According to the proverb:
You can’t have your cake and eat it.
According to another proverb:
There’s no such word as “can’t”.
What happens when you do have your cake and eat it? And how can you do that anyway?
The problem is that the cake is a thing to be valued in itself. It’s a celebration, a reward, a prize. But to take part in it, to engage with it and make it part of your life, means obliterating it by eating it. To both have your cake and eat it is a logical impossibility, a paradox.
Well, this post is not really about cake. It’s about relationships between people. What happens if you both have your cake and eat it in a relationship? It creates a paradox for the other person in the relationship.
There’s nothing particularly interesting about paradoxes you impose on other people. The other person only has to look at the whole situation clearly, see that it’s a paradox, and explain to you that you have to make a choice: “one or the other, you can’t have both.”
But something particularly interesting does happen when you introduce a third element. Suppose there’s a rule that says the other person is not allowed to look at the whole situation, cannot deal with it by explaining it to you as a one-or-the-other choice.
In that case the other person’s problem becomes insoluble. There is nothing the other person can do. They are trapped. Faced with this kind of trap, most people disengage and freeze up. They may even experience intense feelings of distress, unreality and emptiness. The disengagement can cause amnesia about the situation they were in, so that they cannot remember the details afterwards.
That’s a very strange phenomenon. I’m not talking about mentally disturbed people here. I’m talking about people who are psychologically normal. Presented with a situation in which a simple paradox is combined with a rule forbidding looking at the big picture, perfectly normal people can experience feelings of distress, unreality, emptiness and amnesia that are oddly similar to severe mental illness.
The kind of situation I have described is known as a double bind. It has three elements. The three elements of the double bind are created by one person, whom I’ll call the perpetrator, and imposed upon another person, whom I’ll call the victim.
The first and second elements are things that cannot logically exist at the same time. They are the bind. They create a paradox. A paradox is not a big problem in itself, because it can be resolved by stepping back and looking at the whole picture.
The third element is a rule that makes it impossible to step back and look at the whole picture. This rule is what makes a double bind into a psychological trap.
The effect of all three elements together is that the victim cannot act without being inconsistent with one or other parts of the bind. Also, the victim cannot escape by seeing the big picture. The victim can only disengage from the situation, disengage from reality.
In well-known example given by Gregory Bateson in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, a mother is the perpetrator and her son is the victim (p. 165):
A young man who had fairly well recovered from an acute schizophrenic episode was visited in the hospital by his mother. He was glad to see her and impulsively put his arm around her shoulders, whereupon she stiffened. He withdrew his arm and she asked, “Don’t you love me any more?” He then blushed, and she said, “Dear, you must not be so easily embarrassed and afraid of your feelings.” The patient was able to stay with her only a few minutes more, and following her departure he assaulted an aide…
The two elements of the paradox here are the way the mother expresses in words that there is love between herself and her son, while at the same time expressing through body language that there is no love between them. To make it into a double bind, the third element is a rule that, as a son, he cannot simply challenge his mother about her inconsistency. Instead, mother challenged him about the situation. The distress that this caused led to a relapse.
Some secondary characteristics of this example are common in double binds. The two parts of the paradox are expressed in different ways — one in words, and the other in body language. This is what makes it possible to make two statements that together create a logical conflict, without it being obvious. The entrapment rule that prevents the victim from seeing the conflict clearly is based on the mother’s higher status and the son’s dependency on her. These characteristics are not necessary to make the situation into a double bind, but they are often seen when double binds are picked apart in therapy.
Why would a mother do this? It’s because she wants to have her cake and eat it. She wants to be the kind of mother who loves her son and is loved in return, but at the same time she does not want to participate in loving her son for real. So the spoken message that she gives is that there is love between them, but the body language message is that she does not want to participate in life with him.
Again, this not wanting to participate is a secondary characteristic of double binds that is not necessary, but often seen. The commonest paradox is formed by wanting to have something but not to participate and make it part of life, just like wanting to have your cake and eat it.
Schizophrenia and other disengagements
The effect of double binds is to force victims to disengage from reality. Also, the more a victim is exposed to double binds the easier it is to cause that disengagement. So some psychiatrists have suggested that habitual double binds in childhood might be the cause of mental illnesses like schizophrenia, which involve a recurrent or permanent withdrawal from reality or feelings of detachment from life.
In schizophrenia, the patient feels present in the world but the patient’s world is not entirely real. In other possibly-related conditions, the patient’s world is real enough but the patient feels not present in the world. The hypothesis is that these difficulties come about because the patient as a child was repeatedly exposed to double binds in which disengagement from reality was the only possible course of action. Over the course of years, disengagement becomes easier and easier to trigger, until eventually everyday life and memories of childhood are sufficient to trigger it.
It’s not very useful in practice to hypothesize about childhood experience like this. Knowledge of double binds is much more useful when working backwards from a patient’s current symptoms. Suppose a patient describes a situation in which he freezes up and feels detached from reality. Working backwards, it is useful to look for a perpetrator who might have caused that by setting up a double bind.
