Double Binds

I was raised in a tangle of double-binds. One of them was a set of conflicting messages about work, and value, and freedom. On one side I was told at every opportunity that I was special, that I had high potential, and many qualities and abilities; I could do anything. On the other, I was shown that unless I subsumed my independence and bent to my parent’s will for me to follow them in some silly mini-dynasty by continuing their business; I would be worthless and a heartless ingrate; even though I was never given any real training in how to do what was expected of me and it was something that I could tell from a young age was destroying them.

I couldn’t act on the “promise” I was being praised for without betraying the same people who praised me. I couldn’t acquiesce to their demands and maintain any sense of my own self-respect. A self-respect they undermined both by over-praising me and by undercutting my resolve whenever I had an independent motive. I was hobbled at making my own way by the unreality of their expectation that I could magically take on their mantle without any real preparation, while every instinct in me told me that they were being totally irresponsible in their behavior towards a dependent child.

This was only one of many double-binds I had the luck to experience growing up. Looking back on it, I see it as a great training ground for dealing with the tangle of double-binds we find ourselves in today. I can see why few people want to descend into this kind of hell. Having grown up in it, doesn’t make it easier, but it does make it familiar. It has shown me ways to attempt to cope.

One way has been to be hyper-vigilant. This does have its own problems and I don’t recommend staying in a constant state of fight-or-flight for forty years or longer. One does need to put this into its place and not let it dominate. It’s also made me extremely sensitive to manipulation. While on the surface, my “training” was an attempt to manipulate me into remaining dependent and unable to cope outside the system I was to “inherit;” what it has done below that level is to create in me an aversion to manipulation of any kind. For a long time, as I tried to use the tool-box given me acting from within a narcissistic and megalomaniacal persona, I had to hide my own manipulation of others behind a great wall of deniability. As this crumbled, I found I just couldn’t continue with such a strategy, it made me sick. While I’m certain this is still going on at levels I haven’t yet uncovered, it has been helpful. In my relationship to the wider world, it has made me dig-in and fight to keep from being manipulated by the dominant culture. This has not been an heroic struggle, but it has been ongoing.

Disillusionment to me seems to be in large part about undergoing such a process. Realizing that the paternalistic structures around us are not simply hampered by “fate” and “accident” from doing a “better” job. They are doing what they do and doing it quite well. Understanding and coming to grips with the consequences of such a betrayal, while not focusing only on blaming particular individuals – They are “products of their pasts.” Blame displaces us from truly looking at our own involvement, the only arena in which we have any direct control after all. – We have to acknowledge the harm, and learn to accommodate a reality that is not simply good or evil; but so complex as to be impenetrable. We are asked to do what we haven’t the tools to accomplish and we know the struggle is fatal in the end.

This is life. Not accommodating to its exigencies is to remain infantile. Disillusionment is a right-of-passage that anyone from a previous culture would understand. Humans have always had to go through it. One of the hidden costs of fossil fuels has been the power to ignore this fact for a handful of generations…. We’ve even forgotten what disillusion means, either fearing it as the end of our happy life in dreamland, or expecting that it will “lift the scales off our eyes” and leave us with a searing transcendental Whole Sight.

*  *  *

I’ve also been sensitized by this to the dynamics of ownership. It is useful to look not only at “Who Thinks they will benefit?” but at “Who owns you?”

This question needs to be on our minds not only regarding others, and the cacophony of voices we are accosted by, but directed at ourselves. Turning it towards others does give us a sense of how pervasive this subtle – and not so subtle – slavery is, and how ferreting out “title” can help us sniff out the sources of manipulation and the potential for finding any trustworthy authority out there. Turning this question on ourselves keeps us “honest.” It’s hard to blame someone else for being owned – funny how we always want to blame the victim! Never the perpetrator – when we keep in mind the tangle of allegiances and obligations and sheer traps of manipulation that we either cannot or will not break free of. At the “top” of this pyramid, we do all have owners who wield tremendous power and bind us in from all sides. This is the case. It is the greatest indictment against civilization.

I used to hate these owners. I thought them evil and even wished for their power – so as to be able to do good of course! Now I see them as pitiful creatures, I continue to despise them, but I also pity them. They are trapped by their own need to remain allegiant to a system that they are learning will not protect them from the consequences of their actions. They are as ill-equipped as any. Their longstanding habits of entitlement, and the total misalignment between what they saw as guiding principles and reality; have become harder and harder to ignore. They find themselves collapsing into terminal irrelevancy and they are truly shocked at the realization that their constructions will fall.

That fall will catch us in a further double-bind. It is a necessary precursor to the world beginning to heal. It will also take many, if not all of us, down with it.

There is no telling how this will play out, although I am sorely tired of hearing from those who should know better, having access to unlimited data, that each outburst – whether a blown well or a popular uprising – was unforeseeable. Each incident just shows how blind, willfully so, they are to what may be unpredictable in particular specificity, but which was inevitable in its general course.

The future is impenetrable – as are the past and the present for that matter! Having lived my entire life in the land of the double-bind, I find it hard to accept that so many prefer to risk the enormity of the consequences of ignoring their existence.

