Simone Biles' Lesson To Us: Breaking Barriers By Setting Boundaries

When I tell people that the single most accurate measure of courage is our willingness to lean into vulnerability, the most common reaction I get is skepticism. Are you sure? their eyebrows say. I know vulnerability is supposed to be important, but the single most accurate measure?

But then we break it down.

First, the definition of vulnerability: risk, uncertainty, emotional exposure.

Then, a moment of courage. Go ahead, call to mind a time when you saw someone doing something courageous: something big or small, recent or long-past, someone famous or part of the family.

Got your moment?

Now ask yourself: What role did vulnerability play in that moment?

Was that person taking a risk? Facing uncertainty? Opening themselves up to emotional exposure?

You cannot have courage without vulnerability -- because without risk, uncertainty, or emotional exposure, the thing you’re doing doesn’t require courage.



It takes a massive amount of courage, for example, to go to the Olympics. Risk of it all going wrong. Uncertainty about the outcome. Exposure on a global stage, with the world’s eyes on you. The pressure of not letting anyone down: your teammates, your coach, your family, your nation.

It takes even more courage to take a stand. There’s a reason the most courageous moment of the Olympics didn’t take place in the arena, but through a refusal to enter the arena. By placing her own safety and well-being over the needs and expectations of others, Simone Biles inspired more people than a vault or a floor routine ever could.

The muscle flexed by Biles in stepping away is one that we are rarely taught to flex: the willingness to set and maintain boundaries.

When I trained with author and professor Brené Brown, I was surprised to learn that boundaries are the first element of trust. I had always thought trust was about someone doing what they say they’re going to do, or not telling my secrets.

But over the years, I’ve come to appreciate that boundaries form the essential foundation of trust.

Imagine you have a boss who is constantly asking for more, without regard to workload or timeframes: Can you get the report done? Can you also finish the marketing strategy? Oh, and can you implement that campaign we discussed? And run the analysis we need? By tomorrow?

You say yes, of course; you like to be reliable, and you want to make an important contribution.

But as the deadlines approach, you realize there is simply no way to do all of these things, and certainly no way to do them all well. It's impossible in the time allotted.

So you become overwhelmed, anxious, frustrated, ashamed. You become angry and resentful. You start dropping balls. Ultimately, you collapse, blow up at your boss, quit, get fired, or some combination of the above -- all because you didn't set and maintain good boundaries.

This is what I have come to learn about boundaries: there is no way for me to trust your “yes” if I cannot also trust that you’ll say “no” when “no” needs to be said.

By saying no, Biles normalized boundary-setting. She normalized saying no, even in the face of extraordinary pressure. She normalized the awareness that no one is superhuman, not even someone who can fly.

And normalizing those things gives permission to others to do the same. Like this 33-year-old, who said, “I’ve never taken a sick day or mental health day from work or missed a class in school because just the thought of asking for it has made me too anxious. Simone may have changed that for me.”

Boundaries. Vulnerability. Courage. These are the skills we need if we want to live our fullest lives. We cannot all be Olympians. But we can all follow Biles’ example: to aspire to be our own best selves.

1 comment about "Simone Biles' Lesson To Us: Breaking Barriers By Setting Boundaries".
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  1. Laura Cowan from none, August 2, 2021 at 8:12 a.m.

    Yes to all of this!  I decided to "step away" from my professional career for a summer, and knew it was a risk and could hurt me in the long run... but I've never felt more alive, and as I explain it to recruiters, I'm hearing that either people congratulate me or have also done similar.  To be my best in a new role, I needed this time to "recalibrate" after working 15 hour days for far too many months.

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