double binds  | narcissistic ‘no-win’ mind games
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double binds | narcissistic ‘no-win’ mind games

What each of us looks for in our significant personal relationships will differ from person to person. If we value reflection, personal growth, and independent thought, we’ll want our relationships to support those things. Games and creative pursuits might be important features, giving us an outlet for the playful, inventive parts of our nature. Something we might consider a relationship essential is the ability to just relax and be our authentic selves. We might also expect a healthy sense of security, so there’s no fear that an innocent slip could land us in trouble, or that accidents and misunderstandings will get blown out of scale Whatever positive, affirming features you look for in a relationship, you can forget all about them when malignant narcissists manoeuvre themselves into your life. Personal growth, independent thought, creativity, and authenticity will all get shoved into storage, leaving you in a rigid, stagnant environment. Security will evaporate as you begin to realise one wrong step could do you serious damage. To malignant narcissists, your value begins and ends with your ability to serve them. Dismissing your needs is just the start: soon the mind games begin. Like stepping into an Escher print, you’ll find yourself completely disorientated by the impossible angles of the narcissist’s world, where the only predictable feature is unpredictability. Not only is there no telling where you’ll end up when you go through a door, there’s no telling what laws will apply when you get there. Down might now mean up or sideways. With each vertigo-inducing flip your brain tries to find some underlying order, and when you think you might have found it the ground falls from under you Narcissists use a range of mind games to knock targets off balance, including love-bombing, gaslighting, and various forms of emotional blackmail. I want to explore a particularly poisonous mind game called the double bind, which puts people in no-win situations. I’ll be looking at examples of it in action and some different ways of dealing with it. A no-win manipulation could be defined as the act of putting targets in situations where all actions lead to a negative outcome. An example would be what’s called a Kafka trap: in Kafka traps targets are accused typically of some psychological flaw. When they deny the accusation, their denial is taken as evidence that the accusation is true. The possibility that the accusation is false is invalidly excluded. Targets of Kafka traps are only presented with losing options by their accuser. In fact, in many cases, targets do have positive options; one is to simply ignore their accusers. Another is to expose and mock this fallacious manipulation. With double binds, these options aren’t available. A double bind is a very specific kind of no-win manipulation in which targets are presented with conflicting messages, each of which and negates the other. In effect, they’re told “do X” and “don’t do X”. When targets are playful, they might be criticised for never taking anything seriously. Then, when they’re serious, they’re told to stop being a drag and lighten up. The double message is: “be serious and don’t be serious”. Whatever the target chooses, the abuser responds with the other. Double binds occur in relationships where targets feel compelled to figure out what the manipulator wants and provide it. They feel unable to ignore the dilemma presented to them, which is what binds them in. They often feel unable to point out the injustice of the dilemma because criticism leads to more negative consequences. And, they’re unable to consult the manipulator to help find a way out. Double binds can be extremely destructive, psychologically. Targets of narcissists can tie themselves in knots trying to work out what the narcissist wants. But all the narcissist actually wants is to make the target fail. Through repeated experiences of failure, targets can end up in a state of learned helplessness where they feel unable to control or change a situation. Making decisions can become increasingly difficult as targets start habitually questioning their own judgment. As they become more passive and compliant, the narcissist takes control. I took a straw poll among my patrons, asking if they could identify any personal experiences of double binds in their lives. If so, in what areas? Respondents could tick multiple categories. 