Last night I found myself enjoying a glass of wine and reruns of Seinfeld. Why? Because Seinfeld episodes are prolific…and spectacular. So why not? The episode I was watching was entitled “The Opposite”. Near the beginning of the show George enters the coffee shop and claims,
Why did it all turn out like this for me? I had so much promise. I was personable, I was bright. Oh, maybe not academically speaking, but … I was perceptive. I always know when someone’s uncomfortable at a party. It became very clear to me sitting out there today, that every decision I’ve ever made, in my entire life, has been wrong. My life is the opposite of everything I want it to be. Every instinct I have, in every aspect of life, be it something to wear, something to eat … It’s all been wrong.
Who hasn’t felt this way? Who hasn’t looked back over their life and wished that something could have turned out differently? While many may not go to the extreme of saying their “life is the opposite of everything I want it to be,” it is safe to assume there is some part of our life that isn’t what we hoped for. We may look over our life and wish we had contributed more to the well being of other people. We wish we had a more positive influence on others in our lives. Maybe we look at our relationships and, when we are honest, they are more shallow than we would like them to be. We may look at who we project to be and who we are deep down and see two different people and long for the authenticity and courage to make those two people one and the same.
I believe the reason this happens is because we live in a world where pain is inevitable. All of us have been hurt in life. No one is immune.
And no one likes pain.
In response to a world where there is pain we develop self-protections to minimize pain. We keep people at an arm’s length so there is less pain if the relationship breaks down. We don’t say what we are actually feeling so as to avoid potential conflict. We use humor to try and defuse pain. We get aggressive when we feel threatened by a person or situation. We withdraw from relationships when we first begin to sense pain. We never try anything new or take risks because the thought of failure is too much to bear. All of these (and there are many more) are self-protections used by us to avoid pain in a painful world.
While these self-protections keep us from pain, they also keep us from experiencing life. Keeping people at arm’s length (or another way to say it would be keeping the relationships shallow) does protect you from pain. But it also keeps you from enjoying an authentic relationship where you are truly known by another person and accepted for who you are.
Our self-protections are so ingrained in us they become instinctual. When a potentially painful situation arises, we react out of instinct and we do what it is we do whenever a painful situation arises. And because we react the same way every time, we get the same results. So when George Costanza exclaimed, “Every instinct I have, in every aspect of life, be it something to wear, something to eat…It’s all been wrong” he was on to something very profound.
The instinct that tells you not to let people get to close to others is all wrong. The instinct that screams your not good enough is all wrong. The instinct that says you are defined by what you do is all wrong. These wrong instincts lead us to a life that we never wanted.
If we want something different out of life then we have to stop listening to our instincts.
George comes to the following conclusion which drives the events of the rest of the episode.
Yes, I will do the opposite. I used to sit here and do nothing, and regret it for the rest of the day, so now I will do the opposite, and I will do something!
Maybe this is what we need to do. So for example, if I wish I had more authentic relationships where I known, when my instinct tells me not to be vulnerable because it might be painful, maybe the best thing I can do is the exact opposite and be vulnerable. Maybe then I will experience relationships where I am known. If my instinct is to disengage from the relationship, I do the opposite and engage. If my instinct is to become angry, I become quiet. If it is to play it safe, I take a risk. Doing the opposite of our instinct is doing something different, and doing something different will lead to something different.