Peter Pearson

Man rolling huge concrete ball up hill.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., and his wife, Dr. Ellyn Bader, founded The Couples Institute in 1984. Both are psychologists and directors of the Institute and have helped over a thousand couples in their work.

Pete is an engaging and dynamic therapist, speaker and writer. His work includes practical skills, advanced techniques in regulating difficult emotions and entertaining vignettes from his own marriage to demonstrate how some impasses are managed.

He has been featured in over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and quoted in publications including "The New York Times," "Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan." His popular book, "Tell Me No Lies," has been of critical help to many couples.

Category: Couples' Blog
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