2/5 of all respondents reported experiencing this manipulation in personal, one-to-one relationships, respondents and half of all respondents encountered it in their family. A quarter of respondents identified double binds in a religious, political, or pseudoscientific ideological group, and a quarter experienced them in other environments, including social circles, personal therapy, and the workplace. In total, three-quarters of all respondents reported experiencing double binds, with the remaining respondents registering no awareness of having encountered them. Even acknowledging the limitations of straw polls, this is a very high figure. And it’s worth noting the significant prevalence in one-to-one relationships and in families, which we might hope would be win-win environments where people lift each other up. What binds us into double binds comes in many forms. The complex emotional ties found in one-to-one relationships and families can make very strong binding material, so strong that we sometimes snap before they do. So what do double binds look like? Here are some examples from literature, history, and my own personal life. Robert Graves’s novel, I Claudius, chronicles the rule of Rome’s ancient emperors. In his portrait of the delusional, murderous Caligula, he depicts a deadly double bind manipulation. When Caligula returns home triumphantly after an imaginary war with the god Neptune, he is furious to find there are no cheering crowds to greet him. No flowers on the streets, no fanfares. He threatens to kill the senators, who fail to organise any celebrations. The terrified senators point out that Caligula specifically ordered them not to arrange any celebrations. Caligula scolds them for taking him at his word. He wanted them to show their love for him by disobeying him. Graves’s Caligula delights in putting his subjects in impossible situations. He berates his senators for celebrating the Battle of Actium, in which his great grandfather Mark Antony was defeated, but he later jokes that he had the senators both ways because if they hadn’t celebrated the battle, they would have insulted his grandfather Augustus, who won the battle. Being born into a family headed by a narcissistic mother and a timid father who spent his life appeasing, excusing, and enabling her, double binds of various intensities were part of my early everyday life. One recurring double bind concerned my responses to her constant false accusations. Like many narcissists, she was acutely paranoid. She was convinced everyone, from family members to doctors to shop assistants, was out to undermine and belittle her, and she was always telling victory stories recounting her stinging revenge on some unsuspecting individual for an imagined insult. Because of her paranoia, my brother and I were repeatedly accused of saying doing or even just thinking outlandish things we’d never said, done, or thought. She would charge us to tell the truth in front of her Christian God. When we truthfully reported our innocence, she’d triumphantly call us liars. She’d often tell us we were physically turning green with guilt. She had unshakable conviction that she was right. Our no-win choice was to make a false confession and get punished for a non-existent offense, or tell the truth and suffer even more abuse for lying. The double message was: “be truthful and don’t be truthful”. Without knowing it, she did teach me something valuable with this double bind. Displays of unshakable conviction don’t require the possession of truth. Another kind of double bind happened when she gave up things like chocolate or cigarettes, often as part of a religious observance called Lent, which requires Christians to abstain from some food or luxury for a few weeks. She’d rope us in to help her instructing us not to let her near those things. When she gave up cigarettes, I caught her lighting up and reminded her she said she wasn’t smoking anymore. She scolded me angrily for spoiling her fun, sending the message “don’t intervene”. So the next time she lit up in front of me, I said nothing. She then scolded me for showing no support, sending the message “intervene”. When she gave up chocolate for Lent I happened to eat a chocolate bar from the kitchen cupboard. Later that day, she asked where the chocolate was. When I said I’d eaten it, she flipped into a rage, slamming cupboard doors and drawers and shouting that she’d planned to eat it herself in secret. So much for Lent. As punishment for depriving her I was forbidden all food treats for several days. In our early teens, when my brother and I left our parents’ religion, the relentless abuse we endured for that finally pushed us to start forcefully standing our ground. We were fully prepared for an escalation, but she backed off and finally started exercising some self-control. But her apparent improvement was an illusion. Behind the scenes, she just got worse, which leads me to my last personal example: an especially venomous breed of double bind, a double bind by proxy, played out through someone else. A couple of years ago the doctors told my father his cancer had returned. This time, it was terminal. My brother lived nearby and nursed him morning and night. I lived far away but visited frequently. On what turned out to be my last visit, I stayed down for a couple of days lodging at a nearby hotel. It felt like we had a wonderful time, full of laughter. After saying goodbye, I lingered outside the front door chatting with my brother Suddenly, we heard her raging at full volume. It was shocking. I later learned this was a regular routine: during visits she’d store up a list of imagined insults, then explode when they were alone. The most nauseating part was hearing my terminally ill father’s exhausted voice trying to appease her anger. I suspended visits for a while and