Double binds are used to display power and gain control over others. They occur in daily life and also in extreme abuse. Victims often feel confusion, rage, and despair at their entrapment and apparent lack of options.
You can effectively counter double binds by taking a step back and releasing your feelings, fully describing the situation, and choosing among many courses of action.
A double bind is technically defined as a situation where:
- Explicitly, if you do some Action, you’ll be punished
- Implicitly, if you don’t do that Action, you’ll also be punished
- If you bring up the contradiction, you’ll be punished
- You can’t leave the situation
Medical double bind
For example, some doctors use their position of authority to put their patients in victim-blaming double binds.
- If you go to the doctor with serious symptoms, you’re told you should have come in sooner.
- If you go to the doctor with mild or vague symptoms, you’re labeled hypochondriac or drug-seeking.
- If you point out the contradiction, you’re labeled uncooperative.
- You still need medical care.
Countering double binds
If you’re feeling trapped, rageful, or despairing, you may be experiencing a double bind. Take a step back from the situation and find some time and privacy to release your feelings. After that, you’ll have more clarity to look at your options.
The first step in countering a double bind is to write down each part as specifically as you can, including conflicting commands, punishments, consequences of naming the contradiction, and inability to leave the situation.
If you notice that some part of the double bind is missing, that’s great! You have already found a possible exit from the trap. Past experiences of double binds can lead to feelings of helplessness even if the current situation doesn’t meet all the conditions.
Accommodation and escape
Once you’ve described a double bind, there are many options to address it. Each situation is different, and one or more options may apply at different times.
- It’s not you. Remember, there’s something wrong with the situation, not with you.
- Question the statements. Is it true that you’ll be punished?
- Redefine punishment. To a child, withdrawal of approval feels intolerable. An adult can find other sources of approval.
- Change the focus. In some cases, you can productively direct attention outside the double bind. In the medical example, you could say, “Let’s focus on present symptoms and ways to treat them.”
- Meet your own standards. Since all choices lead to punishment, make the the choices that meet your own approval.
- Look for allies within the situation. In the medical example, are there supportive members of the doctor’s practice?
- Ask for help. Name the problem to outside witnesses or authorities. Stay aware of your own power as you ask for help, rather than sliding into a Victim/Rescuer position.
- Get external support. Seek out people and activities that help you feel strong and resilient.
- Walk away. It’s a big world. Have faith that you can get your needs met in abuse-free ways. Keep looking for and creating those ways.
You might try one solution and then another, finding your own Middle Way between accommodation and escape. Perhaps you’ll tolerate a difficult doctor until you hear of a more sympathetic doctor across town.
When you couldn’t break free
Double binds are used in ritual abuse and torture, where the victim does not have the power and resources to break free. Faced with contrived choices between harming others and being harmed themselves, victims do their best to survive the chaotic, arbitrary environment. Domestic violence can follow this pattern as well.
Once away from immediate danger, survivors struggle with feelings of guilt and helplessness. It can bring relief to analyze the double bind and put responsibility for the outcome on the people who created it. Grieve for the helplessness of the past, and think of positive actions to take in the future. With time, self-forgiveness becomes possible.
Internal double binds
Sometimes we carry internal double binds. For example, someone healing from domestic violence might say:
- If I have many PTSD symptoms, then I’m broken and worthless.
- If I have few symptoms, then the abuse wasn’t that bad.
- Once I notice the contradiction, it does bring relief.
- It is hard to escape my own beliefs.
This case is only a full double bind while the contradictory beliefs remain unconscious. Once the double bind is articulated, it loses its force. Questioning the beliefs and getting external support can often help with internal double binds.
Tool for oppression
Double binds are familiar to anyone lacking power in our society.
- Children are threatened with punishment for telling about abuse or bullying. If they don’t tell, the abuse continues.
- Women can be penalized in the workplace both for lack of assertiveness and lack of femininity, with no approved middle ground.
- African-Americans naming racist words and actions are told to “watch your tone” no matter how gently the racism is pointed out.
Tool for healing
Noticing and countering double binds can help you heal from past abuse, step away from abuse in the present, and handle petty power games in daily life. You can also bring awareness to any contradictory expectations you have of people with less power around you.
Paul Gibney’s article The Double Bind Theory: Still Crazy-Making After All These Years (pdf) explores Gregory Bateson’s original research on double binds in relation to schizophrenia and contains several extended double bind examples.