Double Binds: Damned If You Dare and Damned If You Don’t
How to address being caught between two conflicting options.
Posted Feb 09, 2020
“Human nature seems to me like the Alps. The depths are profound, black as night, and terrifying, but the heights are equally real, uplifted in the sunshine.” —Emily Greene Balch
We all have, in far too many instances, felt the pressure of being in a circumstance described as being damned if you dare and damned if you don’t. Well here is the scoop of how a double bind occurs and a means to resolve this painful situation.
What Is a “Double Bind?”
A double bind is a dilemma in communication in which an individual (or group) receives two or more conflicting messages, with one message negating the other. This creates a situation in which a successful response to one message results in a failed response to the other, so that the person will be automatically wrong regardless of their response. The nature of a double bind is that the person cannot confront the inherent dilemma, and therefore can neither comment on the conflict, resolve it, nor opt-out of the situation.
One of the first times I was able to grasp the devastation of being in a double bind was watching a film of a family therapy session at the beginning of my studies at Columbia University. The mother of a ten-year-old asked her son if he loved her. He hesitated and wearily answered, “Yes.” His mother then followed with “Why do I have to ask you?” He was damned either way and this affected his consequent behavior.
The session was filmed and when we looked at it frame by frame you saw non-verbal messages of anger from the mother that were not recognized with the naked eye, yet subconsciously internalized by her son. Upon further inquiry into a wider context, it was revealed that the mother had her son out of wedlock and lost a prominent job. Her resentment of what happened was in direct conflict with the sincere love that she had for her son. When she was able to understand the situation from a wider perspective, it allowed for new ways to better communicate with her son.
A double bind generally includes different levels of abstraction in the order of messages, and these messages can be stated implicitly within the context of the situation or conveyed by tone of voice or body language. Further complications arise when frequent double binds are part of an ongoing relationship to which the person or group is committed. On a positive note, human communication and the mind itself function in an interactive manner like an ecosystem, which helps us understand the interdependence of different parts of a message.
The clue to rising above a double bind is to create perspective by seeing it in its context but also at the same time simultaneously within a larger context. It takes rigor and hard work to break the constraints of a double bind, but if you dare to appreciate it with a widened lens, stepping out of the box, you can construct a whole new world that graciously welcomes the inevitable paradoxes of nature and blends with them to produce new orders of endless possibilities.