started writing him long weekly letters. They were painful to write, but I kept them upbeat. But after a few letters, he revealed in a phone call that every time my letters arrived, she flew into a jealous rage. She was resentful of the intimacy and affection in my words. In a unique moment of candour, he said, “Your mother’s a very sick woman”. It was the only time I ever heard him acknowledge her disorder. So, instead of lifting his spirits, my letters had become a source of dread for him. I asked him if he wanted me to continue writing. The awkward silence that followed said everything. Her rages weren’t just antagonistic now: they were deadly, leaving him physically depleted when he needed every ounce of strength A few days later we had what would be our last phone call. We’d been chatting for a while when he paused and sheepishly asked if I wanted to send a message of love to her. When I reminded him of the bad blood he knew existed between us, he pretended not to know what I was talking about and gave a panicky speech about how everything was fine. I realised she was listening in and I knew what would follow when he ended the call. I now realised all contact with him risked exposing him to the lethal stress of her rages. I also know if I confronted her it would only rebound on him when they were alone. I suspended contact while I considered the situation. She then started telling people I was shunning my dying father. The double bind was complete: damned if I contacted him, damned if I didn’t. A few weeks later my father died in a nursing home, reportedly still appeasing her anger. Every few months she writes to me urging me to get back in contact, and blaming her dead husband for causing a rift between me and her. Double binds sometimes get played out on a larger scale by religious and political zealots In 17th century England, people accused of witchcraft were faced with a terrifying double bind where both options led to death: falsely confess to being a witch and die, or truthfully deny being a witch and die. Torture was illegal in England at the start of the witch hunts. Originally, the only method of physical coercion legally available to interrogators was sleep deprivation. This method was successful with the first person accused of witchcraft by professional witch-finder Matthew Hopkins. Elizabeth Clarke confessed after being kept awake for three days. But a later target of Hopkins, a priest called John Lowes tolerated sleep deprivation for many days. It was only at this point that torture was introduced illegally in a procedure called “swimming the witch” in which subjects would be repeatedly pushed to the edge of drowning based on the idea that water would repel witches. It was this torture that broke John Lowes, who confessed. With England in the middle of civil war, the increasing implementation of illegal torture went unchallenged, enabling one of the most notorious double binds in history. And, it highlights a crucial point: legal protections don’t just safeguard our well-being in the broad sense. They also work to prevent innocent citizens being trapped in state-approved double binds. As our protections are eroded, we all become increasingly vulnerable to these no-win nightmares. Another example of this was McCarthyism. Named after one of its main advocates, Senator Joseph McCarthy, this American political witch-hunt gained ground in the 1940s and 50s, seeking to expose and eradicate what it considered un-American elements. In 1947 a group of screenwriters and directors, who had come to be known as the Hollywood Ten, was subpoenaed to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, chaired by congressman J Parnell Thomas. They were asked whether they were now or ever had been members of the American Communist Party, and whether they’d attended certain political meetings. If they refused to answer, they could be jailed for contempt. If they answered yes, they’d be commanded to name others; if they refused, they could be jailed for contempt. If they answered no, they could be vulnerable to charges of perjury. Being subpoenaed by the House Committee meant they’d already been identified as communists by other informants who were granted immunity and couldn’t be cross-examined. As one of the Hollywood 10, Lester Cole, remarked: “Don’t you see, these investigations are actually traps. You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. It’s a form of legal lynching.” Like the English witch hunts, this political trap relied on the violation of legal protections, including constitutional rights to free speech, free association, and free conscience. Witnesses weren’t summoned because they’d committed any crimes. They were jailed, ostracised, and rendered unemployable purely for exercising their rights under questioning. It was the House Committee on Un-American Activities that was attacking American values, redefining un-American on its own terms so that the mere act of questioning the committee became un-American. It’s worth mentioning that some months later Committee Chairman J. Parnell. Thomas was charged with fraud. Having jailed witnesses for refusing to answer his questions, Thomas now exercised his