If you’re in recovery from narcissistic abuse, there’s some very interesting stuff here, which may be validating and help untangle confusing experiences.
Naming and understanding what’s happening is usually half the battle.
The double bind theory was developed in relation to schizophrenia, where it seemed to be in favor for a while, but then less so. In my experience, people who suffer from schizophrenia are always historically the victims of vicious narcissistic trauma, and their stories help to demonstrate these patterns in vivid color.
I have a slightly different view of double binds: I see them as the method and mechanism of psychological abuse, but also, afterwards, as a road to healing.
Double binds are standard operating procedure with psychological abusers. That’s precisely how gaslighting works, and how they seem to destabilize others, producing anxiety so effectively.
The double bind theory suggests that it’s mixed messages or communication issues, and it hesitates to assign blame. For those of us who have been victims of abuse, we know that it’s not merely a problem of communication, but something much more nefarious.
Double binds are primarily venom, sugar-coated. But because our sense of perception and self-trust is so traumatized to begin with, we become unable to discern what is really happening. We are afraid of our own discernment. We are afraid of the truth underneath, which is often too painful to bear. Additionally, the elements of the psychological abuse are often not evident to others, and so trusting our own perception, when no one else can validate it, becomes extremely dangerous ground. The abuser typically has no awareness of what they are doing, and if confronted, will categorically deny any ill-intent. (They will usually respond with over-the-top horror or anger at the mere suggestion that they harbor any negative intentions or have caused any sort of harm.).
In action, the double bind is contempt, control, cruelty, and hypocrisy, wrapped in the appearance of love. It’s “do, and don’t you dare.” It’s “you must be vulnerable, but I’m going to use that vulnerability against you.” It’s “you must trust me blindly and be loyal, but I’m going to lie and betray you without remorse.” It’s “you must tell me the truth, but I’m going to hurt you for the things you say.” You can feel that they’ve punched you in the gut, that they’ve trapped you in a no-win situation, but on the surface (to you and everyone else) it sounds like they are being loving and nice.
Your feelings know the difference! And that leaves you, the victim, conflicted, torn, anxious, unsure, destabilized, all of which is crazy-making stuff. And we all know, that if you try to call this out, if you react in any negative way, you’ll be seen as the problem… (Been there. Have the t-shirt. It’s part of the problem.).
But further, on a constructive note, if we go into depth, double binds are extremely important areas of soul growth. They feel awful, but I love working with them. When they show up in our lives, they can sometimes cause panic, paralysis, and other times cause a full blown psychosis eruption. And yet spiritually, they are considered deeply significant and important. In fact, sometimes they show up circumstantially, without an “other,” playing the role of abuser. When they show up, they lay out the healing map, if discovered correctly. Double binds hold the keys to the conflicts in the soul that are seeking emergence and resolution. By looking at them, we can immediately see where to go with our work and their resolution brings great peace and liberation.
Also, check out the Gibney pdf she links to at the bottom of this post. There are some really great case studies and illustrations of this concept that will make you feel a lot less alone!!