A secondary clue to look for is when there are different levels of communication that would allow conflicting messages to be sent out without the conflict being obvious. And an imbalance of power or dependency is all that’s needed to create the third element — the rule that prevents escape.
In a strange little book, Psychodynamic Counselling in Action, a psychodynamic therapist, Michael Jacobs, outlines the basis of the psychodynamic approach by using two fictitious case studies based on characters from Charles Dickens’ novels.
In his first case study, Hannah (Little Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop) is referred to him by her doctor (p.1):
Hannah perched nervously on her chair as the session began. She looked out of the window for a second…
In his second case study, Karl (Dr. Manette from A Tale of Two Cities) sees him after trying many other kinds of help (p. 23):
He turned to look at me…and I felt that his quick but penetrating gaze threw down something of a challenge. But then he shifted his head, staring out of the window, and continued, less hurriedly…
What is it about this window?
To understand it, you have to work backwards. The clients in these case studies both look out of the window early in their first sessions. We’re not told of anything particularly interesting out there that they are looking at. They look out of the window in order to disengage from their situation in the room.
What could be happening in the room to make them disengage? A double bind is the kind of thing that makes people disengage. A double bind requires three elements — the two conflicting messages that form the paradox, and the rule that creates the trap.
The rule that creates the trap here is easy to guess. Patients who come for therapy see the therapist as someone who can help them, someone more knowledgeable, someone more powerful. They have invested time, money and hope in therapy. They do not feel that they can challenge the therapist about the therapist’s own behaviour, particularly in the first session. So when therapist behaves paradoxically, the patient is prevented from seeing the big picture and dealing with the paradox.
What is it about the therapist’s behaviour that could be paradoxical? Jacobs doesn’t tell us directly when he describes his sessions with Hannah and Karl, but he does explain that one of his aims is to be as invisible as possible. Sigmund Freud would sit behind his patients so that they could not actually see him, and to this day there are psychoanalysts who will behave in that way. Jacobs does not go that far, but even so (p. 26):
The psychodynamic counsellor does hold back from revealing her- or himself, and so provides the opportunity for the client to imagine all manner of things about the counsellor. Of course, because the counsellor’s facial expressions can easily be seen by the client, he or she has to…prevent feelings being shown…
In terms of physical reality, the therapist is present in the room. At the same time in terms of human relationships, the therapist is not present in the room. These are the logically conflicting statements that form the paradox. The patient is trapped by being unable to confront the therapist directly about this conflict, and the only escape is to disengage and look out of the window.
Patients’ distress resulting from double binds in psychodynamic therapy is easily misinterpreted in terms of psychodynamic theory. One part of the theory is that patients find ways to withhold information from their therapists. This is known as resistance (the patient resists disclosing information). Another part of the theory is that patients come to see their therapists in terms of other significant people in their lives. This is known as transference (the patient transfers feelings about someone else on to the therapist). Confused therapists, whose own weird behaviour has caused their patients to feel bad and act strangely, often blame resistance and transference for what happens next.
Escaping from double binds is easy if you know how, but it takes some practice and nerve.
The first step is to understand that your mind will block the paradox, so that you will not be aware of it at the time. You might even find it difficult to remember afterwards. Therefore, escaping by resolving the paradox is not an option. This is the know-how that you need to escape.
The next step is to learn to recognize the feeling that you get when you are the victim of a double bind. It’s a different feeling for different people. It can be like an oppressive sense of the world closing in, or it can be like the world is far away and you are not really part of it. It might make you stare out of the window, not paying attention to anyone else in the room, it might make you very bored and tired, or it might make you curl up and sob. Whatever it is for you, it has the effect of making you disengage — it’s an automatic mechanism in your mind that cuts you off in order to protect you. Learning to spot the feeling fast is the practice that you need to escape.
The weak point of a double bind is its third element, the entrapment rule. That’s where you can break out of it. So the third step is to ask yourself the question, “What rule forces me to put up with this feeling?” — and then break the rule. The rule might be your own commitment, a decision you once made. It might be another person’s power over you. It might be a threat of consequences. This step often takes nerve.
Some perpetrators will react badly to having their victims escape. They might try to impose psychological punishments, including further double binds. By escaping you are telling them that they cannot have their cake and eat it. Tantrums are to be expected.
Notice that escaping does not require you to resolve the paradox. You only have to recognize the feeling and break the entrapment rule. You can optionally pick apart the paradox afterwards if you want, and in doing so you will get to understand the kind of cake that the perpetrator wanted to both have and eat. This might tell you more about the perpetrator’s underlying motives and problems, and it might help you to have a different relationship with the perpetrator, if that’s what you still want.
A little Zen
One day Tokusan told his student Gantō, “I have two monks who have been here for many years. Go and examine them.” Gantō picked up an ax and went to the hut where the two monks were meditating. He raised the ax, saying, “If you say a word I will cut off your heads; and if you do not say a word, I will also cut off your heads.”
I have only quoted the first part. If you have understood this post, you can work out what must happen, and if you follow one of the links and read how the kōan ends you can see whether you were right. But Zen is Zen, of course, and it is never so simple as that. You will see that you were right, and also that you were not right. Are you trapped?