“For men, shame is weakness, not being the hero. Or superhero. It’s not living up to the legend that men are expected to be.”

~Brené Brown

The Double Bind

By Cindy Trevitt, Registered Professional Counsellor and Master Practitioner in Clinical Counselling

A rock and a hard place. Heads, I win. Tails, you lose.

A double bind is a psychological predicament in which one person receives conflicting messages from another that allows no appropriate response to be made. Usually the contradictory messages are from a person who has power in your life or is part of an emotionally important relationship. In circumstances where the relationship is vital to the accused it can be implied (wrongfully) that the problem exists because of a default in the accused’s character.

Probably everyone has had some experience where they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. It’s a position that causes great stress and angst and we don’t see a way out. It can neither be ignored nor escaped. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

“Insanity – a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.”
~ R. D. Lang

Gregory Bateson first explored the psychological concept in the 1950’s. He contended that a childhood filled with double binds led to mental illness and unless people have found a way to resolve this dilemma they will continue to behave in ways that perpetuate this problem. Solutions require creativity: The Zen master had a stick and posed this to his students: if you speak, I will beat you with this stick; if you remain silent I will beat you with this stick. One student resolved this dilemma by taking the stick away and breaking it. In Zen Buddhist writing, the double bind is a path to enlightenment and unsolvable problems lead to seeing through the false mind of duality. Double binds can challenge us to look beyond the immediate.

There are many double binds in our society. The contradictory message, ‘you’re either with us or against us and if you’re against us you will be punished’. There is no room for others to have a different opinion. Take care of your appearance but don’t be vain (i.e. dye your gray hair but hide the dye). Everything we need to produce or manufacture provides us with a livelihood all the while endangering the environment. We want to make more money but expect to pay less: who is getting paid less so that we can buy things for less? If a woman declines a sexual advance she will be accused of being hostile or prudish. Some want others to make the first move but are annoyed by being harassed. Men should be strong and stable with the ability to be sensitive but if they cry they are weak and incapable. An impoverished unemployed person on provincial benefits is offered a job that pays the same amount as the benefit. In either case, they remain poor.

“It’s not consent if you make me
afraid to say no.”

Honesty is valued above all but disclosure can be met with anger, disappointment or disgust. “Tell me the truth”, but the hidden message is, tell me the truth and the punishment may be less severe than if you tell me a lie. This can also be interpreted as, “Tell me what I want to hear and you have to guess what that is”. We want to take care and become conscious of the double binds we issue and the toll it takes on our relationships. This methodology forces people into the position of skirting the truth and using evasive tactics leading to greater disconnection and dissatisfaction within the relationship.

The tricky part is that it is not always clear which is the double bind and which is a circumstance that is unique and to be weighed in the moment. Sometimes double binds can motivate us to change. Sometimes, we are the ones who issue the double binds. We want honesty but are crushed by criticism. We don’t want a jealous partner but bristle at a total lack of jealousy, feeling taken for granted. We resent having to do everything ourselves but when helped we criticize the quality of the help. If you’re hearing, “There’s just no pleasing you is there?” you may be issuing double binds or the recipient perceives them as such.

There’s the catch-22 classic, “I don’t want you to do it because I asked you to; I want you to do it because you want to.” In this case the other partner is put in a double bind: if they do it the wanting partner thinks it was only done because they had spoken up, if it is not done he or she is not meeting his or her partner’s need. And worse, if they don’t do it, it may be considered an indication their love is weak or if they do it, their love is still weak and they only did it out of obligation. Often this message is not expressed verbally. Asking for someone to do something without being asked is a self-defeating paradox.

Or there’s, “If I have to tell you then you don’t know or care”. The message here is that the recipient doesn’t and can’t know because the first person won’t say and the recipient cannot win because he or she will never know. It is also indicated that the recipient doesn’t care because he or she doesn’t know. A double-edged sword. Particularly within relationships, these kinds of expectations can reflect a subconscious desire for the other to fulfill needs that went unmet by the parents. Awareness of this along with a healthy differentiation can help to remedy the situation.

“Women often end up in a ‘double bind’. “If they try to enact the traits that are seen as ‘leaderly’ – and these tend to be the traits that are more associated with idealised images of masculinity – they tend to be respected for that, but not necessarily liked. Whereas if they take up a more stereotypically female role of being nurturing and caretaking, they may be liked but not necessarily respected.”
~Robin Ely, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Harvard Business School

If you think or are being told, “The proper way to feel about this is….” or, “You should be ashamed of yourself” (even implied) then you are being confronted with a double bind. You’re told that if you feel insecure, sad, depressed, and anxious then there is something wrong with you. You may become confused or isolated with your problem. You cannot win. You’re being told your own feelings are incorrect or shameful and you should feel something else.

