We all have expectations hanging over our heads, especially this time of year. Between work deadlines and bills to pay, family responsibilities and religious commitments, academic due dates and social obligations, errands to run and people to get back to – topped off with an extra dose of Pesach cleaning – the demands on our time, money, and energy are many. Together they give rise to the unnerving awareness that much of what’s at stake in our lives depends on whether we get the job done. This sense of being squeezed to perform is what we refer to as pressure, and all of us are under it.
Pressure is an axiomatic part of life. We’re not going to discover a way to escape it, nor should we. Research on the Pressure Performance Curve shows that a certain amount of pressure helps keep us motivated to perform at our best. We must stretch ourselves by setting goals that rest largely on our shoulders. Without anything pushing us beyond our comfort zone, we lose initiative, feel understimulated, and become bored.
While the absence of pressure is a problem for some, many of us reside at the other end of the spectrum, staring at a myriad of demands that somehow keep replenishing. Most of the time, we manage, relying on coping strategies we’ve amassed over the years – some better, some worse. Yet we can also begin to experience the creeping sensation of being caught in a vise, as if the walls are closing in on our limited resources, while we panic because there’s still more to do. We gradually feel the crushing weight of expectation overload, leaving us with little time to breathe and the troubling question of when we may crack.
The costs of pressure
The effects of living under prolonged pressure divide into two main categories: splitting and shutting down (not to speak of the many costs to our physical health).
Splitting occurs when the balloon of psychological strain fills up beyond capacity, and air must escape so that we don’t pop (read: lose it). This release can come through relatively harmless activities – binging a show on Netflix – but sometimes, when the crunch is too tight and the outlets too scarce, the discharge of tension starts to seep out in the form of deviant behaviors that we “split off” from our daily persona. Sexual acting out, gambling, substance abuse, and even the formation of an alternate personality can arise from having no room for emotions that simply don’t fit into the life we’re trying to maintain. We come to rely on the existence of a secret escape, where we can let loose in a way that (we think) won’t interfere with the identity we present to the world.
Splitting is not sustainable and can cause profound emotional damage to ourselves and those we love. Reintegration is difficult work in which we look closely at the source of the fissure tearing us apart. Most often, we’ll encounter a significant degree of pressure, real or perceived, that does not leave space for parts of ourselves that we have not yet assimilated into our lives (A more thorough discussion of splitting and reintegration will be the subject of a future post.)
The second consequence of ongoing pressure is burnout – when our system grinds to a halt and refuses to carry the load any further. Imagine a client that plops into the therapy chair with the force of a weight far greater than his own, who explains that a part of his life has begun to shut down – mental acuity, social involvement, sexual performance, and religious motivation are all likely candidates. What soon becomes clear is that the breakdown has much to do with the multitude of demands at play, eliciting an internal reaction that clearly says, “I’m done. We’re not going any further.”
For those of us who have experienced burnout like this, or for others who are heading towards the precipice of a pressure-induced collapse, the holiday of Pesach is here, and not a moment too soon. Because long before psychologists were discussing stress management skills and maladaptive coping strategies, our national enemy was weaponizing pressure as the mainstay of a comprehensive plan to break our will and prevent us from serving our Creator.
Egypt was a pressure cooker. We learn that Egypt’s very name, Mitzrayim, is rooted in the words “tza’ar” and “meitzar,” together meaning “narrow straight.” Egypt was a nation whose primary vehicle of oppression was to make life incredibly narrow. In over 200 years of slavery, not once did a slave escape from the tight grip of Egyptian constraint.
Egypt’s strategy of tyranny was to squeeze us to the point of complete mental and emotional shutdown, where we no longer had access to even our own thoughts. Pharaoh viewed every Jewish complaint as a sign of too much time for contemplation. As a result, he increased expectations and structured servitude in a way that robbed us of every opportunity to reflect – relentless noise, sleepless nights, mindless busy work – all geared towards ensuring that we stayed alive but remained internally dead.
It worked. When Moshe first approached the Jewish People with tidings of Hashem’s impending salvation, they were not able to hear him: “And they did not hear Moshe due to crushed spirits and cruel bondage” (Shemot 6:9). Despite the promise of an escape from slavery, the Jews could not even recognize the offer. Egyptian compression had broken their spirits. Pharoah’s maximum pressure campaign had succeeded.
The first step out of Egypt
According to the Haggadah, the journey out of Egypt started with a cry for help. Of the four verses chosen to depict the Pesach story during the maggid section of the Haggadah, verses one and two tell of our descent to Egypt, whereas verses three and four describe the process of liberation. The first word of verse three, representing the transition from servitude to salvation, is “vanitz’ak,” “and we cried out.” Our redemption began with a shout, when we refused to submit to total shutdown and expressed the desire for freedom that was still burning within.
