Aly Raisman on Learning to Heal and the Power of AuthenticityNow retired from gymnastics, Aly is passionate about normalizing the conversation around mental health and encouraging positive body image with partners such as Aerie.
Six-time Olympic medalist Aly Raisman first captivated the world with her incredible floor routines, grit, and grace both times she competed in the Olympics. And she riveted the world again—this time with her vulnerability and bravery—when she courageously shared her story as a survivor of sexual abuse. Inspired by an army of survivors, Aly continues to advocate for systematic changes within the sport of gymnastics and the eradication of sexual abuse. Now retired from gymnastics, Aly is passionate about normalizing the conversation around mental health and encouraging positive body image with partners such as Aerie.
In this conversation with Daniella, Aly opens up about her dedication to mental health, explains why it was important for her to try out different therapists before settling on one, and talks about ways she decompresses after a particularly challenging session. She also talked about her approach to business—and how she’s motivated to work with partners and organizations who share the same mission and values.
Daniella Pierson: Hello, Aly Raisman. I am so so happy to have you on The Business of Feelings. You are somebody that I have watched since I was in my teens and I am so inspired by how much mental strength you have and physical strength, and the tenacity and talent that you have just in your veins. So thank you so much for coming on and doing this.
Aly Raisman: Thank you so much for having me.
DP: Of course. So, how are you doing lately?
AR: I am doing a lot of reflecting and trying to kind of recharge and take a lot of time for myself lately. I think I’ve noticed when I’m more aware of how I’m feeling, it’s kind of more of an up and down journey, but it makes me more hopeful that I’m on a journey of really working on myself and really figuring out who I am outside of gymnastics, outside of if you Googled me, and you deleted everything that people see publicly, you know, who would I be? So it’s been fun being able to figure out that side of myself and being able to spend more time with my family and friends.
DP: That’s amazing. And for those who haven’t heard you speak about your mental health and mental fitness journey, would you mind describing how that journey has progressed and what you have dealt with and what you’re dealing with now?
AR: I would say, for probably as long as I can remember, I’ve experienced a lot of anxiety. I can remember, honestly, even as a young child having anxiety, and even though it’s still more talked about in our world, there’s still such a huge stigma around it. And I know so many people are struggling in silence. Even for myself, even though I’m grateful to have a good support system, it still can be really hard to sort of identify or speak up about what I’m experiencing. But I think over the last many years, I’ve really tried to be honest with people about what I’ve experienced, what I’m personally going through. I’ve been doing therapy for many years and I think therapy can be so impactful and so helpful. I’m kind of in the stage right now where it almost feels like I’m digging deep into things where it’s almost getting worse before it gets better.
And so that’s sort of a very up and down journey, but I’m really just trying to remember that it’s important for me to stick with it, be patient, communicate with my therapist, my friends and family. So I’m just kind of taking it day by day. And I think that what’s really helped me is recognizing that it might not just be one specific therapist that’s going to help me feel better. It’s an everyday journey and some days I might need a little bit more quiet time. Other times I might need a little bit more fun or just reading a little bit more. I love gardening, writing in my journal. So I just try to take it day by day and just do what I feel I need right now. And of course I’m still traveling and working and doing calls. So obviously I can’t always write in my journal if I’m feeling stressed, but I try to take that time for myself each day.
DP: Thank you so much for being so vulnerable and transparent. I like to also let the people that we interview know about my journey. I have had OCD since I was about 6 years old—obsessive compulsive disorder. And I didn’t tell anybody until it became so debilitating that I actually had to seek help in college. It was one of the toughest moments of my life. My mom is an immigrant from Colombia. My dad has a very old school mentality from New York. And so they were not of the camp of, “Oh yes, you should see a therapist.” So it was a very lonely journey. I’ve also struggled with depression, anxiety and also suicidal thoughts when I was a teenager. So, I think it really is people like you, people who seem so strong in every way, saying, “Hey, you know, I am strong but I also deal with these things.” That is so inspiring to people and really the reason why we’re doing this show is to show people that even the people that seem like they just have it all together still need that support and still are struggling.