A parent sends a dual message when they say they love you but without a smile, or a supportive word or seldom a compassionate, forgiving, or helpful attitude. The mother may go for a hug but her body stiffens and the child may withdraw and then the mother says, “What’s the matter? You don’t love me?” Now present day experience reflects a feeling they cannot “win” in their interpersonal relations. The mother’s words say “I love you,” but her body language says, “I don’t love you.” The child withdraws in response to her mixed message. She blames the child for withdrawal. “I love you!” screams the mother to her child…in, and of itself, a contrary message – the words indicate love but the screaming indicates emotional duress.

“For men, shame is weakness, not being the hero. Or superhero. It’s not living up to the legend that men are expected to be.”
– Brené Brown

We may have grown up in a household where yelling and mayhem were commonplace but if you were to yell, get angry or speak up you’re severely reprimanded or punished. Somehow, there’s a crazy message that certain behaviours are only unacceptable when you do them but there is no accountability for others. When we are placed in situations where there seems to be no correct course of action to remedy the situation, we give up. This is called Learned Helplessness: believing one has a complete lack of control over the outcome of a situation.

A child can be taught that getting angry and speaking up is rude and that acceptable behaviour is to be polite, have a sweet demeanor and never say a cross word. Meanwhile they also expect the child to stand up for itself, fight his or her own battles, and say no to strangers or people intending harm. With this strong mixed message, the child becomes an adult and may find themselves frozen in the face of conflict, unable to speak, fearful to assert themselves leading into low self-esteem, anxiety, resentment, apathy and confusion. Continually in this bind, they feel stuck, paralyzed, and helpless and may become avoidant.

There are the incriminating double-bind questions such as, “Can’t you ever think of anyone but yourself?”; “Can’t you ever do anything right?”; or “Why do you want to hurt me?” Clearly nearly any response will convict and condemn. There are trap statements: “After all I have done for you the least you could do is this one thing for me”. Such statements and questions can seem to be rhetorical but are double bind. Of course, there’s the often-made-fun-of query, “Do I look fat?” Most often, honesty is definitely not sought here.

“If it was me….” Often we hear how someone might compare himself or herself to another in a problem situation. They’ll say that if it were them they’d behave differently or better or would never do that implying that any behaviour the other exhibits is reprehensible. We need to allow for others to be themselves and do as they think best for them. Being different is not being wrong.

With families, there are common ‘double-bind’ patterns where one may be given the impression they are expected to visit or communicate but others don’t make that effort. If the individual stops contact there may be immediate protest or blame but still the family doesn’t make an effort on their own (also leading to the possibility that they might feel trapped in an obligatory relationship and not a genuine one).

Some families give regularly but also frequently remind you of the hardship they endured to give you these things. You’re led to believe that to accept their kind gesture is to inflict suffering on them – and you are the burdensome one.

There are powerful societal messages about what you should and shouldn’t do. Again, they objectify your wants and needs instead of understanding your subjective desires. Act authentically. Do what you want and don’t do what you don’t want. Detach yourself from the individual who is issuing the double-bind and make choices that best serve your needs or desires.

It is important to learn a healthy sense of emotional differentiation from others enough so that you are able to allow their emotions to happen with compassion but you also don’t allow those emotions to necessarily curtail your actions if it means denying yourself or allowing harm to yourself.

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”
– Einstein

The best response to a double-bind question is to treat it as an open ended question as opposed to a close-ended question (as most double bind questions are) and respond to the assumption rather than the closed question. For example, in response to the question, “Are you lying again?”, you can respond, “What makes you think I might lie?” In response to, “Can’t you think of anyone else but yourself”, you can reply, “My not wanting to do what you want doesn’t mean I don’t care”, or, “You sound hurt. I do care.”

Dealing with double binds is related to making cognitive leaps and reframing. Evaluate whether a situation is a double bind. Is it possible you are sensitive to similar situations but this isn’t a double bind? Even if it is, some double binds can be reframed through understanding that all situations are different. It is likely that we have all issued double binds at one time or another in our lives – most often without even being aware we did. As adults we can have compassion for another at such times. Consider what the root of the other person’s needs is and address that instead of the double bind. Communicate. You can also comment or question the nature of the communication:

  • “Have you noticed that what you are thinking creates a no-win situation?”
  • “How do you figure out the difference between those ideas?”
  • “What do you intend by that, what do you really want?”


There are those who believe that transcending the double bind is evidence of intelligence and creativity. We can view them as a puzzle to cleverly resolve.

Be assertive and speak up. You have your own feelings, which are absolutely normal and healthy. As the old saying goes, you can’t please all the people all the time and sometimes when you can’t please anyone, you just have to please yourself.

If you wish to copy this material to other publications please ask for permission by writing cindy@mycounsellor.ca.
Thanks for your friendship.

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