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The Double Bind: I Can't and I Must

Updated: May 12, 2023

Bear with me while I nerd out a little bit in the beginning here:


Double binds are one of the most common experiences that clients bring to session. This is the feeling of "I can't and I must": I can't rest, I need to rest. I agreed to go to a thing, I don't want to go to the thing. I need to create/write/move, I can't access any of it. Some double binds are simple and easy to name, others are complex, stacked with ancestral patterns, existential fears, held by younger versions of ourselves. Some double binds are "hot" - this is when our bodies greet the bind in hyper- mode (fight/flight). Some double binds are "cold", when our bodies go into hypo- mode (freeze). We are often met with a double bind when we experience a wave of activation, before we are able to soothe, distract, or stabilize - or until we can create the conditions that lead to completion of the wave (see the Three Directions Map below, learned in Alchemical Alignment training).



I have found myself in many double binds. As I named in my previous post, one of my most significant binds was: I cannot be in relationship with my parents, and I must be in relationship with my parents. There were times that I could ignore it, but when there was a wave of activation, I'd find myself looping here, spiraling in the guilt and fear and shame, unable to see my way out. Over and over, I'd soothe and distract out of the activation. I was on the left side of the above map for years.


Unsurprisingly, the first step in working with a double bind is calling in layers of support. The more I understand bodies and systems, the more I recognize this as being the first step towards all movement, big and small. For me, at that time, support came in the form of other family members, my friends, the subreddit, my financial stability, my passion for my career, my home, music, weed, chocolate, sunsets, shows, movies, running, books, instagram, and the moon.


Support also looked like finding choicefulness around the bind: okay, I have to see my parents, but how can I make it more doable for myself? What physical, emotional, mental, and relational supports could I bring into a visit with them? As one of my mentors says, "where is the sovereignty that can be built into unacceptable conditions?" If we can build more possibilities from the inside out, we can begin to find momentum within the sticky tension of a bind.


Another step towards finding flow in a double bind is orienting to present time, and asking: where, when, and who is the "I can't" and the "I must" coming from? The survival wisdom that we hold in our bodies from the past can look like a present time double bind. For me, my adult self was saying "I can't do this anymore", and my younger parts and ancestral patterns were saying "I must maintain the relationship." This is important because it allows us to discern where there are unmet needs and learn how we might meet those needs in present time. My body held the longing for safety and dignity within relationships, and belonging within community. I could witness how I was continually returning to outdated survival strategies, trying to get those needs met. With differentiation, I could finally pivot my adult body in the direction of new strategies.


When we begin to offer support, sovereignty, pendulation, and differentiation, momentum can unwind the double bind over time. We may need to soothe, distract, and stabilize a thousand times before we can create the conditions that lead to completion. Over time, a third option may reveal itself: I will take the space that I need from my parents for as long as I need it, or a sense of agreement, coherence, and harmony may emerge from the two sides of the bind as they become one. A double bind can become a paradox, each side making the other possible: what appears to be in the way, is the way.


After the completion of this double bind, I get to ask the final question: what is the gift? For a simple double bind, it can sometimes be helpful to ask this while you're still in the bind: "I don't want to do this job, but it's paying my bills or it's teaching me things that I can take with me for my future." For a more complex double bind, the gifts may only be seen afterwards. In the aftermath of my decision, the gifts are clear: I've learned the power of setting and maintaining boundaries, and I can witness my own capacity for challenge. I have evidence that I will not abandon myself.


What's perhaps most important to remember about working with a double bind is that we must offer ourselves what my teacher, Tele Darden, calls an authentic forever: even if this takes a thousand years, even if I have to soothe and distract and stabilize a million times, I will stay with myself. Often, this is most accessible in the right therapeutic container, where there is no rush, no expectation, only presence and holding from the right distance. Within the context of the common double bind I must heal, and I can't heal, heightened by outcome-oriented capitalism, it might be easy to look at the above map and say "I want to get to completion, how do I get to the right side of the map?" But here's the thing: the left and right side hold the same weight, they are equally important. The authentic forever, the slowness, staying with yourself through all of it no matter what - that's what matters. And paradoxically, when we offer ourselves forever, that's when we will flow.

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