July 30 2021

In this VETgirl online veterinary continuing education blog, VETgirl’s Chief Happiness Officer, Jeannine Moga, MA, MSW, LCSW, clinical veterinary social worker, discusses what we can learn from Simone Biles, emotional agility and leading with mental health.

On Simone Biles, Emotional Agility, and Leading with Mental Health in Veterinary Medicine

By Jeannine Moga, MA, MSW, LCSW, Chief Happiness Officer, VETgirl

It was the withdrawal heard ‘round the globe: the world’s greatest gymnast, Simone Biles, opted out of Olympic competition last weekend. Excessive pressure, mental health, and more recently a mention of the “twisties” – losing the capacity to orient oneself in midair while moving — have been cited by Ms. Biles as the impetus for withdrawal. Her decision and her honesty touched off a chatter storm of both support and criticism, with “atta girl!” comments countered in equal measure by accusations of weakness, selfishness and the like.

As a mental health professional, the concept of ‘twisties’ is pretty compelling to me here, not because I know what it is like to lose my bearings whilst flinging myself through space but because I think it’s a fitting analogy for how mental health issues feel. Anxiety, depression, and many other very real (and very common) mental illnesses certainly impact our ability to orient ourselves to what’s going on both within and around us. They can make it difficult to launch, to land, to persist.

Further, the description of what elite athletes face — the scrutiny, the immense investment of time, energy, and resources into training, the pressure to perform — bears some similarities to the challenges faced by other elite performers who are highly trained, incredibly capable, and fiercely dedicated to their craft (veterinary colleagues, I’m looking at you). The pressure to suck it up and employ bootstrapping as a foundational competency? That, too, sounds awfully familiar. These messages are part and parcel of how we train humans in this culture to keep quiet when the going gets rough.

I’m not a big fan of the ‘suck it up’ approach. To be clear, I value grit and the purpose and persistence it requires. It is a necessary life skill to push beyond our comfort zone, as we can’t grow or learn if we refuse to work at the edge of our competencies. Being in the challenge zone is where physical, cognitive, and emotional muscles are built.

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

However, I assert that Simone Biles is not a person devoid of either purpose or persistence. She has devoted her young life to her craft, put in countless hours of training, and endured both injuries and sexual assault in the very gym that was supposed to protect her and her peers. This young woman has mettle. Beyond that, though, what impresses me the most is her capacity to check in with herself and pull back – with the gaze of millions on her – when pressing forward was not in the best interest of herself and her teammates. Doing so could have saved her life, as persistence without balance can cause injury or death on a gymnast’s apparatus. Moreover, stepping back also creates space for other incredibly skilled, dedicated, and gritty performers to rise (and at this writing, Sunisa Lee has met the moment with a gold medal of her own).

I’m aware that pulling back is usually followed by a need to recalibrate. The pause is only the first step in restoring balance, adjusting our approach, and starting again. What a fantastic reminder to show up as we are (our full and messy human selves), to do what we can, and to have the emotional agility to act in alignment with our best selves – even when we aren’t at our best. Ultimately, this is how we dismantle the stigma of mental health: step by step, brick by brick, medal by medal.

‘Atta girl, Simone. Thank you.

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