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The Double Bind


Bateson's "Necessary Ingredients" with commentary.

(Steps To an Ecology of Mind - 'Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia' - P.206-208)

 Bateson writes (Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia):

"The necessary ingredients for a double bind situation, as we see it, are:

1. Two or more persons. Of these, we designate one, for purposes of our definition, as the "victim." We do not assume that the double bind is inflicted by the mother alone, but that it may be done either by mother alone or by some combination of mother, father, and/or siblings."

Classically, the relationship takes the form of "one up/one down" where the context defines the position of each person. For example, the tea boy in an office may be in the one down position to both managers to whom he serves tea - they have power assigned to them by the context of employment and work practice and are both in a one up position to the tea boy. However, one manager may be more senior than the other so he may be 'one up' to both his colleague and the tea boy. However the distance differs between each relationship.

A difficulty may arise for the tea boy if he is assigned conflicting tasks independent of each other by each manager. Where a hierarchy is present the difficulty may be resolved by referring the matter to the highest authority. However, ambiguity may arise if the tea boy has a stronger commitment of relationship to the manager in the middle position. His feelings may suggest that he obeys this manager, however common sense would suggest that he in fact obeys the highest authority in conflict with his emotion/feeling.

Matters can be further complicated if the tea boy knows both managers to hold equal position and both will behave with considerable hostility to those who do not do as they are ordered. In this position our hapless tea boy may find himself lacking the communicational dexterity to extract himself from the "damned if you do - damned if you don't" bind.

2. Repeated experience. We assume that the double bind is a recurrent theme in the experience of the victim. Our hypothesis does not invoke a single traumatic experience, but such repeated experience that the double bind structure comes to be an habitual expectation.

A consultant anaesthetist where I worked was well known for her extreme and tantrum-like behaviours when she didn't get her own way. It was not necessary for everyone to experience this first hand, as her name was legend. Her demeanour suggested that she was constantly on the look for someone to shout at (pardon the analogy, but she played the (TA) game of 'I've got you now, you son of a bitch') and typically would only pick on people in a less powerful position than herself. If volume didn't get her her own way, she would immediately invoke rank. Nurses were nervous around this woman and were self conscious enough to make mistakes. Before entering the anaesthetic room they (we!) would begin to get nervous if they knew that she was the duty anaesthetist that day. Once she began to bully one person, she would not let up - no matter what they did. Their inferior position meant that they could do little to protect themselves during these incidents.

The difficulty with these people is the common mistake of fear for respect. This was the lady I informed that I would never allow to participate in any operation I might have. She might be a brilliant anaesthetist and it would never be her that made the mistake, but the staff around her would not be thinking for themselves nor necessarily calibrating off the patient - but would be calibrating to her. Her response was simple: "I know exactly what I am doing!"

3. A primary negative injunction. This may have either of two forms: (a) "Do not do so and so, or I will punish you," or (b) "If you do not do so and so, I will punish you." Here we select a context of learning based on avoidance of punishment rather than a context of reward seeking. There is perhaps no formal reason for this selection. We assume that the punishment may be either the withdrawal of love or the expression of hate or anger - or most devastating - the kind of abandonment that results from the parent's expression of extreme helplessness.

Not having any children of my own, I often hear parents use a turn of phrase which puzzles me:

Father: 'Daddy loves his little girl very much.'


Mother: 'Put that down, or mummy will get very angry'

I cannot understand what is meant by this use of third person reference when referring to either self or the recipient of the communication. I also wonder what is heard by the recipient (ie daughter) when communication is offered this way. Another common communication style I often hear is when the communicator dissociates from the responsibility of the communication, such as:

Mother: 'You had better behave, or that policeman will take you away.'

Father: 'When he sees little children misbehaving, Father Christmas doesn't bring them any presents.'

Man: 'It is God's Will that you be punished.'

It is well established within human societies that we should punish wrong doing in a variety of ways, ranging from the deprivation of liberty through to severance of limbs or execution. What is also common is the human need to understand the criminal's intention when we consider the appropriate punishment. For example, premeditated murder is different to a spontaneous murder, even though that for the victim the outcome is exactly the same.

