“I want you to do what you want, but don’t do it because I told you.” These words have a trap. We all know it. In fact, it is likely that on more than one occasion you have heard them from your parents or your partner. Or maybe you said them at some point to pressure someone close to you.
This phrase is the epitome of the Double Bind Theory, a phenomenon that nuances our interpersonal relationships and that is not only disconcerting but can end up doing us a lot of damage, especially because it comes from the closest, most important people we love the most.
What is the Double Bind Theory?
The philosopher Karl Popper, famous for his “theory of falsification”, sent a colleague the following postcard:
Please, send me back this same card, after marking with “yes”, or any other signal that you think, the empty rectangle to the left of my signature if, for whatever reason, you think that upon receiving me the card, this space will still be blank.
If this letter almost stopped your mind, do not worry, it is the normal result of the confusion. A strategy used by many controlling and manipulative people and that the anthropologist Gregory Bateson cataloged as “Double Bind”.
Paul Watzlavik and Milton H. Erickson deepened this concept from the communicative and relational point of view. The Double Bind Theory is a negative phenomenon that occurs in relationships when a significant person introduces a paradox that leaves us with no way out.
Double Bind occurs when:
The person must do X, but he’s also asked to do Y, which is in conflict with X.
In practice, it is when we’re asked to do two opposing things, impossible to fulfill. We are facing two conflicting imperatives, none of which can be ignored. At this point we feel confused, we are facing an insoluble dilemma because if we meet one of the demands we cannot fulfill the other. Worst of all, the situation is shaped in such a way that we are not even allowed to comment on how absurd the demand is.
The spontaneity imposed
A typical example of Double Bind situation is when a person asks us a spontaneous behavior, but from the moment he makes that request, our behavior ceases to be spontaneous. The required spontaneity inevitably leads to a paradoxical situation in which, the mere fact of raising the demand, makes it impossible to fulfill it spontaneously.
It is about the paradox of “imposed spontaneity”. An example in the field of relationships is when we suggest our partner to bring us flowers from time to time, because we crave a sample of spontaneous affection. However, the simple fact of having asked for it already eliminates the possibility of spontaneity forever.
If the partner ignores the request, we will feel even less loved. If he brings the flowers, they will not be able to satisfy the need for affection because we know that it has not been a spontaneous behavior. In that case, we have placed the other in a situation of Double Bind. Take the decision you make, it will not be enough to satisfy our demand because when we raise it, we prevent its adequate satisfaction.
The paradox of “imposed spontaneity” is also seen in father-son relationships. A mother may reproach the child that he is too apathetic and passive, so she is likely to ask: “Cheer up a bit, don’t be so dull”.
In this case, there are only two possible solutions, both equally unsatisfactory: the child remains passive, so that the mother will feel cheated, or he modifies his behavior to satisfy his mother but since it is not a natural attitude and spontaneous, she will consider his response as a sign of passivity to have been limited to follow an order.
The conditions for Double Bind to occur
For a Double Bind situation to occur, it is essential that there are two contradictory demands. Generally the first is direct and the second has a more abstract character. It is also necessary that there is:
- A significant relationship between people. If the person is not meaningful to us and does not exercise some emotional power, we will simply limit ourselves to pointing out the absurdity of his claim. Therefore, situations of Double Bind usually become a weapon of manipulation of parents, partners or friends.
- A negative consequence. The person who raises contradictory demands also adds an element of negative pressure. In the case of parents it can be “if you don’t do it, I will punish you” and in the case of a partner it can be “if you don’t do it, I’ll get angry”. However, these are not always verbal warnings, they can also be shown extraverbally, with gestures and facial expressions.
- A mandate that prevents the “victim” from escaping from the situation. It is the final touch to force the person to do what demanded, also preventing him from expressing his bewilderment and commenting on what is happening.
The terrible consequences of having grown up in a Double Bind environment
These antagonistic demands that cancel each other block us in three fields simultaneously: thought, action and feeling. This situation of constraint is highly damaging since it binds us hand and foot, preventing us from even expressing what we feel. If we have grown up in a Double Bind environment, its effects will be felt in our personality, in the way we relate to ourselves and to the others.
Paul Watzlawick systematized the situations of Double Bind in everyday life, with the closest people, and analyzed its impact on our personality.
– Deep personal insecurity
When we see that our perceptions about reality or ourselves bring us the rebuke of other people of vital importance to us, we will feel inclined to distrust our senses. The insecurity that emanates from that attitude will make us trust more on the others to see things “correctly” and to distrust more and more ourselves.
If we have grown up with parents who told us things like “you must be crazy to think that”, it is easy to understand the problem we are facing. Our ideas are discarded but, at the same time, we fail to grasp the meanings that are so evident to the others. Therefore, it is not strange that we feel out of place or even think that something is wrong with us.
And if they continue to insinuate that we are not right, it will be very difficult to find our place in the world and, above all, in our relationships with the others. This description corresponds perfectly with the clinical picture of schizophrenia.
– Huge sense of guilt
If other people important to us blame us for not having the feelings we should have, we will end up feeling guilty of our “inability” to experience the right feelings, the “true” feelings. The most terrible thing is that this feeling of guilt will be added to the list of feelings that we should not have.
An example of this situation of Double Bind is when parents start from the assumption that a well-educated child should be a happy child and convert the few moments of sadness of their child in a mute accusation of failure of their educational work. Some parents can express that disappointment with phrases like “after everything we’ve done for you, you should feel happy.”
In this way, the smallest sadness of the child becomes ingratitude and malice, creating the fertile ground for a tormented mind. We begin to think that something is wrong with us because we should not feel sad. And that thought saddens us even more, which makes us even more unworthy, thus closing a vicious circle from which it is impossible to escape. Needless to say, this description corresponds to the clinical picture of depression.
– Confusion of values
Sometimes, important people for us ask us behavior norms that demand and at the same time make certain actions impossible. Then we are involved in a paradoxical situation in which we can only obey by disobeying. The emblem of this paradox is: “Do what I tell you, not what I would like you to do”.
Such is the case of parents who ask their children to respect the rules but also require them to be daring. Or those who give great importance to money and think that any means is good to get them, but also encourage their child to be honored all the times.
When we grow up in an environment of contradictory values, it is not strange that we fall into a situation of moral distress. We fail to develop a system of coherent values that become the compass of our lives and we will often feel disoriented and confused.
The Theory of Double Bind as a tool for manipulation and submission
Many people apply the Double Bind without being fully aware of its impact, others use it deliberately as a strategy of manipulation. In fact, it is a very powerful weapon to emotionally dominate someone because:
– Invalidates his opinions on the matter, dismissing his thoughts as “invalid” or “authentic madness”.
– Invalidates his feelings, making him feel guilty for them and, therefore, preventing him from expressing them under pain of being judged harshly.
– Prevents the action, forcing the person to stay in a situation of discomfort without exit, the worst situation in which he can be found.
Therefore, it is important to pay attention to the Double Bind, never use it with people close to you and not allow anyone places you in that situation. To get rid of that constraint and disarm the person who tries to put us on the ropes, it is enough to note the contradiction.
If you want to continue deepening the communication traps, I recommend you this book of Psychology:
Watzlawick, P. (1979) ¿Es real la realidad? Herder Editorial: Barcelona.