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Literally the Best Thing Ever: The George Costanza Method

Turn your life upside-down.

Illustration by Minna

Illustration by Beth

Anxiety and I go way back. I’m the person in class shaking my leg up and down, getting nervous about being in a crowd, or freaking out at an unexpected change in my schedule. Sometimes I get anxious for no apparent reason—my body just goes in to overdrive. My hands shake, my thoughts race, my breathing accelerates, and I find it hard to calm down. Whenever I’m faced with a particularly stressful situation (like being invited to a party—seriously), I tend to fall back on habits that I know will temporarily lower my anxiety (like skipping the party entirely to stay home and watch Archer on Netflix). I have a hard time sometimes distinguishing my instincts (generally self-preserving) from my habits (too often self-sabotaging). This is something I’ve been working on with a therapist, using a technique called dialectical behavioral therapy.

Any time I mention DBT to people they ask me what it is and how it works. I used to say something like, “I am retraining my brain to shed unhelpful behaviors and replace them with helpful ones.” But they would just look at me quizzically, like a dog hearing a high-pitched sound. So I came up with an explanation that anyone can understand: “It’s basically the George Costanza Method,” I say, and I immediately see the lightbulbs going on above their heads. “Of course!” they say, delighted. “The George Costanza Method!”

The George Costanza method was detailed in “The Opposite,” a season-five episode of Seinfeld. Tired of being a total loser, George—who typically ruins every good thing he has by making bad decisions or letting his neuroses get in the way—decides to do the exact opposite of his natural inclinations on every single decision set before him. By the end of the episode he’s got a girlfriend, a dream job with the New York Yankees, and a chance to finally move out of his parents’ house. His technique is essentially a Seinfeld-ian version of DBT—by forcing himself to go against his usual habits by flinging himself into unfamiliar, scary territory, George is giving his brain new kinds of feedback—and those scary situations aren’t so scary anymore, and he can start to trust his own instincts again (after all, the George Costanza Method was HIS idea). The fact that it pays off—proving that George can change, and that his defense mechanisms and self-doubt are truly what are holding him back—just makes everything funnier, because we viewers are primed to see George fall flat on his face.

Whenever I’m in a situation where self-doubt starts creeping up and I begin talking myself out of trying new things, or seeing people, or doing anything remotely social, I try to think of Opposite George. Sitting on the couch and avoiding that party for the 200th time is a relief at first, sure, but it always leads to a little bit of regret and it definitely makes it harder to go out the next time. Avoidance is the sneakiest trap there is: You think you’re protecting yourself, but you’re really just adding more distance between yourself and the outside world, and the farther away you get, the easier it is to fall into depression, anxiety, and isolation. Taking the risk—pulling a George—is a way of closing that gap, facing those fears, and making them a little less scary in the future, even if you only show up to the party or whatever for 15 minutes, talk to no one, and run home. At least you went, and at least you tried, and that’s a crack in the glass case of isolation that will help you eventually finally break through completely in the future.

I actually used the George Constanza method recently while on vacation with my family. We were by the shore, and everyone jumped into the ocean and swam through the waves. Though I’m a strong swimmer, I’ve been afraid of the waves since fourth grade, when I was sucked into an undertow and thought I was going to drown. My typical approach to the ocean is to get my toes wet and then scurry back to the safety of the sand, but after seeing my entire family have so much fun in the water, I decided to do the opposite and face my fears head on. I dove into the waves, and even though I was knocked down a few times, I got up laughing. I eventually made my way out of the water, happy that I didn’t let a decades-old fear override the lovely experience of splashing in the waves.