Also what you said about it getting worse before it gets better—I’m actually in the same boat right now, dealing with some trauma from my early childhood and teenage years where you almost just don’t want to deal with it. You’d rather just put it under the rug and then you realize that the more you bury it, the more it’s coming out in ways that you never imagined. Is that kind of what happened where you felt like, “Now I have to really focus on the hard stuff,” or were you just like, “I’m not gonna be able to move on with my emotional journey until I put this stuff to bed?”
AR: Well, first of all, I definitely can relate to the OCD. I don’t know how yours is, but coming from a background of gymnastics I was always such a perfectionist that I realized that there were certain aspects of OCD I felt like at the time sort of like, I wanna do quotations—“served me,” because I’m sure if I talked to a therapist, they would say it actually didn’t help me. But at the time I thought it helped me, having that sort of perfectionist mentality. So it’s something I still am navigating and working on and I’m still a perfectionist in my life today. I’ve been working on that too and it’s been really interesting and eye opening just to be aware of how my mind works and how I can get out of some of those unhealthy ways of thinking for me.
As it relates to working on myself and doing therapy, I think that for so long I felt a lot of anxiety that I almost didn’t really recognize that it wasn’t healthy for me to feel like that. And I think it almost became, in my own mind and my own world, more normalized. It’s those days when I feel better and I feel more present that I actually realize how much it was unhealthy, the way I was feeling so anxious. I felt anxious in my body and sometimes it was hard to sleep. I’ve been through a bunch of different therapists and some of them have really helped me and others haven’t been as helpful. And so I think it’s taken me a really long time to find a therapist that really is working through some of the harder things I’ve been through. But I guess something that has really resonated with me is—I saw recently something that said, “If you don’t pick a day to rest, your body will pick it for you.”
DP: Oh, I love that.
AR: Yeah, it really resonates with me. It also resonates with my mind too. I also think about, at least in my experience of trauma, it’s like when you try to push something in the water and it just comes right back up. For me, for years and years, trying to push things down… I kind of didn’t realize that my world was starting to get smaller and smaller because I was trying to do things that didn’t give me anxiety, but then it would be maybe leaving the house a little bit less or not doing this and not doing that, trying not to push myself too much when I felt stressed. I realized, I was like, Wow, my world is getting much smaller.
Going to therapy is not easy and I think each session is different. Every day I feel differently, but I try to just communicate with my therapist and sometimes my therapist will give me homework for the following week and I’ll communicate and I’ll say like, “That’s way too much for me to do this week. What if we did a little bit less of this, or we did that maybe once in the week instead of every single day?” I really try to communicate how I’m feeling because at the end of the day I wanna be able to show up. I don’t wanna dread therapy because then I feel like I won’t end up going. I’ve learned to communicate with my therapist and just be honest. The therapist I have now is great, but you know, she really pushes me a lot, which I think is actually more than other therapists have. And I think that’s why I really like her and I enjoy seeing her.
DP: Yes, absolutely. Something that you touched on that is so important is the fact that you aren’t always going to love your first therapist and you can’t be afraid to admit that to yourself. You almost have to have a mindset if you are seeing a therapist for the first time that maybe it’s not the right person. I’ve had that situation happen to me multiple times. I love what you said about mentally preparing yourself and saying, “I need this because it’s going to make me feel better,” because it almost is doing something that makes you anxious. Sometimes I feel like therapy is an exposure for me. Here I am, co-CEO and co-founder of a mental fitness, a mental health company, where I’ve literally said to my team, “I can’t do therapy this month. I just can’t handle it,” knowing that that is the wrong decision and finding that out because I feel even worse. But it is real that you can have stress before therapy. Some people can’t wait until it starts because they can’t wait to, you know, say everything they’re feeling. And then some people are more like myself, and it sounds a little bit like you, where it’s almost like you know it’s going to hurt but you know that it is going to make you feel better.
