 100 percent, not spectators, the media, coaches, or family. If a performance goes wrong for Simone Biles because she is not mentally well, her life could be on the line. We understand this clearly if an athlete has sustained a physical injury."

Mental Health Affects Everyone

Even though most of us aren't competing at the same level as an Olympian, we all have the same duty to care for ourselves. We can all learn lessons from Biles' decision to preserve her mental health rather than continue competing, and her example can teach us about why setting boundaries to protect ourselves is important.

Holzbauer offers the following advice for setting boundaries and protecting our mental health when we're facing stress and pressure:

  1. Give yourself permission. Safety and comfort should always be a priority. Too often, we stretch our boundaries too thin because we feel guilty or fear the negative response we may receive. In reality, boundaries contribute to healthier relationships and experiences while bolstering self-respect and self-love. Acknowledging your feelings and honoring them is key to prioritizing safety and comfort. What makes you feel uncomfortable? What makes you feel unsafe? Listen to your gut and sit with your feelings.
  2. Name your limits. Think about what you need physically, emotionally, and mentally so that you can determine your limits and communicate them to others. Set these limits before you reach a crisis point and frequently review what you had established when you were in a balanced state of mind. You can even draw a circle on a piece of paper—inside, put everything you need to feel seen, supported, and safe. Anything that conflicts or distracts from that, write it on the outside of the circle. Then, clearly communicate to others if they cross your boundaries.
  3. Be clear and consistent. Don't feel like you need to defend or justify your boundaries—state what you need as clearly as possible. It is totally up to you to decide how assertive to be based on your relationship, the situation, or your emotional capacity. If you are nervous about certain boundaries, plan what you need to say and protect your limits in advance.
  4. Start small. If setting a small boundary in a more manageable space is easier, start there and work your way up. If you feel guilty saying no, practice tolerating this feeling so that you don't avoid it. One way to try setting boundaries is to offer an alternative. For example, if someone asks a favor of you that you are not comfortable doing, recommend another person who may have more knowledge. If you are nervous about setting a more significant boundary, sit with it and think about what may happen as a result. Is this boundary and the safety it provides worth the discomfort of establishing and later enforcing it? Are you willing to take steps to distance yourself from an emotionally harmful person to protect yourself?
  5. Seek support. Surround yourself with people who know you—who can understand what you want and how you want to achieve it. Surround yourself with people who will always choose you. When Simone Biles decided to withdraw from Olympic competition, her teammates supported her decision and continued. That's teamwork—find your team. Sometimes this situation extends beyond your support system, and when you feel you need additional help, it is out there. Knowing that there are resources available is the first step. Check out additional mental health resources.

Know Your Mental Health Boundaries

When Biles chose to remove herself from competition, experts say she was protecting her health and safety, knowing that she was risking potentially serious injury if her mentality wasn't in the right place to perform her most advanced skills.

"Achieving your greatest success comes from giving yourself permission to put yourself first. If something doesn't feel right, whether it be mentally or physically, you are the one that makes the final decision."
Jessica Holzbauer, LCSW

"Boundaries can help us build stronger relationships with others rather than build walls to keep people out," Holzbauer says. "They can also do other things, like protect us from emotional and physical behavior that may be harmful. Achieving your greatest success comes from giving yourself permission to put yourself first. If something doesn't feel right, whether it be mentally or physically, you are the one that makes the final decision."