The George Costanza Method can be applied to simpler things, as well: In that episode, for example, George decides to order the “opposite” of his typical lunch (tuna on toast). Employing the George Costanza Method at restaurants can open you up to things you maybe never imagined you’d try. Using it at school might help you find an eye-opening class you thought you’d never sign up for. Using it with people may help you make friends you assumed had nothing in common with you. It’s essentially a challenge to break out of a rut, to try something different, to question your choices and push yourself to expand them. It’s not guaranteed to work, but it will definitely encourage you to be an active participant in your own life, to say yes when something sounds absurd, and to trust yourself enough to be daring. ♦

24 Comments

  • martaosbourne July 3rd, 2013 11:30 PM

    I love this!!! We take too much time thinking about how to deal with our problem instead of acting on our instincts. Why not trust ourselves and simply act? What do we have to lose?
    We can’t give in to safety behaviours and taking the easy options as it gets you nowhere. I have always regretted it later!!!

    http://www.filthygrrrl.tumblr.com

  • bookish July 3rd, 2013 11:36 PM

    pixie, can you please stop being so smart and eye-opening and giving me all of the ~deep thoughts~ before bed? thank you for writing and being you and just thank you for being alive.

  • LittleTiny July 3rd, 2013 11:40 PM

    DBT literally is the best thing ever. I am self-harm free for 15 months due to using DBT (Along with other therapies like CBT). It’s amazing for 12 plus years I was hurting myself (cutting), and avoiding any social events… But with time and practice my life has improved. It’s re-training your brain to try something that seems so scary because you are not used to it instead of whatever detrimental habits you usually resort to.

  • Monroe July 4th, 2013 12:19 AM

    Hmm, I’ve never thought about this. But once you read it, it makes sense. Very interesting. I’m going to look into this more.
    I’ve known about doing things that take you out of your comfort zone, but to do the opposite of what you are comfortable with.. I kind of like the idea.

  • spudzine July 4th, 2013 12:46 AM

    I am going to add this to the list of things that will help me lessen my impending anxiety.

    http://spudzine.tumblr.com
    http://emotwins.tumblr.com/
    http://rockogirl.tumblr.com/

  • Floraposte July 4th, 2013 1:35 AM

    Thank you, thank you. Yesterday for the first time in years I invited like, 12 people over. It didn’t really go like I planned; people left pretty early and I’ve kind of been regretting it, but these lines spoke directly to me

    At least you went, and at least you tried, and that’s a crack in the glass case of isolation that will help you eventually finally break through completely in the future.

    I’m going to treat it as a progressive step, not as a signal to stop trying.

  • Cerise July 4th, 2013 2:01 AM

    Love this. It’s exactly what I’ve been needing.

  • streaked lights July 4th, 2013 3:44 AM

    This was amazing! My anxiety has been holding me back from everything I want to do… I mean, sometimes I can’t even order a pizza without freaking out and crying.
    This was great advice, thank you!

    http://www.anooshadraws.blogspot.com

    • insteadofanelephant July 5th, 2013 1:30 AM

      lol my brother and i were just talking about this the other day. he had to make a hair appointment and it took him like three hours just to work up the courage to call. totally know what you mean

  • Sophie ❤ July 4th, 2013 7:03 AM

    I love this- it was such a fabulous read!

    http://plainlysophie.com

  • Esmee July 4th, 2013 8:00 AM

    I’m diagnosed with avoidant personality disorder(actually for many years, but to me it never seemed my therapists gave it priority).
    I ignore situations that are not to my liking(which is good for some situations) until they pile up and end up in anxiety attacks.
    I’m aware that I sabotage myself but I rather keep failure at bay than doing something new where I don’t even know the outcome off.

    Thanks Rookie(and Seinfeld), time to break a few habits with The George Constanza Method this summer!

  • AidaA July 4th, 2013 9:18 AM

    Thank you so much for this article. I have massive social anxiety problems and I was too scared to talk to anybody but I looked online and found DBT and it is literally the best thing ever. It helped me to make my friends and if I hadn’t said yes when a guy asked me to a David Bowie themed night, I wouldn’t be with my boyfriend of four months right now! It’s basically turning my life around

    Great great article!