AR: Yeah, and I totally agree. Taking a month off from therapy was the wrong decision. For a moment, it almost made me realize that I think we’re often so much harder on ourselves than we would be to somebody else. Although it’s sometimes so hard in the moment, I think for me, there’s been times where I wish I did something differently and then I realized that I’ve learned so much from the different ups and downs. I think mental health and therapy and working on ourself is all about trial and error and I go back and forth with wondering, Am I doing the right amount of therapy? Is it too much? Is it too little? If it was always easy it wouldn’t be challenging us and we wouldn’t be learning and growing.
Sometimes when I actually feel more anxious, I try to reflect on the day or maybe the week of what might have made me more stressed.
In those moments, although those days are really hard to get through, I realize that when I’m feeling more stressed and I’m able to identify what it is, it makes me feel better. It’s sort of like a process of elimination of like, “I learned something from that.” So now going forward as you said, like, “Hoping for the future I can do this a little bit differently.” It helps me realize that I’m on the right track. I also feel like I’ve let go of this idea that maybe one day I’m going to feel 100 percent better. I’m sort of just realizing that life is full of ups and downs. And people we love sometimes get hurt or people we love get sick—there’s so many different things that can happen in our lives that can be really traumatic. Some of the things are completely out of our control. For me, letting go of this idea of like, I’m gonna feel so happy every single day, has also just helped me realize that it’s going to be a work in progress and it’s gonna be a roller coaster. It’s gonna be a journey, but trying to maintain a healthy place where I feel more comfortable and just get to know myself more, I think is what helps me feel better.
DP: I love that. Thank you so much for being again so transparent about that because a lot of people aren’t real about, you know, that therapy is not the end all be all always. There’s oftentimes work that you need to do in between, and oftentimes some people take medicine like myself. I’m a combination of medicine and therapy. Just being realistic that sometimes it’s hard to find the right therapists but when you do it really does improve your life, even when it feels like you’re opening up old wounds.
There’s something you said about homework, which is something that anybody listening who has a therapist has probably been given. The way that Mandy, Selena and I describe mental fitness is like in physical fitness—if you were lucky enough to have a personal trainer once a week, and you saw them for half an hour or an hour, and you had a body goal of having maybe a six pack in six months, you couldn’t possibly think that after one session every single week for six months, you’re going to have a six pack. You have to do the work in between. And that’s really what we feel about mental fitness, where if you are lucky enough to see a therapist (which so many people are not because of the access to that kind of healthcare) but if you are lucky enough, you can’t just think that one session a week is going to be enough for your mental health and mental fitness. And so that’s why it’s really important for us, building an ecosystem where you can do the work in between and it’s actually fun and it doesn’t feel like homework. So, I guess my question is what do you do in between therapy sessions when you want to tackle your anxiety or improve, or maybe do some of that homework?
AR: I also wanna mention that it wasn’t until very recently, like within less than a year, that I found a therapist that was actually giving me homework, as we talked about, in between the sessions. And I felt like my issue with my therapy sessions in the past is I felt like I would talk a lot of the session and then either wasn’t getting the advice that was helping me or I almost felt like we weren’t going deep enough into why I was feeling a certain way. I also wanna add that what’s really helped me is just listening to what feels right for me and not being afraid to say, “This therapist isn’t right for me. I wanna go to someone else.” But I think it’s important if someone is listening and they don’t feel that their therapist is helping them or they feel like they’ve seen them for a few years and they really enjoyed being with them, but they want a change, I would say, “Listen to that and you know you better than anybody else.”
