Category Archives: metaphor

The Costanza Method

A man she’d just met asked her out for coffee.  “I really wanted to say No,” she tells me.  “So I said Yes.”

“Things are going so badly for me lately that I’ve decided to do the opposite of what I normally do.”

“How’d the date go?” I ask.

She grins.  “Best date of my life.”

She’s stumbled onto the Costanza Method.

Seinfeld viewers know the episode where inveterate loser George Costanza dramatically improves his fortunes by doing the opposite of everything he would normally do.

Funny, and psychologically true.

I often encourage clients to do the same.

If you’d normally say No, try saying Yes.

If you’d normally say Yes, try saying No.

If you’d normally bite your tongue, this time say something. 

If you’d normally say something, this time shut up. 

If you’d normally avoid an experience, try jumping into it with both feet.

Like that.

We’re anxious creatures.  One way we try to control our anxiety is by limiting our experience to the known, the familiar.

So easy to fall into ruts.  So easy to stay there.

But if you want to practice surrendering control — or just to grow in flexibility, creativity and courage — there are worse ways than the Costanza Method.

Rabbit hole

down the rabbit hole:  a metaphor for adventure into the unknown. ~ Wikipedia


So here we are, at the edge of the rabbit hole.

She’s not saying so, but she thinks her therapist is crazy.

I’m her therapist, and I’ve just suggested she try giving up control.

For a control addict the idea is unthinkable. It’s like I’m suggesting she let go of the life preserver that keeps her afloat.

Forget that controlling has never really worked for her.

Forget that the more she tries to control stuff the more anxious and desperate she feels.

Control, she’s convinced, is the solution, not the problem.

It takes most clients months, even years to move away from that idea.

But I’m undaunted, because I have an ally in this:


Reality will teach her (if she lets it) what I already know: that

the more control you need, the less in control you tend to feel;

the more you try to control other people, the more you force them to control you back; 

and that

getting control in one place usually requires you to give it up in another.

Living a life based on these truths can be unnerving at first.

To do it takes courage, lots of trust in your therapist, and no small amount of trust in yourself.

But the luckiest addicts — those who can muster that courage and trust — get to enter the rabbit hole of recovery, and the adventure of a life beyond chasing control.




Frogs tossed into boiling water will leap right out again.

But frogs placed in cool water raised gradually to a boil will remain until they are thoroughly cooked.

I know plenty of cooked frogs.

They’re people who stayed too long in bad jobs or unhealthy relationships.

They’re not stupid, and they’re not self-destructive.

They just didn’t pay attention.

They didn’t listen to their feelings, which exist to provide important information about what they were experiencing.

Like most of us, they thought of pain and discomfort as bad things, experiences to be avoided.  So they found ways to ignore, numb or deny those bad feelings.

They forgot (if they ever knew) that pain is essential to survival.

That we need it to warn us of both obvious dangers and subtle threats.

That we ignore it — even the tiniest of twinges — at our peril.

And that to ignore it long enough is to risk ending up cooked.


It is generally recognized that an addict’s recovery begins the moment they hit bottom.

Bottom, of course, is that point where some internal scale tips and the pain of addiction outweighs their fear of giving it up.  It’s the moment they stop denying, surrender to reality, and become willing to do whatever it takes to get better.

But bottoms are necessary for everyone, I think.

Change can be scary and confusing. Change can hurt.  It’s not easy to change your life.  Possible, but never easy.

So we all avoid changing like we avoid the dentist.  We wait until the tooth hurts too much to ignore.

This explains why — at least in my experience — the people helped by therapy just a little vastly outnumber those who are helped by therapy a whole lot.

Members of the latter group aren’t smarter, necessarily.  Just braver,  more honest and more persistent.

If you find yourself in this group, congratulations.

I admire your willingness to do this important inner work.

More power to you.




I spend my days talking with men and women about relationships and relationship failures.   And I find their views on the latter to be oddly gender-specific.

Men often say something like “God, was she crazy.  Am I glad to be done with her.”

Women often say something like “God, I hate myself.  I can’t believe how badly I screwed up.”  Or “I’m so stupid.  How could I have picked him in the first place?”

Sometimes the same woman says both.

All this has less to do with who really screwed up than with how the genders view relationships.

Men are socialized to see work as their main responsibility.  So their ideas of success or failure in life are all tied up with doing their job and making money.

Women are socialized to see feelings and relationships as their main responsibility. So when someone’s unhappy or a relationship fails, women feel, well, responsible.

Both views are lopsided, of course, and terribly unfair.  It takes two to tango, and it usually takes two to screw up a relationship.

