The Power of Protection

Image: The first building block for Resilience: Protection

The tennis champion Naomi Osaka garnered criticism lately for dropping out of the French Open rather than falling under pressure of speaking to the press. Naomi said she had struggled with depression and that she feels “huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media”. The tournament organizers had already fined her for not speaking, and rather than continue her fight with them, she chose to “exercise self care and skip the press conferences”. Critics called this decision selfish and childish. However, from a resilience lens, I see Naomi Osaka as not only brave for stepping back for her mental health, but as a model for BBG’s first Building Block for Resilience: Protection.

The 6 Building Blocks for Resilience are the steps we can use to plot our way out of traumatic situations. The first Building Block, Protection, is a space and time to feel our feelings and to safely explore their meaning and origins. Protection can mean getting away from the things that are stressful or triggering while we push through our fears or swim out of a depression. After a traumatic event, we may need immediate safety from the thing that caused us trauma. A car accident, the death of a loved one, or a domestic violence situation gives us a physical need for protection as well as the emotional need to process and reflect. We need people to help us through these times and offer the shield of safety until we are ready to move to the next phase of our healing.

In my own small way, I can relate to Naomi Osaka’s anxiety about public speaking. When I was in 6th grade, I had written a speech called “Why I love America”. It was a rather mundane speech about freedoms and the constitution. Before I presented the speech in front of my class, my father got a hold of the paper. My father, an immigrant from India, had come to the U.S. as a refugee from the India Pakistan partition and gained freedoms and opportunities he could not find in India, including working hard to get his PhD. Brimming with a desire to express his admiration and love for this country, he dove into my measly speech and reinvigorated it with passion, big words, and a quote from the majestic Indian Poet Rabindanath Tagore. I memorized my father’s words and dutifully gave my speech in front of my 6th grade class.

The reception from my teacher was worthy of my father’s speech, but she thought I was mine. I was given an A and moved on to a speech contest for the entire school. At the school assembly I gave the speech again and won first place for the entire school. The next thing I knew I was to present the speech in front of an auditorium at a regional speech contest covering most of Northern California. I hardly knew what was happening as I rode the wave that took me from my classroom to a cavernous auditorium with 300 people sitting in complete silence waiting for my words. But they weren’t my words. I forgot half of the speech, was quiet in my delivery, and shaken to my core inside. I was exposed as a fraud. I didn’t deserve the A in class or the distinctions that followed.

Thus began my years of fear of speaking in public. I was a college student afraid to speak in a large class, a lawyer afraid to speak in court, a nonprofit leader afraid to do speeches to call attention to my organization’s work.

I understand Naomi Osaka’s discomfort, though I don’t know her origins. She may have had a traumatic experience speaking up or just may not feel her voice is her strength. She may speak what she means through her writing or even through her tennis game. Now she has expressed her true self and feelings and is getting exactly what so many of us who fear public speaking fear: that we will be exposed in public and found lacking. Naomi Osaka is not being criticized for her public speaking but for her need for space and safety in order to honor her own mental health needs. She is expressing what we all truly need. The journey from pain to power is a personal one, and we need to take those steps in our own way. Standing up and saying I need to protect myself is in itself a first step to resilience.

I couldn’t escape public speaking, and I suspect Naomi Osaka won’t be able to fully escape it either. After all, her social media post announcing her decision to not speak to the media is a form of speech itself. But she is giving herself permission to create some protection around how she speaks, creating her own terms based on her needs, and that should be applauded. I hope she can see that what she has to say has value and merit, despite the critical reception. Though my experience is tiny compared to her enormous audience, she has the right to push the world’s gaze away until she is ready to make her debut. I regained my public speaking confidence by giving myself permission to do fun things around public speaking: small venues fashioned like “The Moth,” storytelling platforms that were held by friends, which allowed me to feel my fear and conquer them slowly, in my own time and for my own reasons. I hope Naomi Osaka is also given the time, space, and support she needs to protect herself until she is ready to either step in front of a microphone, or say “I don’t do interviews”--and that she can feel the power of her own protection either way.

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