own right not to answer questions. He was jailed, in his case for actual crimes. These examples illustrate some of the scope of double binds. They also highlight some of the things to bear in mind when we’re dealing with this manipulation. Obviously in many cases cutting narcissists out of your life can instantly terminate all the double bind abuse. But going no-contact isn’t always an option; for example, for extremely isolated targets who have nowhere to go. Even when it is an option, some targets might decide for various reasons to hold off from exercising it, at least for a time. If you’re constantly subjected to double binds by your boss, quitting impulsively with no job to go to could create big problems. Instead, you might choose to stay just long enough to secure a new job. If you’re dealing with an extremely vindictive narcissist, suddenly going no-contact could spark a revenge campaign. If you’d prefer to sidestep that, you might choose instead to gradually fade over a few months. In some cases targets might choose to go low contact, putting strict limits on their interactions, keeping visits or phone calls brief enough to avoid entanglement. For whatever length of time you decide to tolerate your narcissist’s company, here are some thoughts on dealing with their double binds. Sometimes the clues to dealing with manipulations lie in their definition. If we look at the defining factors of double binds, we can identify some of the subtle traps embedded in them. Double binds present us with two conflicting messages. The abuser relies on targets believing they have no alternative but to choose one. After all if someone says “do X” or “don’t do X”, how can you not choose one? By not following one instruction you automatically fulfil the other. Well, it turns out sometimes you can refuse both choices by shifting to a different level of communication. In their article “Towards a Theory of Schizophrenia”, Gregory Bateson and colleagues recount a Zen story illustrating a solution to a triple bind. The Zen master holds out a stick and tells his students: if they say the stick is real, he’ll beat them with it. He then tells them he’ll also beat them with it if they say the stick’s not real, or if they just say nothing at all. In response, the student steps forward and breaks the stick. Now the master can’t be them with it. This story perfectly captures the psychology of double binds. Abusers present targets with a stick and ask them how they’d like to be beaten. Instead of answering that sadistic question, targets need to learn to break sticks. After being punished for helping my narcissistic parent give up chocolate and cigarettes, I steered clear of whatever food she said she was giving up, and I kept myself to myself. She went to embarrassing lengths to reel me in. One year, when she gave up cakes, she staged a groan-worthy scene where I was obviously meant to discover her in flagrante delicto with a donut. Luckily, I saw it coming and walked into a different room. Through a crack in the door, I watched her holding onto that donut for ages waiting to be found. Instead of falling into her double bind of intervene or don’t intervene, I sidestepped both options by sabotaging her plan to be discovered. I broke the stick. One of the things that stops target’s identifying solutions to double binds is that they’re trained to anticipate what the narcissist wants, in the perpetual false hope that by pleasing the narcissist, they can avoid a negative outcome. So long as we hold on to that false hope, our narcissists can dangle us like puppets dancing to their tune. We remain in a constant state of anxiety, reacting in reflex knee-jerk ways to the whims of our abusers. But when we let go of that false hope and fully accept the reality that our abusers want to punish us whatever we do, we can forget all about pleasing them and start thinking about what we want. Thinking about what you want keeps you grounded in your own mind instead of getting lost in the abuser’s. You can begin to build and maintain important psychological boundaries. Instead of reacting mindlessly you can respond mindfully. With a clearer head, targets start seeing solutions to double binds that used to drive them mad when they were chasing after the narcissist’s approval. Sometimes the solution is simply about not responding. Targets are trained to feel unable to ignore the dilemma presented to them, but lots of dilemmas can easily be ignored, especially when the double bind depends completely on the target reacting. One example is when the narcissist gives you conflicting feedback about your social behavior, suggesting you should be serious and not serious, assertive and not assertive, attractive and not attractive, and so on, always putting you in the wrong. The moment you engage with this kind of feedback you lose. If you change the way you behave you lose. You’ll start acting inauthentically and you’ll inevitably get criticised anyway. If you try to explain or defend yourself, you lose. The narcissist can then drag you into more draining pointless conflict. The solution is to disengage. A polite smile will acknowledge you’ve heard them. You can even thank them