You know, therapy is certainly not one size fits all. There’s so many different types of therapy out there. For me on the days where I do have therapy, depending on the day, I either try to make sure that that evening I’m just kind of hanging out with my dog Mylo, I’m maybe reading a book, I’m gonna take a bath, I’m gonna relax. Or if it’s warm out, go for a nice walk outside, or sometimes I’ll make sure I hang out with my friends and take my mind off of it, depending on what I need or how the session was. I really am mindful about what I’m actually doing on the days that I do have therapy, whether it is like I wanna just write in my journal or reflect, or I just need a break and I wanna laugh with my friends and not think about it and have some space from it. And then I also walk a lot, which really helps me. I’ve found honestly that doing pilates workouts or yoga really helps me a lot more than doing cardio. So I’m doing more of that. But I find that walking a lot is very helpful for me. I also will take my dog to the dog park. I spend a lot of time with him. He’s actually sleeping next to me right now.
I love spending time with Mylo. I’ll set up dog play dates with some of my neighbors and my friends and that’s always really enjoyable. I love gardening. I’ve been getting into cooking. Sometimes when I’m just home and hanging out around the house, I’ll put on some relaxing music. I really try to incorporate a lot of different things to make me feel more relaxed and calm. I also have been reading a lot lately and I love reading. I found that, to be honest, the less I personally watch TV the better that I feel, I sleep much better. So I’m also trying to be more mindful of the time that I’m spending on the screen and trying to be on social media less and spending more time with my family and my friends. And I also feel like I’m getting more introverted as I get older.
DP: That’s awesome and it is so funny because people try to label you as an introvert or an extrovert, and I feel like I recharge best when I’m alone but I can definitely get very excited when I’m with people. It’s so funny how it changes even day by day. Also as you get older, different things are important to you. So I think being open to your feelings changing and your priorities changing and your personality even changing is a huge part of being open minded. I love that you have your dog sleeping next to you. I have two poodles sleeping next to me on either side of my work area and they are my emotional support and I think I’m their emotional support. Animals can be just so soothing.
I’d love to talk to you about going back in time to you being at a competition, somewhere like the Olympics. One of our lead investors is Serena Williams and she’s become a mentor of mine and she is just such a badass, just like yourself. Tennis and gymnastics—they’re very similar where it is kind of like a team sometimes, but sometimes you are out there and it’s just you, all eyes are on you and it’s totally quiet. It’s not like a football game where everyone’s yelling. It’s just you and your mind. What was your mindset in any competition or any practice where it was just you and so many people were looking at you and you knew exactly what you had to do and you’ve done it a hundred times before but you just have to do it at that one moment and perform? What is your mindset there? What are the emotions that you have? Are you able to calm those emotions? And do you still feel those elevated emotions now?
AR: It’s funny, I definitely feel those elevated emotions just from you asking the question. I think competing at the Olympics or being on the national team was incredibly high pressure and it was very competitive. I felt always trying to prove myself and always trying to push myself past my limit. There’s five gymnasts that made the 2012 and 2016 teams so it’s very, very competitive. It’s really hard to make the team. I think always in the back of my mind I always worried—what if I was sick the day of the Olympics? What if I got injured? I mean, I think that pushing those fears aside is hard because the reality is that if I did get injured, it’s really hard for that opportunity to come back around.
There’s so many years of preparation and work that go into it, but I really just tried to prepare myself. I worked harder than I ever thought was possible. I really just wanted to look back and know that I did everything I possibly could and I could look back with no regrets. I think when I look back now, I definitely pushed myself way past what was healthy but that was a choice that I felt I wanted to do. I think at the time I was just so obsessed with making that team and I was such a perfectionist and I really wanted it. I loved gymnastics from the moment that I started it and I remember just always looking forward to going to the gym. Of course, as it got more intense and as I got older, I obviously didn’t love it every single day because it was all consuming with my life. But I just tried to prepare myself so that the day of the competition, when I felt really nervous I just reminded myself that I’ve done it so many times before. I just tried to remind myself just to do a normal routine—no more, no less than I usually do. And just try to block everything out. There’s so many cameras in our faces, there’s thousands and thousands of people in the arena. I used to train the majority of the time as I got older by myself with my two coaches. And so it’s very different being in a gym by myself versus being in a massive Olympic arena with cameras in my face and all of the pressure of people watching. In our country we were expected to win and people watch expecting us to win. I definitely felt that if we didn’t win, it wouldn’t be the same support. That was hard to navigate as an 18 year old and a 22 year old. It’s so much pressure.
