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Simone Biles reminds us mental fitness is vital. Her decision to withdraw from a recent event in the Tokyo Olympics to focus on her mental health was surprising to everyone—and very likely, even the gymnastics superstar herself. As a clinical psychologist, I recognize that this unexpected event spotlights that it can be brave to actually step away, even at moments of high reward. It also highlights the importance of self-care and boundaries—perhaps especially for those who aim high.
I work with countless people who are driven, intelligent, and often struggling with perfectionism. Through my experience, I’ve found it’s essential to identify when tolerating some discomfort can support growth, versus when it’s healthier to take a break. This is important whether we’re pushing ourselves physically or mentally.
In fact, many of the best strategies for honing this type of self-awareness can actually apply to physical or mental challenges.
3 tips for preserving health while pursuing goals.
1. Identify your positive tension threshold.
Yoga practitioners often describe the “point of pleasant tension” as the time in a yoga stretch when you’re pushing yourself to feel a definite burning sensation in your muscles, but it’s not so bad that you’re about to tear something. This is the time when you’re likely to experience the most optimal effects from your yoga practice. To help identify the point of pleasant tension in your body or in your mind, try recalling times in your life when you’ve really pushed yourself. Notice when it worked well, versus when it led to burnout.
2. Check if the goal you’re chasing still matters to you.
I’ve worked with many people who are jumping through unbelievable hoops to achieve a goal that mattered to their high school self, but no longer matters to their adult self.
For example, I worked with a hedge-fund analyst who was pulling all-nighters and bending over backwards to please an impossible boss. She was a strong and determined young woman who was fully capable of “powering through” the challenges in her career. Despite her success, however, she found herself feeling empty and resentful. When we examined her feelings closer, we realized that she was exercising an incredible amount of self-discipline that would have been fine for her if the reward was worth it—but somewhere along the way, she’d realized her actual dream was to be a writer. Once we got clear about this, she finally felt she “had permission” to walk away from a highly-coveted position, because she realized that she was working towards a goal that no longer served her.
This empowered her to start pointing her drive and energy towards her new dream of becoming a writer. She still pulls all-nighters and deals with impossible deadlines, but she actually loves every minute because now she’s working towards a goal she values.
3. Make sure you practice truly excellent self-care.
Many driven people possess an amazing ability to “play through the pain”. Whether it’s an athlete who straps on a bandage and mentally blocks out her injury to win a trophy, or a consummate professional who pushes aside tears as she misses her niece’s birthday party due to a work-related emergency, I have found that many top-performers possess an uncanny ability to “white knuckle” their way through obstacles.
While this is admirable to a certain extent, the danger is that these people often get so good at pushing aside their feelings that they actually forget those feelings exist. This leads to feelings of burnout, and leaves them prone to mental or physical injuries. The key is to take time before and/or after stressful events to consider the emotional toll they have on you.
I actually address this in my book, Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety in a technique called “To-Do List with Emotions”. Basically, you spend a moment thinking about what you’re doing to work towards your goals. Notice what emotion arises for you around this activity, and then create a self-care plan to address it.
In the examples above, the self-care plans could be booking a massage and taking a week off from the gym; or planning a “just us girls day” with your niece to catch up. The point is to make sure you don’t get so focused on your goal that you forget to honor and care for the super-human side of yourself that overcame temporary obstacles.
I hope you finds these tips helpful and applicable in your own life. The key is knowing that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a champion, and it’s totally OK (and in fact, probably necessary) to make some Herculean sacrifices sometimes if we want to be the very best in our field. At the same time, we’ll ultimately be best-equipped for sustainable success if we know how to practice exquisite self-care along the way, and when to change course altogether. Just take Biles’ truly brave choice as a gleaming example.