Penetration

What Drives Me

Confronting the double-bind

In a post on the Dark Mountain Blog John Michael Greer has brought up Gregory Bateson’s insights into the double-bind’s role in schizophrenia.

Imagine a child growing up in a family in which there’s one set of overt, verbally expressed rules for behaviour, and another, covert set of rules that contradict the first. If the child breaks the overt rules by obeying the covert ones, he gets a negative verbal response, but a covert emotional reward; if the child breaks the covert rules by obeying the overt ones, he gets punished on some other pretext. If the child attempts to bring the contradiction out into the open, finally, he gets a reaction intended to terrify him into never mentioning the matter again.
It’s the last element…, that makes the double-bind so lethal. If the child can talk to one other person who understands what’s happening, and can thereby get some confirmation of the fact that there really is something profoundly tangled going on, the double-bind breaks down and the child can shrug and say, ‘I guess mom and dad are just kind of crazy.’ It’s when the child has no such option — when he has to confront an apparently crazy pattern of behaviour without any way of knowing whether the craziness is in his family or in himself — that he’s likely to give up on reality altogether, and take refuge in madness.

“A child growing up….” Funny, I always think of it that way. Not that I was “raised.” I grew up. I have always viewed my childhood as a predicament, not a process.

I joke that this is what’s made me particularly suited to the kind of investigations of our planetary predicaments I’ve been drawn to. It’s true, if not particularly funny.

Growing up in a predicament we get past incredulity or we take refuge in madness. There are no other options. Greer’s, “I guess Mom and Dad are kind of crazy.” is a realization we might take comfort in in hind-sight; but it does little to change the precarity of the situation while we’re caught-up in it. A chance for sanity does not make for an automatic happy-ending.

And, we absorb this too. The quality of information becomes important. It’s not just whether the news is good. It’s having an honest assessment that matters most.

All this is, we can say, beaten into us. Not necessarily with bruises and broken bones…. We develop an appetite for the truth.

“If the child can talk to one other person who understands what’s happening,… This might seem an easy thing. Within the echo-chamber of such a household it’s assuredly not. Neither is it easy to find such a person “outside.”

It’s not just a question of looking for and finding what we need. We discover that our conditions have such an influence on how we see… everything, that we don’t know where to look. We also discover that we lack any clue what it will look like when we find it. It’s really a matter of luck, of Grace.

And, when we do get hints, “that there really is something profoundly tangled going on,” they tend to be just that, hints. We find corroboration for some part of the truth. Everyone we know, come into contact with as a child within a family’s orbit, is part of the situation, part of the predicament. An aunt or uncle who can share a meaningful look exposing some aspect of the greater delusion still shares in the wider context, a multi-threaded history and a tapestry of relationships that are part of the whole delusional construct.

Each small revelation that “It’s not just me!” does not build into an edifice of certainty. It’s always prone to and likely to succumb to doubts raised when the wider circle of complicity comes into view.

There’s nothing easy, straightforward, or in any sense progressive about the journey through this predicament of growing-up in a world filled with double-binds. It’s not a process. Nothing about it is linear. There are cycles and spirals tangled and embedded in each other.

And, to most people we might encounter who happen to be outside its dominion the whole thing seems preposterous, “Such a thing can’t be! No….” We’re most likely to be sent on our way with an added layer of guilt, “How could you think such a thing! They love you!”

The binds are not simply double. Not just binary. They exist and they thrive in a wider context of delusion and a general refusal to face unpleasantness. This refusal, as banal as it sounds, permeates the predicament. Everyone shares in it. It’s maddening. It’s what makes slipping into insanity such an appealing alternative.

It’s not just the luck or Grace of finding that “one other person.” It’s the luck and Grace of having a strong instinct for mental survival. Something that makes going insane not a viable option. It’s the luck or Grace of surviving. Surviving even survivor’s guilt.

The story. Bateson’s story and Greer’s retelling of it. They force the reality into a linear, “This leads to that.” form. This is another aspect of the bind. That we find it so difficult to express it in any form that doesn’t compromise — and potentially fatally compromise — whatever insight we may find in it.

There are so many forces leaning on us to keep quiet. Remember, “If the child attempts to bring the contradiction out into the open,… he gets a reaction intended to terrify him into never mentioning the matter again.”

This happens every time. All through a childhood, an adolescence, a young-adulthood. The instinct for survival leads us to keep our doubts to ourselves. Those reactions are frightening. They appear deadly. Even if they’re not actually physically threatening we learn that there’s not much difference between mental and physical death. And, to avoid either, it pays to shut-up.

Searching for that one other to corroborate our sense of what’s going on has to take place within this reality. We must find corroboration. Our sanity, our life, depends on it. But at the same time drawing attention to the question is risky and likely to lead to adverse reactions to use the medical euphemism….

And, don’t forget. Those who are likely to confirm our suspicions have likely been through the same thing. They know the drill, “Keep quiet. Stay low. No one is likely to believe me.”


It’s hard to tell from inside such a dynamic whether the forces aligned against us are malevolent or just the result of the way it is. Especially as a young child it’s nearly impossible not to personify forces. Give them an agency. Make them actors in the drama and not just the weather.

This doesn’t really get any easier either. In a way the work becomes realizing that it doesn’t really matter. A malevolent actor can kill you, but so can the weather. In neither case does it help to get caught-up in an emotional reaction to their motives.


I hope it’s not necessary to connect all the dots…. One result of such a trajectory is developing a lack of patience for those who are unwilling — yes, unwilling. It’s never a question of being incapable — of connecting the dots for themselves. It’s a survivor-thing. You either sense a kindred instinct or you don’t….


What is interesting is whether there can be any way to assist luck and Grace. Is it possible to do anything within a maze-of-mazes that is not futile? That is not bound to lead to just another round of “unintended consequences?”

Because here is the real lesson at the heart of growing-up surrounded by binds: Nothing is easy. Nothing is simple. Nothing is what it appears to be. This leaves us with the question we started with:

If all this is true, then how — even why — do we remain, get, become sane?

Finding someone who can engage this conversation…. It’s better than hope. Hope’s got nothing to do with it.

Engaging is not slipping past our predicament into some linear, fantastical conclusion to our difficulties — whether Utopian or Apocalyptic. Any landing-place is likely to be no more than a worm-hole leading back into the madness.

A survivor gets this. Realizes this is the starting point. The only place we can take as true.


We keep looking for salvation. Looking for a place beyond the binds, “There must be someplace normal out there?”

Is there?

How would we recognize it? What would we do with it? When the binds reach so deep and extend so far.

What’s shown itself to be true again and again, at every stage, has been that what is true is how embedded we are in binds. That there is no somewhere else.

We’ve “colonized” them all. Turned them into poisoned expressions of our being bound.

It doesn’t matter if they are actors in a drama or just the weather. In neither case does it help to get caught-up in an emotional reaction to their motives. In neither case does it help to keep looking for a clean space, a safe space, somewhere else to begin again.

That survivor’s instinct…. It keeps saying, whispering, “I am here. We are here. Not someplace else. Not where we wish we could be. Here.”

Can some of us acknowledge that “something profoundly tangled is going on?”

Confirm it for each other?

What might happen then?


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