However, in some societies through the ages and even in current times the theft of a loaf of bread may carry the same punishment as the theft of some jewelry and may result in the unpleasant removal of one or more limbs. In The West, we typically view petty theft as a minor offense that in many instances will result in nothing more than a police caution - other societies view these things differently.

"Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, "God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortionists, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get." But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift his eyes up to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself, will be exalted."

LUKE 18: 9-14

Psychological studies suggest that young children when:

1. A child deliberately breaks a small vase.
2. A child accidentally trips and breaks the television;

Presented with the two scenarios, children will usually suggest that example 2 is the greater crime, because the consequence is greater.

There is a Sufi tale that goes like this:

In the hotter regions of Iran, the drinking water is one of the most valuable things in life. It is collected in special containers and often carried in large jugs across great distances. A father sent his son to fetch water. "My son," he said, "take this large jug and get us some water, but take care not to drop the jug and spill the water." With these words, he extended his arm and gave his son a resounding slap to the side of the head. Eyes filled with tears, but still clutching the jug, the son went to the water container. "Why did you hit our child?" asked the mother angrily, "he didn't do anything!" To this the father replied, "This slap will be a memory prop for him. I tell you, his whole life long he will never dare drop a jug with water in it. What good would it do if I slapped him after he had perhaps already shattered the jug?"

I remember as a child how tidying my room up used to be such a trauma. My room used to accumulate mess until such a threshold point was reached and my mother would explode and shout at me to tidy my room. What was confusing was that the room wasn't much different from the day before and the day before mum wasn't angry. Of course that was long before I understood about threshold patterns and the function of valves on the pressure cookers that used to turn the vegetables into an inedible mulch.

It was only last year sometime that I discovered how my Gran managed to make the brussel sprouts taste so bad. If you freeze them first for prolonged storage and then cook them, they end up tasting really bad - like soap actually.

The command was usually issued along the lines of: "Tidy your room now, or I'll get really mad!" or, "If you don't tidy your room, I'll take away your toys." The trouble was that these commands meant that I always felt bad - or was under threat - whenever I tidied my room.

It didn't take very long for tidying up to become intimately associated with pain - even in the absence of an angry mother. But then in those daze I didn't know much about anchoring either.

4. A secondary injunction conflicting with the first at a more abstract level, and like the first enforced by punishments or signal which threaten survival. This secondary injunction is more difficult to describe than the primary for two reasons. First, the secondary injunction is commonly communicated to the child by nonverbal means. Posture, gesture, tone of voice, meaningful action, and the implications concealed in verbal comment may all be used to convey this more abstract message. Second, the secondary injunction may impinge upon any element of the primary prohibition. Verbalization of the secondary injunction may, therefore, include a wide variety of forms; for example, "Do not see this as punishment"; "Do not see me as the punishing agent"; "Do not submit to my prohibitions"; "Do not think of what you must not do"; "Do not question my love of which the primary prohibition is (or is not) an example"; and so on. Other examples become possible when the double bind is inflicted not by one individual but by two. For example, one parent may negate at a more abstract level the injunctions of the other.

"His father lost his fountain pen and thought his son had stolen it. He hadn't, but his father refused to believe him. His mother, trying to protect him and calculating that he would be doubly punished for both stealing and lying, told his father that he, Laing, had in fact confessed to stealing it. His father went ahead and beat him. This confused Laing all the more. He became unsure if he had stolen the pen - maybe he had. Then his mother discovered that he wasn't the culprit and told him so, 'Come and kiss your mummy and make it up' - it was a stupefying volte-face. Part of him longed to go to her, to be at one with her again, a feeling so strong as to be almost unendurable. Yet another side of him felt it would be wrong or `twisted` to do so, it would be caving in, so he stood his ground and made no move. His mother then said, 'Well, if you don't love your mummy, I'll just have to go away,' and she walked out of the room. He remembered that the room started to spin, his head in turmoil. Suddenly, 'everything was the same yet not the same'."

John Clay. R.D Laing, A Divided Self. p.17.

