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Purim and Mental Health: What the Holiday Can Teach Us about Ourselves

March 6, 2023

What can the Jewish holiday of Purim teach us about our own mental health? For one, it reminds us of the importance to unmask our true selves. Read on to learn more about Purim and mental health.

A 1685 painting by Arent de Gelder titled, Esther and Mordecai.

Esther and Mordecai by Arent de Gelder (1685)

A Jewish Masquerade Ball

Purim is like a Jewish masquerade ball. Commemorating the Persian Jewish Queen Esther and her uncle Mordechai, Purim celebrates the unmasking of an evil plot by the king’s advisor, Haman, to trick the king into allowing Haman to murder the kingdom’s Jewish population. Haman has no idea that Queen Esther herself is Jewish. She must intervene to save her people by unmasking her own identity and thereby revealing Haman as the murderous coward that he is.

We celebrate this story by sharing sweet gifts and dressing up in the costumes of the various characters in the tale, masking and unmasking ourselves to enact the drama and affirming how revealing one’s identity can be a necessary act of courage.

Australian sociologist Judy Singer

Judy Singer (pictured) is an Australian sociologist credited with coining the term “neurodiversity.”

Being our true selves can be hard

Many people struggle to unmask themselves, to reveal the truth beneath the facade. This unmasking, too, can take some courage. When social pressures to conform force us to pretend or suppress ourselves, we can feel constricted, inauthentic, and stressed. This can frequently lead to anxiety and depression. It is exhausting and demoralizing to hide behind a mask!

The reasons people mask are varied. Neurodivergent people often mask themselves to hide behaviors that others find strange or unacceptable, such as the repetitive movements called “stimming” which soothe and help regulate the nervous system, but which neurotypical folks can find unsettling. Hiding special interests, such as an obsession with a particular kind of vehicle, animal species, or video genre, and instead trying to engage in neurotypical conversational tactics, can cause stress and uncertainty. Feigning interest in anything you find irrelevant or inaccessible is exhausting. Spending one’s day trying to fit in can wear one out by the end of the day.

A girl wearing a mask for Purim.

A girl wearing a mask for Purim in Jerusalem, March 15, 2006. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

Mental health therapy can help

Therapy becomes a safe, private space to reveal one’s true self, perhaps for the first time. Many people who mask say it has become second nature to hide their truth, and only through revealing who they are and what they truly need, can they begin to unwind from the depression and anxiety that often accompany masking behaviors. In the safety of the therapy room, we explore the emotions, thoughts, and behaviors that feel natural for the client but are often disapproved of by a neurotypical world.

Unmasking ourselves TO ourselves is an essential step toward claiming an authentic, satisfying life. Once people become confident in who they are, they can practice unmasking in different ways. One might begin with trusted loved ones and start to experience the feeling of acceptance without pretense. This unmasking, too, can be an act of courage, as some view unmasking as a sign of vulnerability.

Painting by Rembrandt titled, Haman Begging the Mercy of Esther.

Haman Begging the Mercy of Esther by Rembrandt (1635)

Purim and Mental Health

Purim will begin Monday evening, March 6, and end the following evening. As many families do for Halloween, Jewish families with young children will dress in costume, and exchange sweet treats, including the triangular-shaped fruit-filled pastries called Hamantaschen, or “Haman’s Hat.” In synagogues around the world, designated readers will chant the Scroll of Esther aloud and the assembled congregation will drown out the sound of Haman’s name with each utterance. This noise can be overwhelming for children and others with sensory needs, so some communities will provide quieter spaces as well in order to be welcoming toward neurodivergent participants.

We still have a way to go to be fully inclusive of each other’s differences, whether sensory, neurological, gender-based, cultural, or anything else. Meanwhile, perhaps we can lean into the courage of Queen Esther and boldly unmask ourselves, shining forth our authentic presence, and unapologetically asking others to take note, make any adjustments or accommodations, and get on with the business of celebrating the sweetness of our lives.

Rabbi Margot Stein, MFTAbout the Author

Rabbi Margot Stein, MFT, is a Staff Therapist at Council for Relationships. If you have questions about this blog, you may reach Rabbi Stein at mstein@councilforrelationships.org or 215-382-6680 ext. 7076.

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