When Life Is a Pressure Cooker, Remember the Frog

06/28/2015 10:13 pm ET Updated Jun 28, 2016

This is the story of a frog.

But first, allow me to mention an uncharacteristic visit to a travel site where I find myself perusing hotels in far off destinations, lingering over images of king size beds, and aching for breakfast trays filled to overflowing with fresh pineapple, papaya and passion fruit.

Then something unexpected happens.

No, not the frog.

Not just yet.

As I'm browsing, up pops a small blue window that tells me eight people are looking at the same hotel -- at that very moment! Down it drops -- color me relieved -- only to spike up again with the number who are now reserving. (My palms are beginning to sweat.) That message drops away, followed by another with an update to the first. Twelve people looking. (Should I reserve something after all?) Then one more message flashes across the screen -- "fully booked" -- and disappears.

Now what?

I'm biting my lip, I'm holding my breath, and both my hands are balled into fists. Those insidious little messages have obliterated my pleasure. What's worse, I'm mad at myself for feeling so easily pressed, stressed and pushed in a moment of daydreaming. Then again, feelings of being pressed, stressed and pushed are now commonplace.

American life is a pressure cooker.

There are plenty of ways we put pressure on ourselves or feel the heat from others. For example:

  • Career. Who doesn't crave career "challenges" and "opportunities" along with titles and fat paychecks? We surrender our evenings and weekends to speed the advance up the ladder or to promote our services if we're self-employed. Sometimes the long hours are fun. Sometimes they're grueling. Most of the time, they're simply expected.
  • Relationships. If you're married or in a relationship, do you have time for your partner? Does he get the leftovers? And if you're not involved: What, no boyfriend? What, no girlfriend? If you're divorced or widowed, you may be hearing this: Why aren't you dating? What do you mean, you don't want to get married again?
  • Parenting. The ticking of the biological clock remains an issue for women in their thirties and forties. Societal expectations of motherhood are alive and well. But giving birth or adopting is just the beginning. Momentarily setting aside the extraordinary expense of raising a child, where do you stand on the type of mother you'll be? Where are you in the Mommy Wars? Are you prepared to choose and defend your position? And dads, you're not exempt from an increasingly visible set of parenting pressures.

Here's the dilemma.

There's nothing wrong with wanting a successful career, and preferably a meaningful one. On the contrary. There's nothing wrong with wanting a great relationship and a family. On the contrary. There's nothing wrong with wanting the best for our kids -- and their kids -- if our version of the "best" is also what they want for themselves.

But we're chasing through our own lives, wondering why we're not "present." And we're doing so in a country with little to no safety net. We're exaggerating the importance of every item on the To Do list, we're blurring boundaries between home and office, we're baffled by poor communication with our spouses, and we're treating children like shiny projects to be displayed on Facebook. As we put in six- and seven-day workweeks to cover the bills, we over-commit, overbook, and overlook what really matters. Then we're surprised when our stress tests are off the charts.

Now about that frog...

It may be folklore. It may be real. Either way, it's a nifty little tale and it's important.

If you drop a frog into a shallow pot of boiling water, he'll jump out immediately. But if you place him in water at room temperature, then gradually bring the liquid to a boil, the frog doesn't notice until it's too late.

Goodnight, Sweet Prince.

We can easily see the metaphor when it comes to our jobs, as this Forbes article points out. An ever-expanding workload is imperceptible at first, but eventually, we're operating at a killing pace.

Not only did I live this lifestyle throughout my former corporate career, but it's been my "new normal" for the past decade. Likewise for many of my friends who work as consultants, contractors and freelancers while providing for their families. It's no wonder that we question our cultural values -- the impossibly high bar we set for ourselves in each encounter, each role and each undertaking -- in our jobs, our relationships, and our approach to parenting.

Moreover, this is the model we are teaching our kids.

It doesn't take rocket science to recognize that years of stress will manifest in our behaviors and our bodies -- cue the insomnia, the reflux, excesses of food and drink, the string of troubled marriages.

It seems to me that we've become frogs -- creatures in some great experiment that we didn't sign up for. If we don't start paying attention, the outcome is predictable.

Sure, some pressures are unavoidable. In a tough economy and under challenging conditions, we make money however and whenever we can. Yet all fables aside, we shouldn't relinquish our very human capacity for establishing realistic expectations and resetting boundaries.

As for my flight of fancy on a travel site, intrusive messaging is par for the course in a society where communications pester, hound and harass.

And we let them.

But we can click away from the pressure tactics. We can disconnect from devices one day a week. We can talk to our partners face-to-face across the dinner table. We can allow our children to enjoy a piece of childhood. We can say no to perpetual overload and in its place, say yes to turning down the temperature -- before we find ourselves boiled alive.

A version of this column first appeared at Daily Plate of Crazy.