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Double Messages and Double Binds

My Food and Feelings Message Board members have been discussing a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t dynamic called double messages and double binds. This dynamic generates feeling trapped and helpless which may lead to despair and abusing food. Understanding what’s going on in these situations and how to stop it is key to improving psychological health.

A predominant way of communicating in dysfunctional families is through giving double messages. The problem isn’t confined to families, of course. It can occur in any kind of relationships. Messages are given three ways. They may be oppositional through conflicting words, as when a parent says, “You look so pretty in that dress. What a shame you’re not 10 pounds lighter.” How confusing! Do you really look pretty or not? Or, when you’re told by your partner, “Go ahead and apply for the promotion, but I’d be really surprised if you have what it takes for it.” Is your partner saying you should go for it or shouldn’t bother? Or when your Mom says you can tell her anything that’s in your heart and you do and she yells at you or insists you don’t really think that. You’re left not knowing if you can be open with her or not.

A second type of double message is when tone doesn’t match words as in your neighbor sounding angry but saying she’s not or your boss commenting that you did a find job while sounding disappointed.  A third way is when body language conflicts with words, such as when a friend does an eye roll while telling you, “Sure, I’d love to go to the ballet.” Is the message that he or she does or doesn’t want to go? Shrugs, grimaces, and someone walking away while talking to you fit into this category. Here’s another instance. When you ask your Dad if he can help with your homework and he says, “Sure” without putting down the newspaper he’s reading or lowering the volume on the TV he’s glued to. What’s the message here?

Double messages put you in a double bind. Is someone’s saying yes or no and which cue should you respond to? The bind is that whichever way you respond will be wrong: go for the promotion or not, share with your Mother or not, wait for Dad to help with your homework or not, say thanks for the “pretty” compliment or feel badly that you’re not thinner. Crazy crazy-making behavior.

The way out is to do what therapists are taught to do, what I call “going meta.” That means not responding to the question or comment and, instead, identifying the dynamic and how it makes you feel. Rise above the question and focus on the process, ignoring the content. Don’t play the game or follow someone else’s agenda. Rather, set your own, which is to identify the double message and share your experience. The best response is to say something like this: “I don’t know how to respond. When you do X, you’re giving me such and such a message, and  when you do Y you’re giving me a conflicting message. That leaves me confused.” Do not—repeat, do not—respond to the content. It doesn’t matter what the subject matter is. Ignore it completely and focus on the dynamics. Stick to your agenda because the other person will most likely want to hook you back into what he or she is saying. Remember, process (not content) rules!

Start noticing when you feel caught in a double bind because of double messages. What you experience will likely be confusion, bewilderment, helplessness, and maybe even despair or panic. These emotions are often tip offs that you’re receiving a double message and being put into a double bind. Practice going meta and regaining your power and you’ll be learning a powerful emotional management tool—and may even avoid some emotional eating.

Eating and Aloneness
The Brain and Our Habits

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