A double bind was originally thought of as something that happens in communication, especially parent-child communication, where a person gets two contradictory messages, and is also prevented from commenting on the contradiction. As described in the double bind entry in Wikipedia, “this creates a situation in which a successful response to one message implicates a failed response to the other, so that the person will be automatically wrong regardless of response. The person can neither comment on the conflict, nor resolve it, nor opt out of the situation.”
Double binds, when one doesn’t fully realize they exist, naturally lead to feeling and acting “crazy.” They were theorized by Gregory Bateson and others to be the way parents for example might cause their children to become “schizophrenic.” The theory lost credibility however when research failed to find a significant difference in the amount of double bind type communication in families in which one person was diagnosed with schizophrenia compared to other families.
But it may be that Bateson and others were right about the key role played by double binds, they just weren’t right in blaming family communication patterns as being the primary source of double binds. Looked at more carefully, it becomes apparent that all sorts of traumatic situations create double binds for the person encountering them.
When a person has a traumatic experience, they typically experience two very contradictory needs.
One is to NOT SEE the trauma – to not experience something so horrible, to hold onto a more pleasant view of the world in which such things don’t happen, to maintain the ability to trust others, etc. This is especially critical for children, who have to be able to trust those upon whom they depend, even when those others may be emotionally, physically, and sexually abusing the child.
The other of course is TO SEE the trauma – to reconstruct one’s view of the world to understand that such things can happen, and to severely reduce one’s level of trust, so that one isn’t surprised by such a thing happening again. And to be hyper-vigilant for any signs it may be happening again.
In a state of high arousal or terror, it seems imperative to make the “right” choice, as being wrong means disaster. And there is no time to really think the situation through, and so no time to really notice the contradictions in the demands being placed on one’s mind. Instead, one feels torn into pieces.
This conflict can be perpetuated after the traumatic experience itself is over. Trauma survivors with PTSD struggle with this in an obvious way – they want to stop having flashbacks, but on the other hand it is clear it doesn’t seem safe to forget what happened, so their brain constantly reminds them of it, however much they want the reminders to stop.
In the case of people who get diagnosed with PTSD, they at least can identify the pieces of the conflict – it is clear that the stuff intruding into their mind has to do with reminders of the trauma. But sometimes, when trauma happened at a younger age, or was especially intense or overwhelming for whatever reason, the person manages to not even be aware of the connection between the current conflict in their mind and the original trauma.
So for example the person may avoid thinking about certain situation or themes or memory fragments related to the trauma, yet have intrusive thoughts about it in the form of voices, because the avoided situation must be thought about in one form or another. The person then tries to avoid thinking about the voices, tries distraction etc., but it doesn’t work because there is also a need to face that which has been avoided.
To a person caught in a double bind of which they are unaware, it seems as though their mind has turned against them – or even like they face an enemy inside that isn’t them at all, given that it seems to want the opposite of what the person consciously wants. The person is just identifying with some of their needs, and experiencing the part of themselves that identifies with other needs as being alien, an enemy. This enemy can be conceptualized as being a demon, another person’s mind, an actual alien, or even just as an “illness.”
Recovery on the other hand requires owning both parts of the conflict, rather than just identifying with one side.
I think the “accepting voices” approach does a good job of helping people find a way to face the situation that may have originally triggered the voices, rather than make the mistake of just focusing on getting rid of them, or of taking them too seriously.
People can resolve double binds when they realize they don’t have a complete solution. In regards to traumatic experience, we don’t have to completely block out memories of trauma or pretend it didn’t happen, but we also don’t have take the trauma that did happen so seriously that we remain perpetually “on guard” and distrustful the rest of our lives. We can acknowledge the limits on the powers we have to protect ourselves, while taking up the powers we do have and doing our best to take care of ourselves and those we love. We can let awful feelings and thoughts and voices, and memories of terrible things, into our minds, while also noticing that these things are only part of what is true, that love and hope exist as well. We can learn to face the dark side without being overwhelmed by it.
Healing from a double bind involves acknowledging that the contradictory forces we feel within us are really all “us,” and that our true nature will emerge out of the tension between all the contradictions. So there is no need to resolve what is truly “right” within us in a final sense, just what is right in the moment, knowing that in future moments, something else may be right. Al Seibert pointed out that it can be very healing to notice that our whole organism is organized in terms of opposites, for example we have opposing muscle groups, one for example to bend our arm, another to straighten it. Neither is “right” but rather each is an important part of us.
Pushing people into double bind situations can make them “crazy” but if done more consciously, can also make them more spiritually aware. That’s why zen teachers, in their koans, impose a kind of double bind on the students. That’s also why, in the midst of working through trauma and psychosis, people can sometimes experience spiritual breakthroughs.
I would like to see an awareness of double binds brought back into psychological discussions. I’m curious to hear your comments.