**TW** Some mild discussion of ritual abuse is included in this post. I have made it generic. But read with caution, if you are a survivor and/or are not in a good place emotionally.
Double binds are something that everyone who has been ritually abused is familiar with, whether they know the technical term or not. It is a common tactic of abusers and programmers, because of the confusion of responsibility and distortion of reality that it causes. A young child who is not emotionally or mentally mature enough to see the impossibility of their situation easily internalizes huge amounts of guilt and shame for things that truly weren’t their fault. They take responsibility for whatever choice they made, when the reality is that they had no choice.
Google defines a double bind as: a situation in which a person is confronted with two irreconcilable demands or a choice between two undesirable courses of action.
Some people call this a Catch-22, or use the proverbial expression “Between a rock and a hard place.” But double binds are a bit more complex than the classic “damned if I do and damned if I don’t.” They put the individual in an impossible position, where they must violate one or more demands either of the other person involved, and/or their own moral conscience, and from which they cannot escape. In ritual abuse situations, even choosing not to choose is a choice that has terrifying consequences.
When employed repeatedly, double binds produce the following results:
- they break down the individual’s ability to make choices as an independent person,
- they teach the individual to take responsibility for things that legitimately are not their fault (which induces guilt and shame),
- they force the individual to numb themselves to their inner conscience as they have no way of pacifying it,
- they incite the individual to give up, and
- they create a feeling that they “belong” to the other person involved, since they are being forced into abdicating their free will.
For those interested in a more technical explanation of double binds, Wikipedia breaks down the psychological levels of it.
According to Wikipedia, the predominating summary of a double bind is, “I must, but I can’t.”
As a mild, non-abusive example, an employee might be told by the owner of their company: “Forge this signature on this legal document or I will fire you and give a bad employee review to every other potential employer in the city.” This is an impossible position to be in: do something illegal, or lose your job and be unable to find another one. Now imagine that the “employee” is a child, the “employer” is an abusive adult, and the actions in question are much more terrifying, and the consequences are horrific. The child must choose to do something they psychologically cannot do and would never independently choose to do; yet they must, or they will suffer an even worse fate.
This is a common tactic for ritually abusive groups and/or programmers; they order a child to do something unthinkable (usually involving hurting another person or animal), and when the child objects, they tell them if they don’t obey, either they will be hurt themselves in the way they’re being ordered, or they will have to watch someone else do it more violently/painfully to their intended victim and know that it was their fault. In this way, the people in charge manipulate the child into “wanting” to do what they ask – not because they really want to, but because it’s better than the alternative.
I often felt this, as expressed this way: “I must do this because I “want” to do it (because if I don’t want to they will hurt me), but I can’t do it because I “want” to (because I don’t really want to).” That sentence may not make sense to someone who has never experienced a ritual abuse double bind, but it might resonate with those who have.
This is the best I can do to summarize double binds without going into more graphic examples. I hope this helps explain the technical and practical aspects of it a bit. Questions or comments, LMK. Cheers. ~J8