Getting to the bottom of the Double Bind Theory

by Michael Rickwood

A few weeks ago I conducted a training where we approached various topics for discussion around issues facing women at work. One of these topics, which is a recurring issue for women, is the Double Bind Theory. The DBT is a complex issue facing women when communicating at work because it conjures a dilemma as they have to choose between displaying likability or competence. Or as they put it in their own words during our session: Am I expected to act all kind of fluffy or act like a bitch? 

Firstly let’s dig a little in to what the Double Bind Theory means. There are two layers/meanings as far as I am aware. 

The first meaning is that a Double Bind is a psychological construct that limits people’s capacity to make decisions, therefore restricting their ability to take any kind of action at all. Usually because the decision is a very tough one, or overwhelming. Another way of putting it is a Catch 22 situation where you are paralyzed between a rock and hard place. So, if you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, you’re in a Double Bind. 

To give an example: Imagine that you want to end a relationship because the current one is unfulfilling, however the fear of looking for a new one and jumping in to the unknown keeps you stuck. Stuck between dissatisfaction and the unknown, you stay with the status quo and do nothing by choosing what might appear to be the lesser of two evils. A Double Bind.

This kind of scenario requires careful thought, and you may do well to bring in feedback from a support network of confidantes and structure a plan of accessible steps to get you down the difficult path of taking a tough decision. It needs a battle plan, not vagueness. 

The second level of meaning for Double Bind is around communication, particularly in relationships (both personal and professional) and so a Double Bind refers to a set of mixed messages from a superior, caregiver or partner. It comes from the social scientist Gregory Bateson’s theory on schizophrenia being caused by confusing and contradictory messaging from narcissistic/perfectionist parents. So while the parents’ words might be nurturing, if their behaviour is the opposite, the child is in a constant state of confusion. When a child can never get it right, whatever they do, this is very damaging to their development. 

Let’s imagine a work example: a superior may have given the impression to a subordinate that the deadline wasn’t important, so it gets missed, and then all hell breaks loose because it was missed. Then the guilty party feels like they’ve been led in to a trap or they feel bad because they should have somehow anticipated or read the situation better. The communication was not clear. Whose fault was it? 

So let’s apply this to the role female leaders feel they are expected to portray at work. There is a pull in one direction for women to appear approachable, non-assertive and empathetic (because this is historically what is expected of them), and the pull in the other extreme when women feel the need to be more assertive to get a significant reaction or a work need met. Either way, the critics’ knives are out: she’s either too soft or too assertive so it’s very hard to walk the tightrope between these traps.

So in my view, the problem here is not how a woman should choose to behave but the culture that they inhabit. If the culture is rife with stereotypes and half-baked assumptions about how a woman should behave, particularly when ascending in leadership, then education needs to be brought in to slowly change that culture. I also see the problem of perfectionism projected by some colleagues and superiors that breeds no-win scenarios. If we’re held to impossible standards, no wonder we’re damned if do and damned if we don’t. 

So the double bind, which spans all relationships for all genders, in all its complexity, seems to be at the root of all confusion and indecision. Whether it’s Catch 22 situations or confusing communication, the solution is complex but involves a re-evaluation of assumptions, relationships, setting of boundaries and calling out bad communication when it arises in order to safeguard our sanity and everyone else’s.

We must feel safe in making the decisions that work for us and assume the identity we choose for ourselves. We cannot change other people’s opinions of us, but we can embrace our choices because that is everyone’s right to be one’s own authentic self.