Peter Pearson

Ah, Sisyphus, the legendary rock roller from Greek mythology. He was forever doomed to push the boulder up the mountain only to have it roll back. Again and again.

Sisyphus may have been the original example of insanity. You’ve probably heard that definition: insanity is doing the same darn thing over and over again, expecting a different result.

But you are different. Because you are going to stop pushing your rock this holiday season.

Here’s another rock so many people push. It’s the rock of unrealistic expectations.

Especially the expectations we place on others.

We hope our partner will finally give us the perfect gift, our adult siblings will refrain from teasing us at the dinner table, Uncle Al will stay sober through the evening, and that Mom and Dad will give us some unconditional acceptance.

You think it is not too much to hope for.

But alas, just like Sisyphus, you never get the rock of expectations to the mountain top. Even if you could get it to the top, it wouldn’t stay there.

However, this year CAN be different for you.

It takes a little mental judo.

Shift your focus.

First. Expect nothing will be different this year.

Expect family will continue to do what they do. And, expect that no matter how hard you try, you cannot get your family to conform to your hopes. They simply do what they do and will likely continue their distressing and disturbing habits. They're pushing their own rocks.

Your family cannot reform you. Yes, you do things that annoy them and they wish you would quit. But if you change, you will do it on your time and your way. The same is true for them!

Second. Think about 4 things you feel grateful about.

Burn them into your memory. Know them so well that if I called you at 3:00 AM you would be able to recite them without difficulty. After cursing me for waking you, go back to sleep.

Then, when you begin to feel distressed because your family is not doing your bidding, start recalling your gratitude list.

Your focus will change and your feelings will follow.

Will this work? Yes, your brain can only consciously focus on one thing at a time. It can shift rapidly back and forth between many different things. But it focuses on only one thing at a time.

This mental trick has a lot of applications in your life, but for now, just practice for holiday gatherings.

Sisyphus didn’t have the benefit of neuroscience learnings. But you do.

Now stop pushing that expectation boulder up the mountain. Shift your focus. And enjoy what used to drive you crazy.

I’m here to help with your top stressors this holiday season. Last week we covered those dreaded holiday conversations, and the next blog helps you to manage holiday chores with your partner. The final blog gives you a great ‘brain hack' to handle several types of stress that might come your way.


Peter Pearson, Ph.D., Relationship & Teamwork Expert for Entrepreneur Couples

Pete has been training and coaching couples to become a strong team since 1984 when he co-founded The Couples Institute with his psychologist wife, Ellyn Bader.

Their popular book, “Tell Me No Lies,” is about being honest with compassion and growing stronger as a couple.

Pete has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including “The Today Show,” "Good Morning America,” and "CBS Early Morning News,” and quoted in major publications including “The New York Times,” “Oprah Magazine,” “Redbook,” “Cosmopolitan,” and “Business Insider.”

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A Glossary of Terms that are sometimes Confusing

Couples Therapy is a counseling procedure that seeks to improve the adjustment of two people who have created an interdependent relationship. There are no standard procedures to help two people improve their adjustments to each other. Generally, a more experienced therapist will offer more perspectives and tools to a couple. Length of treatment will depend on severity of problems, motivation and skills of the therapist. A couple can be dating, living together, married or separating and may be gay, lesbian or heterosexual.

Marriage Therapy is a term often used interchangeably with marriage counseling. The term marriage implies two people have created a union sanctioned by a government or religious institution. The methods used in marriage counseling, marriage therapy and couples therapy are interchangeable and depend more on the specific challenges of each unique couple.

Psychotherapy is one or more processes to help improve psychological and emotional functioning. Examples are psychoanalysis, cognitive therapy, behavior therapy, Gestalt therapy, Transactional Analysis, Rational-Emotive therapy, or group therapy. Many forms of psychotherapy are blends of different approaches. For example, newer forms of psychotherapy called energy psychology draw upon recent advances in brain and neuroscience. These approaches often build on cognitive behavioral methods.

Clinical Psychologist. After graduating from college, it usually takes about five years of graduate school to get a Ph.D. in Psycholgy. It then requires an additional two years of supervision and passing a written (and often) an oral exam. There are a few states that allow psychologists to prescribe medications (with additional training) but that is uncommon.

Psychiatrist. After graduation from medical school, there is a generally a 4-year psychiatric residency. After the completion of this training, psychiatrists must pass an exam issued by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology to obtain certification and legally practice in the field. Psychiatrists can prescribe medications.

Clinical Social Worker. This profession usually requires two years of study after obtaining an undergraduate degree. While specific licensure requirements vary by state, most require clinical social workers to obtain 3,000 hours or 2 years of supervised clinical experience, after obtaining a Masters degree. Social workers can also specialize in diverse fields such as human services management, social welfare analysis, community organizing, social and community development, and social and political research.

Marriage and Family Therapist. Obtaining this license requires a Masters degree which takes approximately two years of post graduate study. The license also requires 3000 hours of supervised work and passing written exams.

The Couples Institute. We have assembled a group of top notch therapists at The Couples Institute. Whatever marriage help or marriage advice you are looking for, we are here to serve you. While most other therapists see only a few couples a week, we specialize in marriage and couples relationships, working to develop and bring you the most current and effective approaches to couples therapy. For more information about couples therapy or marriage counseling, see our couples therapy section.