“I’m nothing,” said Ronda Rousey, the most successful female MMA fighter ever, as she shared her thoughts on Ellen about being knocked out during a career-changing match. The things is, I’m no MMA fighter and I’m not a world champion of anything, but I’ve totally thought the same thing. And I’m guessing a lot of us have.
Rousey had never lost a match before taking on Holly Holm last November, and she was sure that match would be no different. She was a force to be reckoned with, and many people thought there wasn’t a woman alive who could take her out — until Holm did it. And not only did she win the match, she beat Rousey so badly she had to go to the hospital and has spent the last three months recovering.
While the public saw her get knocked down physically, they didn’t see what happened to her spirit — until she shared her darkest moments with Ellen DeGeneres. “I was literally sitting there and thinking about killing myself, and that exact second I’m like, ‘I’m nothing, what do I do anymore, and no one gives a shit about me anymore without this,” she said, wiping away tears.
Suicide? Over one loss? It may seem like an overreaction to some, but I totally get it. Rousey could only see herself as Ronda Rousey Undefeatable MMA Fighter and not Ronda Rousey Human Being with Faults, and that really resonated with me.
Like Rousey, I’ve always been an overachiever. I’ve never got anything less than an A. I’ve been valedictorian of every one of my graduating classes. I had my bachelor’s degree by 18 and my master’s by 20. I was a tenure-track professor by 21. I don’t say this to brag but simply to explain what happened next: Everything fell apart.
Years of pushing myself so hard resulted in some devastating health problems, along with an emotional pregnancy loss. It all came down like a hammer, and I was so wrecked I couldn’t get out of bed for four months. I had to give up my brand-new super-competitive job. I had to give up the idea of having a baby (at least for a while). I had to give up exercise — even walking around the block was too painful. But the worst loss was having to give up my identity as Charlotte the Smart Girl, as apart from that I had no idea who I was.
Would my family still love me if I was just Charlotte? What if I never did anything “big” or “important” — would I still have friends? What if I wasn’t always pushing to be the best — would I ever work again? I honestly didn’t know. And I, too, thought, I’m nothing, what do I do anymore, and no one gives a shit about me anymore without this.
When my health recovered to the point where I could function again, I decided that instead of jumping back into my crazy life where I’d left off, I was going to try something different. I got a job as a volunteer at a battered-women’s shelter near my home. I did the most menial clerical work. I cleaned bathrooms. I organized files. I wrote hundreds of thank-you cards to people who had donated money to the shelter. I rationed out diapers and bus tickets, wiped children’s noses, listened to the everyday woes of the women.
It was marvelous. It taught me how bad some other people have it (and how they handle it with so much grace), but even more, it humbled me. I learned I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was (or as smart as everyone else thought I was). Indeed, I was just normal, and that was okay.
I was still me — and me was good enough.
Working at the battered-women’s shelter was what I needed, but we all have to find our own center of who we are, and there are as many paths to that as there are people. Rousey, for example, credits her boyfriend Travis Browne, for pulling her out. She told DeGeneres that in the depths of her despair, she looked at him and realized she wanted “to have his beautiful babies.”
And no, I don’t think she was saying that her only purpose was to birth babies. Rather, I think she just meant she recognized that she has a purpose bigger than herself and that fighting is only one part of a large, complex, beautiful life.
Rousey says she’s physically back to fighting form (a form she unapologetically displays on the cover of the new Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, wearing nothing but body paint), but she’s also back in the game mentally. And it took leaving the sport she loved, temporarily, to get her to this point.
“I had to be that example, picking myself off the floor for everyone,” she concluded. “Maybe that’s what I’m here for.”
In a society that rewards achievement over kindness, generosity, wisdom and even health, defining yourself outside of your successes can be really difficult. But it’s so important because, as Rousey showed, even the most successful will fail eventually, and it’s what you do with that failure that will define you. As they say, it’s the suffering that makes the saint.