Double Bind

A double bind is an emotionally distressing dilemma in communication in which an individual (or group) receives two or more conflicting messages, and one message negates the other. This creates a situation in which a successful response to one message results in a failed response to the other (and vice versa), so that the person will automatically be wrong regardless of response.

One example of double bind communication is a mother giving her child the message: “Be spontaneous.” If the child acts spontaneously, he is not acting spontaneously because he is following his mother’s direction. It’s a no-win situation for the child. If a child is subjected to this kind of communication over a long period of time, it’s easy to see how he could become confused.

The double bind occurs when the person cannot confront the inherent dilemma, and therefore can neither resolve it nor opt out of the situation.

A first step is simply accept that double binds exist and that we must live with the paradoxes they pose. Leaders will constantly hear conflicting messages and face competing demands. Responding to one message or demand will inevitably entail violating another, and this is an unavoidable fact of organizational life.

A corollary to accepting that double binds are unavoidable aspects of leadership is avoiding blame. Being trapped in a double bind is stressful and frustrating, and when we feel those emotions we often look for someone else to take responsibility for our experience. We want someone to take the blame, because that will allow us to feel better.

But while double binds are unavoidable in organizational life, and leaders can’t control whether or not they will find themselves ensnared in one, it’s essential for leaders to acknowledge their own responsibility and agency–starting with the choice to be a leader in the first place.

Finally, highlighting the importance of acceptance and avoiding blame is not to suggest that leaders should wait passively and hope that the distress and frustration caused by a double bind go away. We have to manage them more effectively:

  • Commit to a meditation practice or other forms of mindfulness.
  • Get regular exercise and sufficient sleep.
  • Write about these feelings in a journal or daily note-to-self.
  • Talk about them with regularly with empathetic listeners

Summing-up: Double bind dilemmas leave us feeling trapped, confused and often exhausted. We must raise our consciousness and learn to think in new ways to escape from double binds. As Einstein said: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

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