In a life of double-binds there are no useful “answers,” because every way “out” leads to another barrier. We are shocked by this. We spend all of our energies trying to avoid this truth. We will do anything to get out. At some point, if we’re lucky, we come to realize there is no way out, but death or insanity. The choice then narrows to a decision to succumb or accept what is.

So often we hear personal “back-story” as justification for ignoring someone’s efforts. “Oh, he’s just doing this to compensate for something from his childhood!” Or, “She’s just playing out her childhood dramas on a wider stage!”

I firmly believe that we are tied to our own perspectives. Everything is personal, once we are disabused of the benefits of commodification and compartmentalization. I keep returning to Jung.

“…when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate.”

This turns the story upside down. I was raised in double-binds because my family lived in a culture that refused to see the interconnectedness of every aspect of existence. This cultural refusal lead to the particulars of my condition just as it did for everyone else. My story was just one example of the myriad of bad-outcomes such a bargain has led to. But it was MY story. This meant that it was MY way to get back to our overlying condition. The result is not “theoretical,” it’s personal. This is central to the ways in which we can arrive at insights that don’t just keep us in a frantic search for “answers,” but may lead us to the true conditions of freedom. Not as a fantasy of some dream, but as a tangible position within an integrated and mature attitude towards the boundaries and limitations of life as it is.


Published by Antonio Dias

My work is centered on attending to the intersection of perception and creativity. Complexity cannot be reduced to any given certainty. Learning is Central: Sharing our gifts, Working together, Teaching and learning in reciprocity. Entering into shared Inquiry, Maintaining these practices as a way of life. Let’s work together to build practices, strengthen dialogue, and discover and develop community. Let me know how we might work together.

9 thoughts on “Double Binds

  1. Well, Antonio, your life story shares some common elements with mine. The basic script of our culture is a many-faceted lie. This is of course the one thing it insists we must never uncover. As long as we agree to live within it’s twisted narrative, culture feels secure. But those who step too far outside its delusive reality threaten it’s very existence, and will be met with the most determined resistance and persecution.

    One of cultures most effective moves is to convince it’s victims that they are themselves the cause of whatever dissonances and discomforts they are assailed by. Derrick Jensen makes us aware of the abuser’s cry, “You made me hit you, its your fault, you are a bad person!” Usually the endless repetition of this false accusation eventually becomes accepted and internalized by the victim — as in the movie Good Will Hunting. It worked in my case too.

    I was made aware early on that my father considered me a bad boy, and as I rebelled against his abuse, he further concluded that I was mentally ill. Ultimately he wanted to have me lobotomized, but my mother would not allow it.

    A major feature of my growth and awakening beyond the traumas of my early life, has been realizing the great extent to which I was not primarily responsible for the distortions to my personality which I manifested throughout young adulthood. Finally I have come to realize the extent to which our culture’s deeply abusive and insane narratives and practices have rendered everyone within it deluded, and insane. At one point in the play Hamlet says, “The time is out of joint; oh cursed spite that I was born to set it right!”

    We are all Hamlets (or Ophelias), born to struggle with the enormous negative karmas of humankind within ourselves and in the world that we are “thrown into” (Heidegger). As I have said, culture is at great pains to reward those who obey and believe in it’s mask of benevolence or inevitability, and even greater vigilance to punish and silence those who awake to challenge it. This is the great drama of human evolution on planet Earth. How it is resolved will determine our fate.


    1. mike k,

      Thank you.

      As you say, it’s not how we were damaged, but that we begin to recognize what damaged us and find ways to become the “Hamlet’s or Ophelia’s needed to come to grips with our predicament and its roots.


  2. I forgot to mention another mainstay of abusive culture to ensnare it’s victims: If you are just compliant and obedient, you will be rewarded, and everything will be OK. It was only your crazy disobedience that caused the problems. This is the lullaby being broadcast by the tyrants and torturers in Egypt now. Just look the other way, or better join us, and you will see how nice life can be!
    Or else….


    1. I began to write a little piece yesterday on NPR and the betrayal I feel perpetrated by those who most seemed worthy of my trust. The lullaby runs hand-in-hand with the threats.

      Our catalog of “wrongs” cannot just lead to a series of grudges. We need to see how we are all trapped to greater or lesser extent. Calling for shame has been neglected. Instead we have often retrenched into pockets of agreement, abandoning the entire premise to the hypocrites who use its toxic simulacra to maintain orthodoxy. Forgiveness and moving-on require that we air the causes of our grievances, otherwise they are just shells, empty excuses to let things slide.

      The hard part is to maintain a dynamic that doesn’t forget how we got here, while focusing on how to get on.


      1. Of course you are right Antonio, we must move on and not become ensnared in cycles of resentment and endless re-livings. There needs to be a context to transmute the poison into a healing vaccine. AA was that context, path for me. Much therapy prior was only partially effective. Sharing with others in a situation of mutual self-disclosure and help was central. Also a turn to higher values. Intensive work with a Sufi group was very important. The negative self within (the nafs) is known as the “unforgiving self”. That side of those of us with really deep grudges needs time and a lot of Work. But given a willingness to stay with it, the alchemy can be done….


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