As it’s been years since I’ve competed, I think that it’s definitely changing (our society) slowly, where I think that there’s been less emphasis on winning. There’s still way too much pressure on athletes but I think that people that watch the Olympics, and hopefully the media is starting to realize, we’re all human and we feel that pressure and this expectation that the US athletes should win everything is just not healthy and it’s not right. Because even making it that far is amazing and I wish that the media would celebrate whether someone’s first place or whether they compete and they’re 45th place. We’re slowly starting to see a little bit more of that support, but when I was competing it felt very much like if we didn’t win we wouldn’t be invited onto the different award shows or we wouldn’t be invited onto different media shows.
Some athletes certainly still feel that pressure. I’m hoping it will get a lot better and totally change but I think we move slowly. At least I definitely felt that pressure and I still feel it when you ask me about it. Like, I still feel in my body, it’s an immense amount of pressure. That being said, I still am so grateful that I got to experience the Olympics and luckily we did win so we did get to be celebrated and we got to do a lot of really amazing things, which is so fun. Getting to share that with my teammates was amazing and it was a lifelong dream, so it was an amazing experience, but it definitely was very very very stressful.
DP: Well, thank you so much for being so honest and apologies for bringing you back into that mental headspace because I know that that can be so hard. But I know that people listening will appreciate it, especially because you did win, how much you wish the emphasis was on everybody, not just the winners. Because you’re right, even getting there and being on that team is a one to a trillion chance. So what is something that you have done in the last year or so that has drastically improved your mental health?
AR: I would say honestly being more mindful of the things that I’m eating has really helped my mental health. I try to do it as much as I can. I try to cut out gluten in dairy and sugar, and that’s really helped me a lot. It’s helped me feel more in control of my thoughts and more calm and that’s been something that I’m kind of still on a journey of figuring out. I actually can feel a difference if I eat healthier and it really makes a big difference for me. In the beginning it was really hard to cut out a lot of sugar but then I felt like as I started to do it, within a few weeks I was actually finding myself craving things that weren’t sweet, that were more bitter. So I think in the beginning it was harder. With more time, I’ve sort of been craving other things that are healthier, which I think is really interesting. I’m always interested in learning more about nutrition and how different things affect us differently.
Everyone’s body is different, so someone listening might say that dairy is something that’s helped their mental health. Every body is totally different and I think that I could listen to 20 podcasts about someone else’s story and maybe one of them, or none of them, might help me in my own journey. And I think that’s what’s so challenging about this, that it’s not one size fits all. I wish there was a magic answer but I also think it’s definitely not one thing that has totally transformed or helped me. I really think it’s a number of things that I do. For example, if I did therapy for 45 minutes to an hour, once a week, if I didn’t do anything else, I didn’t read, which makes me feel relaxed, if I didn’t garden, it would be really hard for me personally, to get a benefit out of therapy. I think of therapy as helpful, but I have to do a lot of other things to help enhance the therapy. It’s not just something I do one time and then I put it away and then do it again next week. I really try to incorporate different things that help me feel relaxed. When I travel and I’m out of a routine, I definitely feel how it affects my mental health, because I wasn’t able to do some of the things that were relaxing me. I’m trying to become more aware of that.
DP: Those are great tips. Thank you so much for sharing. It definitely is always a work in progress. It’s crazy how much the things you put inside of your body affect your mental health and wellbeing so I love those tips. Aly, as a businessperson (I don’t even like to say businesswoman because we’re just business people), how do you feel you are a businessperson in your unique way? What makes you feel like you are building the Aly Raisman empire?
