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How Naomi Osaka Actually Provided a Masterclass in Setting Boundaries

Recently, tennis star Naomi Osaka made waves when she asserted a boundary and announced she would not be participating in media interviews during The French Open, saying the choice was to prioritize her mental health. Just days after the announcement, she decided to withdraw from the tournament when she was threatened with expulsion and a $15,000 fine for refusing to participate in media activities. This is just one example of many where important boundaries can come with consequences.

Osaka is currently ranked No. 2 by the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) and famously beat Serena Williams in the final of the U.S. Open in 2018. A high point in her career was made bittersweet when she apologized for beating Williams (fans were outraged when Williams was penalized for expressing her frustration on the court midway through the match, with speculation that she was likely penalized harsher than a white man would have been because she was a Black woman, and subjected to stereotypes of the “angry Black woman”). Osaka recently cited on Instagram that since the tournament she has “suffered long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018” explaining that she’s had a hard time coping. Osaka, a Black Asian woman, and one of three top Black women in a predominantly white sport, has often pushed the envelope on traditional tennis rules to live out her values and has been open about her experiences as a Black woman in a white-dominated sport. She has been a strong advocate of the Black Lives Matter movement, wearing a different mask, each with the name of a Black person who has been killed, for each match during the 2020 U.S. Open to raise awareness.

Osaka has said that, “Before I am an athlete, I am a Black woman. And as a Black woman I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention, rather than watching me play tennis.” She made the notion of there being more important matters clear again when she asserted a boundary around mental health. Athletes are often expected to perform at any cost, and never show any sign of “weakness” (despite vulnerability being a sure sign of strength, the athletic world doesn’t always see it that way).

For Osaka to make the courageous decision to prioritize her mental health above her tennis career speaks volumes, and should be a lesson to us all. Though we may not be athletes, many of us compromise our mental health to work longer hours, keep toxic people in our lives or find other ways to shove our needs aside.

In an Instagram post explaining her withdrawal from the tournament, she opened up about the “huge waves of anxiety” she experiences before speaking to the media. She went on to say, “I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was best to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences.” Many athletes have a complicated relationship with the media, especially in press conferences after a loss, which Osaka describes as “kicking a person while they’re down” and she doesn’t “understand the reasoning behind it.”

Naomi Osaka provided a masterclass in identifying a need to set a boundary, and then following through with it, staying true to herself.

  • She identified she was feeling vulnerable and anxious.
  • She then identified one source of those feelings — dealing with the media.
  • She implemented a boundary to protect her mental health — refusing to participate in press conferences.
  • When she was punished for setting a boundary, she continued to assert her boundary and pushed it one step further — withdrawing from the tournament completely.

Generally when setting boundaries, the parties we set those boundaries with — whether they are coworkers, parents, friends, family, or tennis Grand Slams — often don’t like it. That’s why the boundary is necessary to assert. Boundaries are not a way to drive distance between you and someone else, they’re a way to meet our needs so that connection can flourish. Osaka has made it clear that she would like to work with the Tour to make things better for the athletes.

Often, there can be consequences for setting boundaries, and it’s normal to feel really bad about asserting a boundary when you need to. We can feel guilty, lonely, like the “bad guy” or wrong for putting our needs first. The consequences can sometimes make us regret or reverse our boundary choices, but Osaka is a reminder that even when there are consequences, we are still entitled to upholding our boundaries.

So if you’ve done the hard work of setting a boundary and it’s still not being respected… what can you do?

  1. Continue to assert your boundary. Remind the party you’ve set your boundary with about the boundary, and stick to it.
  2. Like Osaka, consider if you need to set a more rigid boundary by “withdrawing from the tournament.” This might mean disengaging entirely.
  3. Give yourself care and compassion for doing a really hard thing. Reward yourself for your bravery and courage in honoring your needs.
  4. Try your best not to relax your boundary if you don’t feel comfortable doing so. This is the time to really tune into yourself. Are you being pressured to not honor your boundaries? Are the consequences of having the boundary better or worse than the consequences of not having the boundary?
  5. Know that it’s totally OK to do what you need to do to take care of yourself and your needs.

Boundaries are hard — if they were easy, we probably wouldn’t need them. If you’re like me and used to constantly doing things for others, it can be hard to do something for yourself and feel OK about it. At the end of the day, you’re a human first, with needs and limits. It’s OK to have boundaries and limits, and if people can’t respect your boundaries, it’s OK to need to set more rigid ones. Boundaries take practice, so don’t beat yourself up if you can’t get there right away. So the next time you’re feeling a little insecure about a boundary, ask yourself “What Would Naomi Osaka Do?” and take care of yourself

Lead image via Wikimedia Commons

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