Deliverance begins with a tiny voice, an utterance of the three most difficult words in the English language (not those three words): I need help. Asking for help is difficult, even more so when the struggle itself chokes us of air. Stepping off the conveyor belt of life long enough to notice what it’s doing to our spirit is incredibly hard. It often feels easier to surrender to the pressure because we can’t find the strength to resist.
Pesach reminds us that the paralysis of burnout ends by deciding to turn upwards and outwards for assistance. No giant step is needed. No drastic move is required. A tiny call for help is enough to awaken Hashem’s mercy, from which deliverance eventually comes.
The mindset of slavery
Egypt was not only a place; it was a state of mind. The subjugation we endured penetrated our psyche and altered how we viewed ourselves – almost beyond recognition. The road out of Egypt is one that we must travel today as well, because although we are no longer slaves to Pharoah, we may still be living with a slave mentality that is blocking us from being truly free.
Leaving the mindset of Egypt entails noticing two voices in our minds – one a slavedriver, the other a slave. The first barks commands: “You’d better meet those deadlines! What’s wrong with you?! Get to work! You don’t want to see what will happen if you fail!” Meet the inner slavedriver, who stands over us, calling the shots, ruthlessly pushing us harder and harder without regard for the internal cracks that have started to form.
The second voice is our inner slave, who feels there is no choice but to obey: “I must submit. I must comply with the will of my slave-driving master. What I think does not matter. I must lower my head and follow orders.” Meet the part of ourselves that has given up, who feels trapped within the walls of endless expectations. As slaves, we live under the burden of force and control, without the will to do anything about it.
Breaking free from tyranny
These two inner voices play a far greater role in maintaining burnout than external pressure itself. There is no greater tyranny than the one we feel inside. Escaping from Egypt means stepping back from these parts and realizing that they are the ones doing the trapping. This recognition is itself life-altering. The moment we sense that we can evaluate these voices – as opposed to existing within them – is a moment of emancipation, because we’ve begun to reclaim the self within us that was never truly lost.
The self is a third entity in this picture, neither giving orders nor forced to accept them. It is the center point within us that can look at this internal dynamic with clarity and courage. From this vantage point, we find the strength to say: “I’m not bound by either of you. You’ve kept me shackled for far too long. It’s time for a change.” The self is the source of our freedom.
With time, we start to see that the critical question is not whether the pressures of life will lessen – they will not – but rather whether we can approach them as slaves or selves. They will still be there, but we will too. They will continue to pound at our door, but we will decide how to greet and engage with them. Working with pressure means remembering that no one can do to us what we choose not to do to ourselves.
A prime example of this principle is the modern state of Israel. No country on earth is under as much pressure, locally and internationally, as we are. Yet the World Happiness Report for 2023 recently ranked Israel the fourth happiest country in the world (only the Scandinavian countries ranked higher). How is this possible? How can such a squeezed nation be so happy? There are many answers, but one is that the Torah refers to Israel as “eretz rechava,” “a land of width” (Shemot 3:8). Geographically, this description makes no sense; we are not a wide country. Rather, Israel is a place where our souls expand, where we have room to grow fully as Jews with a breadth of spirit. Israel shows us that we can be under pressure without living under pressure. We are happy in Israel because, as Jews, we feel unconstricted – free to connect with our Creator without constraint by surrounding pressure.
Being Jewish and free
Pesach reminds us that serving Hashem is not about living underneath a slavedriver who shouts commands. Hashem has no desire to push us around or cause us to burn out. Quite the opposite: Serving Hashem is about being built, not broken. We aim to find ourselves – not lose ourselves – and figure out how to serve our purpose in the overall scheme of Hashem’s will. By aligning our mission with His, we become exalted emissaries of His message to the world.
Nor is Judaism about obedience. Hashem has no desire to pound us into submission. We adhere to the instructions of the Torah out of choice – because we are part of a system of meaning, members of a unified whole, led by a Creator who has put us here with an important role to play. Embracing our individualized purpose requires integrating and expressing all the various parts of ourselves that He has bequeathed to us. We need deep thought to achieve this goal, not its absence.
The freedom of Pesach starts by releasing ourselves from within. This is why the blessing at the end of the maggid section of the Hagaddah reads: “We will give thanks to You with a new song about our redemption and the salvation of our souls.” We left Egypt physically, but our souls were also set free. There is no truer salvation than that.