AR: In my quiet moments, when I’m home, I try to really reflect on who I am and really think about things that I’m passionate about, just really trying to have partnerships that are really meaningful to me and things that I really incorporate into my everyday life. I try to be vulnerable and real. I have learned a lot of different things over the years and I feel very grateful for all the people that I’ve met along the way and all the things that I’ve learned. So I feel very lucky that I’m able to chat with people who are also passionate about things that I’m passionate about, and chat with people who have other passions that now make me passionate because I’m learning something new from them.
I am very very grateful that I’ve had a relationship with Aerie for about five years. I feel so lucky to be able to be partnered with such wonderful people and such a wonderful brand. They’ve personally helped me on my mental health journey, reminding me to just embrace who I am and they want me to just be who I am. They’re never trying to change me. They’re always supportive of me and that just means so much. Even when you go into the Aerie dressing rooms, there’s like a ton of sticky notes covering the mirror and they’re just all these really nice notes of all these kind things. It’s just such an amazing reminder for me personally, just to be kind to myself, being mindful of the way that I’m talking to myself.
Someone else gave me really great advice years ago and they said, “Your career will be built off of saying no.” That’s something I think that myself and my team have really thought a lot about. There’s a lot of opportunities that come my way but I’d say we decline a lot of them because it might not fit into my values or it might be promoting something that I would never use. I also recognize the power of social media and how people really are so intelligent and so aware of if I’m promoting something that is authentic to me. The people who follow me, they can see that. If I were to promote something that I don’t use, people would be able to see that. Being authentic is what I wanna see from other people and I wanna see for myself. I also think it’s what other people want too, which I think it’s so great, that we live in a time where people can see through that and they want to support brands that are doing good, that are not just selling a product.
DP: That’s amazing. Everything you said about Aerie is exactly why Wondermind is a partner of theirs, because truly they have been authentic from the start, before it was cool to not airbrush models and to show people of all shapes and sizes that are normal and not supermodels.
When you retired from gymnastics, you really took on this new role. How do you describe your new role? Do you describe yourself as a businessperson? How do you look at your day to day work? How would you describe yourself on a LinkedIn profile?
AR: It’s an interesting question. I’ve actually never been asked that question before. I think that I would probably describe myself as maybe multiple different things. I feel like what I feel so grateful for is that I’m able to do a lot of different projects at a time that I’m really passionate about. I feel really lucky to be able to learn new things and to be able to connect with so many different people but I definitely would consider myself a businessperson. Lately I’ve also been really passionate about financial literacy and learning about that. I think that a lot of people don’t really understand a lot about their own finances. I wish that financial literacy was taught in school. I wish it was easier for people to understand. I think that if I have a conversation with someone and I’m trying to learn more, there’s all these really confusing buzzwords and everything like that. The system is so set up to be so exclusive and complicated. I’m really passionate about learning more so that I can figure out a way to hopefully use my platform to help make it really easy and accessible for other people to understand their own finances because I wish everyone in the world had financial freedom.
DP: I love that answer and I think that if you did have a LinkedIn, you would not be able to fit all of the things you are on it. There would be so many hyphens. You are a businessperson and an advocate and inspiration, and those are incredibly entrepreneurial things to be. I absolutely love how you pointed out that financial literacy isn’t really something that you are just born having. There are so many different routes to success nowadays, especially with social media democratizing who gets the spotlight and who doesn’t. So it is so incredibly important for there to be tools out there that are helping people that maybe didn’t go to college or don’t look like the typical person that is successful.
So my very last question is… What is one feeling (because this show is called The Business of Feelings) that you feel right now and why?
AR: I would say I’m focusing on Mylo sleeping on me right now so I feel a lot of love from Mylo and I’m looking forward to hanging out with my friends later today.
DP: That’s beautiful. Thank you so much for being so raw and real, Aly. You are such an inspiration to so many and it’s so nice to be able to have people like you showcase what’s inside. Have a great rest of your day and have fun with your friends.
AR: Awesome. Thank you so much. You too.
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