Dr. Judith M. Newman



Double Bind

[ Journal Entry ]

Since weekend before last I have been intending to write about a hang-gliding experience. Kimberly Hill. Setting up my glider. Having trouble tensioning the king-post wires. I asked Barry for help. He noticed that I had inadvertently hooked one of the luff lines around a batten. That’s the second time I’ve done that. Although I was trying to be as meticulous as I could be, I didn’t pick up that tangle.

Barry handled the situation in his usual bombastic manner—ridiculing me for not being more careful. I understand his rationale—my life depends on how carefully I setup and check the glider. However, the way he brought it to my attention left me feeling inept and that affected my flying all morning. I could do nothing right. I came away from the hill feeling very frustrated.

Then Wednesday evening we were towing in Warren. Barry wants me to take more responsibility for making decisions so I try. The problem is that I still can’t orchestrate all the variables, neither on the ground nor in the air. That means I fail to meet his expectations and he shouts at me. The effect of his response is that I freeze and fear taking any initiatives.

I’m now finding myself in what Gregory Bateson refers to as a double bind—“Don’t do x until I tell you to”; “I expect you to do x without being told.” And both injunctions delivered in a way which leaves me feeling belittled and unable to act or to perform well.

Unlike kids in classrooms, I have strategies for getting myself out of this situation. First, I do understand what is happening. Because there isn’t a significant imbalance in power I can choose to discuss the situation with Barry. He won’t understand the problem but letting him know what I’m experiencing will help free me from his control. I am also contemplating asking a couple of the other experienced flyers to help me out a bit—both of these guys have a much more collegial way of sharing what they know and of helping me think about the variables I need to consider. But kids don’t have the same options—I suppose they could, but only if we redress the power imbalance to make it possible for them to inform us about their experience.

One of the St. Boniface teachers has written about it this way:

The issue of power and Brent’s behaviour became a serious issue. I found myself challenged by the dilemma of how to give Brent the power he needed without ‘caving in’ to his tyrannical behaviour? How could I get out of the power struggle that I didn’t want to be in and that Brent continually created? One clue for me came when Brent told me one day that he didn’t want to go to music and if he was forced to go he would misbehave so that he was sent out of the room. At that moment I know he had it figured out—he was in control and he knew it. I had to learn ways of negotiating activities with him, allowing him acceptable choices. Instead of reacting in an authoritarian way I had to find ways of allowing him to chose to engage. Brent has taught me that I can’t make anyone do anything he doesn’t want to; external power has limited impact; it’s internal power that makes a positive difference.

Brent and I are in the same situation—the difference is that I’m determined to learn what Barry has to teach, in spite of how he responds to me; Brent has been actively resisting learning. He’s lucky to have encountered a teacher who has made an effort to learn from him how to teach him.

The question is am I creating double binds for you? If so how?