Watzlawick and pals give a great list of paradoxical injunctions in their book, 'Pragmatics' (p.200) -

a. "You ought to love me."

b. "I want you to dominate me" (Request of a wife to her passive husband.)

c. You should enjoy playing with the children, just like other fathers."

d. "Don't be so obedient" (parents to their children whom they consider to dependent on them.)

e. "You know that you are free to go, dear; don't worry if I start crying."

In each of these incongurencies and in the Laing example it is the recursive nature of the injunction is ignored from the paradigm by the communicator.

Several years ago I worked as a civilian employee within a military hospital on a British Army base in Germany. I lived in the same building as the recruits, ate the same food and did the same work. The only difference was that I could walk away at any time I chose to - and without consequence. Regrettably several of the officers were fairly belligerent and rude to the younger recruits with whom I worked alongside. A meta-frame of rank and hierarchy prevented these recruits from responding within a normal channel of communication, however communication towards me was filtered differently. These recruits were caught by the tertiary injunction described below:

5. A tertiary negative injunction prohibiting the victim from escaping from the field. In a formal sense it is perhaps unnecessary to list this injunction as a separate item since the reinforcement at the other two levels involves a threat to survival, and if the double binds are imposed during infancy, escape is naturally impossible. However, it seems that in some cases the escape from the field is made impossible by certain devices which are not purely negative, e.g., capricious promises of love, and the like.

"He's dreaming now," said Tweedledee: "and what do you think he's dreaming about?"
Alice said, "Nobody can guess that."
"Why, about you!" Tweedledee exclaimed, clapping his hands triumphantly, "and if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you'd be?"
"Where I am now, of course." Said Alice.
"Not you!" Tweedledee retorted contemptuously. "You'd be nowhere. Why, you're only a sort of thing in his dream!"
"If that there King was to awake," added Tweedledum, "you'd go out - bang! - just like a candle!"
"I shouldn't!" Alice exclaimed indignantly. "Besides, if I'm only a sort of thing in his dream, what are you, I should like to know?"
"Ditto," said Tweedledum.
"Ditto, ditto!" cried Tweedledee.
He shouted this so loud that Alice could not help saying, "Hush! You'll be waking him, I'm afraid, if you make so much noise."
"Well, it is no use your talking about waking him,: said Tweedledum, "when you're only one of the things in his dream. You know very well that you are not real."
"I am real!" said Alice, and began to cry.

Through The Looking Glass.

A most common variant I observe is when a person finds himself lumbered into a diagnostic category. There has been much work done in removing prejudice and stigma from mental illness by adjusting the use of language. For example, a person is not "mentally ill" any more - they are "a person with mental health needs". People, we are told, are no more "schizophrenic" than they are "a broken leg." Thus we now have people " with schizophrenia". Consequently much of this rearrangement of language in these ways has helped "mental illness" become just that - illness - and has further entrenched it into the field of medicine and psycho-pharmacology. A position I find most regrettable.

Most health care professionals are educated into the effects of labeling a person, thus increasingly we are seeing people with a diagnosis of "psychotic disorder" rather than "schizophrenia" because apparently this makes a big difference.

One thing that happens to a person who -is- schizophrenic/has schizophrenia (or any other "illness" from the DSMiv) is that the diagnostic can be used as the filter through which people interpret their behaviours. Complaints about a psychiatric nurses behaviour or attitude coming form a patient can easily be dismissed as being a symptom of an illness and therefore not real and invalid.

Schizophrenogenesis is complete when the victim pays a price for being caught in the double bind and demonstrates secondary adaptation accordingly. For example, the complaining 'schizophrenic-to-be' accepts internally that his complaint is invalid and realigns his beliefs with that demanded of him.

The 'patient' may learn to use psychiatric jargon in order to explain his experiences or alternatively he will use his own metaphorical explanations (paranoid conspiracy theories, abstract metaphors) that will appear psychiatric in origin, thus further entrenching him into his difficulty.

Secondary adaptation is most easily observed in the prisoner spending a long time incarcerated in an institution. He is unable to escape his predicament and an attempt to hold his former-self constant may incur penalty from other prisoners or from the prison authorities. Thus he must begin to align himself with the expectations of an institution from which he cannot escape - as a method of maintaining his sanity. We may see a shift in his moral beliefs, his mannerisms and general conduct, into a way and manner that 'fits in' with his environment.