Which explains why I spend so much time trying to get men to take more responsibility for relationship problems, and women to take a bit less.



Dance 2Conflicted couples tend to have the same fight over and over.

Ask them, and they’ll tell you just how it goes:

Who initiates. How their partner responds. How it escalates.  How long it lasts.  How it ends.  How they both feel afterwards.

I call this pattern The Dance.

The Dance repeats itself because it’s largely unconscious — rooted in hidden feelings that never get directly expressed (I’m scared you don’t really love me) and unresolved issues that don’t get identified, much less resolved (this is just like how my parents treated each other).

And for this reason, when they come to therapy, Dancing couples need more than a referee.

They need a translator.


Recently a client realized in therapy that she stays in her bad marriage because she believes she has no right to be happy.

Her alcoholic mom taught him to believe that.  Mom’s long dead, but her teaching survives.

This poisonous belief is what shrinks call an introject.

Most people know what projection is.  It’s that defense mechanism where I confuse a thought in my head (I’m so fat) and with a thought in yours (Boy, is he fat).

Introjection reverses this process.  When I introject I take a thought from your head (often with your assistance) and absorb it into mine.

This happens all the time to kids.  Say you grow up with a parent who tells you every day that you’re stupid.  Eventually you end up agreeing with them.  Doesn’t matter how smart you are in reality.  You’ll introject your parent’s belief and become convinced that you are, in fact, stupid.

I think of an introject as a kind of poison meatball, one you swallow but never fully digest.  You can’t digest it because it’s not your belief, it’s someone else’s.  So it just sits there inside you, never breaking down or going away, just sending out waves of confusion and emotional nausea.

In some cases, for a lifetime.


Layer cake

cake 2Not only is control problematic, it’s a layer-cake problem  — several kinds of problem wrapped into one.

It’s a psychological problem, since the idea of control is built into human consciousness and saturates all of our thought processes.

It’s an emotional problem, since wanting it – even craving it, and seeking it compulsively – resides at the center of our emotional lives.

It’s an interpersonal problem, since we can’t seem to stop trying to control each other or resisting whenever someone tries to control us.

It’s a spiritual problem, because control (trying to edit reality according to our preferences) is what we turn to when faith fails us.

And it’s an existential problem, because the struggle for control — or alternatively, not to control — is an inescapable part of the life, hopes, and suffering of every human being.

Bonsai people

There’s a reason shrinks talk so much about childhood.

It’s because we’re all bonsai people.

You sculpt a bonsai by wrapping wire around the tender trunk and branches of a sapling, then bending it into aesthetically pleasing directions.

In our case, the wire that bends and shapes us is childhood experience.

Unmet needs.  Unexpressed feelings. Unresolved conflicts.  Unhealed wounds.

Even when the visible wire is removed — decades pass, parents die, kids get big — its effects remain, for good or ill.

The child is father to the man.  

The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children.

We’re all bonsai people.


Our culture trains women to be codependent — to lose themselves in relationships by putting the needs and feelings of others ahead of their own. Be endlessly loving, giving, accepting and patient, they are taught.  Do this, and you will be appreciated and loved.

I call this basic training The Trance.

The usual result of trance-induced behavior is not love or appreciation but something resembling a hostage situation. Many women end up in relationships with narcissistic partners only too willing to take all they have to give and then demand more.  Instead of angry and rebellious these women feel inadequate and guilty, convinced that their partner’s unhappiness is their fault.

Recovery for such women is about waking up from The Trance and creating relationships which treat them not as prisoners, but as people.


Surrender sauce

Submitted to the Practice Corner:
Since my wife and I separated I don’t see my kids as much as I like.  This week we planned to have dinner together Friday night.  So Friday afternoon I make a big pot of spaghetti sauce – it’s kind of my thing – with meatballs and sausage.  It smells really good and I’m all excited.  Then the phone rings and it‘s my daughter, sounding nervous, asking if she can go to the movies with her friends instead. While I’m on the phone I get a text from my son saying he’ll be late because he’s gone with his friends to McDonalds.  Now, not too long ago I would have gone ballistic.  Would have turned into a hurt angry raging screaming bastard prick of a dad.  But I’m working hard in therapy on this control thing.   And I hear myself say to my daughter, “That’s okay.  Sauce tastes better the second night anyway.”  Then I text “No prob, c u later” to my son.  Then I fix myself a plate of spaghetti and sit down and eat it, and surprise, the sauce still tastes pretty good. 
~ Shared by T.B. (8/7/14)

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