Double Binds

NLP Health Attractor Journal



A “double bind” is a special type of conflict which creates a “no-win” situation (i.e., a situation in which one is “damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.”) According to anthropologist Gregory Bateson, who originally defined the notion of the double bind, such conflicts are at the root of both creativity and psychosis. The difference is whether or not one is able to identify and transcend the bind in an appropriate way.

Double binds often have quality of circularity, making them into a type of “Catch-22,” and leading to a sense of confusion and helplessness. A classic example would be that of the Salem witch trials, in which one of the tests to see if a person was a witch was to bind the person and cast her into the water. If the person floated and survived, then she was determined to be a witch, and was put to death. If the person sank and drowned, she was exonerated with respect to being a witch, but was, of course, also dead. Thus, the essential structure of a double bind is:

If you do not do A, you will not (survive, be safe, have fun, etc.), but if you do do A, you will not (survive, be safe, have fun, etc.).


The most emotionally intense double binds occur in the context of significant interpersonal relationships. They often involve what appears to be a power struggle in which one person is trying to “make the other person wrong.” Such a struggle can also occur between the inner “parts” of a person.

These types of insolvable struggles are often at the root of both mental and physical illness. They can also arise during a person’s attempts to heal, and thwart progress towards wellness. Yet, even though double binds can appear formidable, it is possible to get out of them, given the appropriate skills and conditions. Getting relief from a double bind situation essentially comes from recognizing and addressing the “conditions” which are required to produce the double bind. In his book, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Gregory Bateson defines the essential “ingredients” for a double bind. Check it out.

Robert B. Dilts has been a developer, author, trainer and consultant in the field of NLP since 1975. His web site is