A difficulty facing the formal patient (under compulsory treatment order) is that he may refuse to admit that he needs medication/therapy and incarceration. The attending staff may behave both in a benevolent manner ("We are here to help you") and in an essentially adversarial manner ("We will force treatment upon you, in your best interests") thus demanding that the patient show overt signs of appreciation or face further incarceration.

Here, a very difficult situation can occur for both patient and attending staff. - The patient becomes aware of this paradox and informs the staff about it. He adopts a meta-position to the game-play and thus may become labeled in a different way - i.e. "Manipulative." The attending staff member is no more able to escape the paradox than the patient, but he who holds the keys and needles, holds the power.

A child who cannot escape the fact that he is just a child, in respect to his parents, may find a similar situation occurring:

Her parents appear to have consistently regarded with alarm all expressions of developing autonomy on Maya's part necessarily involving efforts to separate herself from them and to do things on her own initiative. Her parents' alarm remains unabated in the present. For example, her mother objected to her ironing without supervision, although for the past year she had been working in a laundry without mishap. Mr. and Mrs. Abbott regarded their daughter's use of her own 'mind' independently of them, as synonymous with 'illness', and as a rejection of them. Her mother said:

"I think I am so absolutely centred on one thing - it's well, to get her well - I mean as a child, and as a - teenager I could always sort out whatever was wrong or - do something about it but it - but this illness has been so completely erm - our relations have been different - you see Maya is er - instead of accepting everything - as if I said to her, er, 'black is black', she would have probably believed it, but since she's ill, she's never accepted anything any more. She's had to reason it out for herself, then she didn't seem to take my word for it - which of course is quite different to me."

R.D. Laing and Aaron Esterson. Sanity, Madness and The Family. (p.34-35)

Also, we can see a similar pattern in this extract cited in 'Pragmatics' (p.66) -

When a man and a woman decide their association should be legalised with a marriage ceremony, they pose themselves a problem which will continue through the marriage: now they are married are they stay together because they wish to or because they must?

Jay Haley. 'Marriage Therapy.' (P119)

6. Finally, the complete set of ingredients is no longer necessary when the victim has learned to perceive his universe in double bind patterns. Almost any part of a double bind sequence may then be sufficient to precipitate panic or rage.

"Our concept of punishment is being refined at present. It appears to us to involve perceptual experience in a way that cannot be encompassed by the notion of "trauma."

This pattern of conflicting injunctions may even be taken over by hallucinatory voices.

Bateson goes on to write that...We hypothesize that there will be a breakdown in any individual's ability to discriminate between Logical Types whenever a double bind situation occurs. The general characteristics of this situation are the following:

(1) When the individual is involved in an intense relationship; that is, a relationship in which he feels it is vitally important that he discriminate accurately what sort of message is being communicated so that he may respond appropriately.

(2) And, the individual is caught in a situation in which the other person in the relationship is expressing two orders of message and one of these denies the other.

(3) And, the individual is unable to comment on the messages being expressed to cor rect his discrimination of what order of message to respond to, i.e., he cannot make a metacommunicative statement.

Later, Bateson gives the following example, which is often cited as a good example of a double bind situation in action. The brief encounter described involves all the necessary ingredients of the double bind phenomena. Situations similar to these are observable (in my experience) to a daily occurrence on any psychiatric ward. What makes the double bind successful is that most of them are invisible to those involved in them. Most originate from the paradoxes presented when trying to help another person, such as the therapist trying to teach a person to be more independent: -

A young man who had fairly well recovered from an acute schizophrenic episode was visited in the hospital by his mother. He was glad to see her and impulsively put his arm around her shoulders, whereupon she stiffened. He withdrew his arm and she asked, "Don't you love me anymore?" He then blushed, and she said, "Dear, you must not be so easily embarrassed and afraid of your feelings." The patient was able to stay with her only a few minutes more and following her departure he assaulted an aide and was put in the tubs.

Steps To an Ecology of Mind. p.217