    -Aida
    x

    http://sunshinesuperwoman.blogspot.co.uk

  • Veela July 4th, 2013 9:28 AM

    I have this friend I met this year on college and she’s been really depressed and sad because things didn’t work out like she imagined so now she’s constantly angry and rude to everyone (even her friends). And, although we all understand why she became this intolerable person, we’re all becoming really pissed off because she isn’t doing anything to change it! She is constantly at her apartment, watching movies or TV shows, she doesn’t want to hang out (I can’t even remember when was the last time she went out with us). We were all thinking how could we help her, so now (thanks to this article :) ) I’ll suggest to her do become, not herself, but the complete opposite – ’cause maybe she’ll eventually discover her true self. :D

    • onehandclaps July 4th, 2013 6:04 PM

      Not to be a downer (because it’s awesome that you want to help your friend feel better and reach her potential) but saying “hey how about you be someone completely different from yourself so we can be friends” may backfire and cause things to be worse.
      Telling someone who probably already feels horrible about the fact that they can’t just ‘be better’ and therefore continue and worsen with that cycle that they should be ‘the complete opposite’ of who they are will probably make them feel worse- if unintentionally.
      I think its great you want to help your friend, I would just advise you say ‘trying doing the opposite of what you would normally plan to react,’ or ‘when you feel like doing x, try y’ instead of “be this way or be the opposite of the way you are now.”
      She can definitely find her true self (or rather return to it?) but on her own with the support, not guidance, of her well meaning friends.
      Good luck and well wishes for your friend xx

      • Veela July 6th, 2013 6:25 AM

        Yeah, well maybe I haven’t mentioned that part, sorry xD
        I wasn’t going to tell her to change herself completely, but just to try sometimes something different (a different approach to things/people) and maybe something will change then…because I know she wants everything to change (she told me a million times).
        Thanks for the advice xx

  • itsaoifedahling July 4th, 2013 9:41 AM

    I can be such a “no” person at times that this really struck a chord with me. Will def use the George Costanza method in the future! :D
    aoife xx
    http://passtheteacup.blogspot.ie/?m=1

  • marymockingbird4 July 4th, 2013 10:51 AM

    Ok, so this following comment has nothing to do with this article, but I really have to say this:
    Today, I got the Rookie Yearbook 1 delivered to my house. I live in freakin Athens, Greece.
    I haven’t met a single person here who is fan of Rookiemag.
    If a Greek girl sees this, I would love to know she exists by getting a reply to my comment.
    Anyway, I just got it today!
    How cool is that?

  • oh-ntsh July 4th, 2013 4:18 PM

    This is a marvelous post, thanks for this! I’m studying psychology and I’m actually amazed by the way you translated into simple words and examples what we try to work in therapy.

  • rabbitwink July 4th, 2013 7:10 PM

    This idea is similar to the longstanding tradition in theater, especially comedy and improvisation, referred to as “saying yes”.

    It means pretty much what it sounds like- if a situation/character/opportunity on stage presents itself, regardless of your snap judgment, you say “yes” & play along, rather than shoot it down or try to mold it to your desires. You engage with the situation, rather than avoid it. It forces you to stretch, be creative, be open to possibilities.

    I think an amended version of this philosophy can be very helpful in real life. I’m not saying to do anything dangerous or stupid- but as the examples above show, sometimes even small things like a phone call or a party or social invitation, a chance to travel or see something new, can be approached with a spirit of exploration instead of dread. It’s not easy to change one’s habits, but once you start challenging your self and realizing that you can in fact survive these experiences, you may find the dread is bigger in your head than the reality of the encounter.

  • insteadofanelephant July 5th, 2013 1:29 AM

    really wonderful advice. i have a lot of trouble with anxiety and lately i’ve been staying in a lot more. i need to just go out, do new things!

    blog: instead of an elephant

  • Serena Head July 5th, 2013 1:46 AM

    I am so going to try this <3

  • elliesandpancakes July 6th, 2013 1:36 PM

    I’m so glad that Rookie publishes articles on first hand experience with anxiety, it makes me feel so much better about myself and not many other places seem to address it.

  • anindieeducation July 7th, 2013 6:39 AM

    BRILLIANT BRILLIANT BRILLIANT THANK YOU

    I am fed up of not kissing that boy, or not talking to that guy, or not singing along to that song because of anxiety, BUT I am going to try and do the opposite.

    THANK YOU

    anindieeducation.blogspot.com

  • ♡ reba ♡ July 10th, 2013 4:58 AM

    so so so excellent!!! i’ve been accidentally slightly doing this the last few days (now its summer time to ~live life~) and this article was just great motivation and putting a name to it making it seem more definite!!! thank you x100000