I’m fairly certain that most of us find change to be a mixed bag. On the one hand, we love the idea of change. In theory, we know that the world changes around us, that people and situations and ideas can change. We may even welcome the possibility of change when greeting each new day. On the other hand, I’m fairly certain we also want things to stay the same. In practice, we find stability in familiarity and security in certainty. Change is the ultimate double-bind.
A double-bind refers to the tensions we experience when we are given two contradictory messages and told to make a decision or take action.
Double-binds are everywhere in life. We know a double-bind when we experience moments of feeling stuck. They are the quintessential damned if we do, damned if we don’t type situation.
My spouse wants me to be more sensitive to their needs, and then acts cold or dismisses my feelings when I express them…
My job is boring and mind-numbing, but I fear making a change and starting over…
I’m asked to be consistent, then told I’m too strict; to be stable, then told I’m not creative enough…
Double-binds… I love you, now go away.
As human beings navigating relationships with others and the world the double-bind change presents is a natural part of life. It is something we love and loathe; celebrate and pillory; something we seek and hide from. Yet, double-binds create mental, emotional, and physical energy, and call up in us a desire for change, even when we don’t want or aren’t looking for it. In short, they stick. They persist long beyond a conversation or experience, rolling around in the back of our heads as we move through a day, week, month or year.
Without ways of expressing or working through these sticky moments though, double-binds can impede our development. We find ourselves angry, burned-out, apathetic, and/or disconnected. With no way out or no chance at winning, we feel as though every effort we make leads us to bang our heads against an immovable wall. While a double-bind may leave us feeling stuck and unfulfilled, they don’t always have to be a negative force in our lives.
In therapy and coaching, I often use a double-bind as a way of thoughtfully and compassionately engaging someone’s desire and readiness for change. Used well, a double-bind helps us take a position on the story we are carrying and make a decision about the kinds of changes that are needed and necessary. Together, we lay out the entire story in front of us.
Where did it come from? What is the result of being stuck? How does the story impact your life and relationships? What might happen if you take action? What might happen if you don’t?
Together, we work through the possibilities, seeking a way that expresses the ingrained possibilities in all change. Possibilities that step beyond the binary ways we often come to think about when experiencing the tension of a double-bind. In these moments, psychological flexibility and creative problem-solving become paramount. A problem created in relationship (as all double-binds are), cannot be solved alone.
Without the help of others we can trust, and who care deeply about us, it is near impossible to escape being bound by the tensions of a double-bind. It is without support that change becomes hostile and we seek a return to safer days when things were more predictable. When that happens, it’s not just us that suffers, but the world and worlds we are a part of suffer as well.
Previously Published on Mosaic Insight