"When we speak, we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed, but when we are silent, we are still afraid. So, it is better to speak."
Activist Audre Lorde’s words from her “A Litany for Survival” still hold weight nearly 43 years later—each of us just 2 link clicks, 3 comments, and a page refresh away from feeling unwelcomed by our peers. Naomi Osaka faced backlash at ten times the scale after withdrawing from French Open 2021 last month, but she welcomed a needed discussion on what it means to speak up—despite judgement and sacrifice, in opposition to expectations, and in favor of yourself.
Words matter and none of us are immune to them.
Imagine this: you’ve poured months upon months into composing your song, writing your novel, or practicing your business pitch, only to have it completely flop in front of millions.
Now, just a few minutes after learning of your failure, you’ve got to go before those millions, explain exactly what you did wrong, and describe why your hard work couldn’t manage to bring you a success.
Just one day before announcing her plans to withdraw from the tournament, Naomi was faced with a $15K fine for skipping post-match interviews in an effort to preserve her own mental health.
She brought attention to the issue in a recent Twitter post, stating, “I’ve watched many clips of athletes breaking down after a loss in the press room. I believe that whole situation is kicking a person while they’re down and I don’t understand the reasoning behind hit.”
ANDY CHEUNG/ GETTY IMAGES
As outsiders looking in, we typically only see the highlights of others’ lives, particularly if they are wildly successful, famous, and talented. We see a well-paid athlete with the opportunity to play at the French Open—something 99.999% of us will never get to do—and ask How hard could it be to answer a few questions after the match? How could someone else’s words possibly be enough to make you not want to show up?
We also see our friend who got that big promotion, bought a new house, or is consistently showered with compliments and believe that they are untouchable at the moment. As Naomi’s circumstances have shown, your background, accomplishments, and who you are as a person, will never be enough to completely shield you from the impact of criticism—whether external, internal, or a combination of both.
When we assume that others are somehow “stronger” than we are, we not only take a bit of their humanity away from them, but we give away some of our own as well.
On the list of things you can afford to sacrifice, you aren’t an option.
Many of us grew up as part of a success-driven generation: Go for the extra degree, go for the very top position, and somehow strike the right balance between extraordinary success and personal fulfillment. As we made our to-do lists, scheduled our practice sessions, and mapped out our 5-year plans, “Downtime” just barely made it onto our agendas, if at all.
Naomi Osaka taking a step back from the press and the French Open was a decision to sacrifice accolades and career success in defense of her own well-being. What kind of world would we live in if self-preservation were considered normal for all of us to practice—physically, mentally, and emotionally?
The American Psychiatric Association recently polled 1,000 U.S. residents and found that nearly two thirds reported being “extremely or somewhat anxious about health and safety for themselves and their families.” When the study was repeated just a year later, anxiety in the respondents had risen by yet another 5%.
Researchers had also discovered three characteristics that make you more likely to suffer from anxiety: you’re Black or of Latin-American origin, you’re a millennial, or you currently rely on public healthcare. When we ignore our internal struggles in the name of productivity, success, and “having it all together”, we not only do ourselves harm, but we also run the risk of ignoring the concerns of our communities.
Although the news of Osaka’s tournament withdrawal seemed to hit the world as a shock, this isn’t the first time she’s been vocal about the pressures that come with the job. Just last year in an interview with Vogue, she said of her past Grand Slam exits, “Every young person has a fearlessness, and once you sort of settle in, and you feel like you have all these expectations on you, you start to overthink a lot of things. Honestly, I didn’t cope well.”
With each career or personal milestone in our lives, we’ll face a whole new set of expectations—not to mention our own personal group of “reporters” lining up their questions and critiques. When we take a break from the things we’ve depended on for success, we’re ensuring that we can show up for ourselves, as ourselves in the future.
When you give yourself grace, you give others the courage to do the same.
Now that Osaka has opened a discussion on the issues plaguing athletes, imagine the number athletes who were happy that someone finally said something. Think of the younger athletes who are just now coming through the ranks and already coping with pressures of their own.
Earlier this month, Venus Williams, who’s endured her own share of jeering crowds and unforgiving remarks from the press, came out in support of Naomi stating, “For me personally, how I deal with it was that I know every single person asking me a question can’t play as well as I can and never will. So, no matter what you say or what you write, you’ll never light a candle to me."
For every ounce of criticism or judgement we face, we can find comfort in knowing that others have been through the same. For every person who speaks, the next person can speak a little louder. Unwelcomed as it may be, speaking is courage. Speaking is strength.
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