for sharing their thoughts. Then you can ignore everything they’ve said and continue being yourself. Targets can sometimes ignore a double bind by interrupting it with a deflection. They often learn to spot a double bind on the horizon. And sometimes they can avoid getting entangled by excusing themselves from the interaction. George has a history of long draining phone calls with his narcissist friend Bonnie, who constantly finds fault with him. When she becomes pregnant she criticises him for asking her about it. Can’t he think of something more original? In their next phone call, he doesn’t mention her pregnancy. Now he’s accused of showing no interest. Instead of getting stuck in these no-win exchanges ,George could choose to cut the call short, telling her something needs his urgent attention. Preparing deflections to break the narcissist’s flow gives you an escape hatch which you can activate at any time. Targets might be unable to point out the injustice of double binds to the abusers who instigated them, but they can point out the injustice to other people, and this is where we can all play a part. It’s in all of our interests to help each other when we become aware of abuse. This point really comes through in the religious and political witch hunts: both were made possible because people stood by and declined to help. Being part of a culture that listens helps to ensure that will be listened to if we should be targeted. I’m not an advocate of automatically believing allegations of abuse. After all, a typical form of narcissistic abuse is the smear campaign, spreading false allegations to stigmatise an individual. Justice is about facts, not assumption. I’m an advocate of due process and responding to allegations with thorough investigation. A family, a community, a nation that cares is one that investigates. Targets of narcissists have become a fast-growing self-supporting community online, sharing experiences and ideas. As awareness of narcissistic abuse increases, more people are beginning to recognise it and acknowledge the damage it does. Lastly, although we’re unable to consult our abusers directly for answers, sometimes we can get insights from them indirectly. By observing their behaviour, we can learn some of their weak spots. Something I learned about my narcissist parent was that she was easily thrown by unexpected off-the-wall humour. She never had a comeback and it left her flustered and disarmed. It was like throwing her a puzzle. As a child, I used this strategy repeatedly to sidestep traps. Targets do need to be subtle about exploiting weak spots: narcissists are liable to attack if they feel deliberately fooled or humiliated. It’s not about prodding the narcissist, but about manoeuvring effectively around them, Following on from that, it helps to learn our own weak spots. What vulnerabilities might the narcissist be perceiving and exploiting in us? Do you notice any consistent patterns and themes? Sometimes our weak spots are other people. When the abuser can’t get to us directly, they can sometimes get to us through the ones we love. This happens repeatedly in high control groups, where members feel forced into compliance to protect loved ones. My father was a huge weak spot. I had a powerful urge to rescue him from her abuse, but he was deeply entrenched in a codependent relationship with her. When loved ones choose to stay in abusive relationships or groups, there’s often very little we can do except let them know that we love them and that we’re there if they want us. Whatever they do has to be their own choice. My father made his choice, and it was when I finally accepted his choice that I was able to let go. If the worst comes to the worst and you find yourself in a double bind you can’t see any way out of, there are still some principles to bear in mind. Don’t argue or show emotion. Two things many targets learn early on: arguing just gets you more entangled in the situation, and narcissists love seeing your distress. Make the choice you feel you can live with. Sometimes that might mean taking the harder option. In regard to her false accusations, I made a conscious decision never to go along with her and admit to things I’d never said, done, or thought. Even though I know it meant more punishment because I’d be accused of lying, I’ve recognised that there was a bigger personal cost involved if I started bending to fit her distorted reality. Don’t beat yourself up because you didn’t think of a way out. Don’t collude with the abuser by bringing yourself down. Stay positive. Try to think if there’s anything you might do differently next time, and use the negative experience as motivation to plan a more permanent solution to your abuse in the future. The no-win Kafka trap is named after dystopian author Franz Kafka. In his parable “Before the Law”, the law a man seeking the law is refused access to it by a gatekeeper. The gatekeeper allows him to sit by the gate, letting him think he might be allowed in someday. The man waits there for the rest of his life, but never gains access. Kefka’s story expresses the futility of waiting for justice to come to you. My father fell into a similar trap, waiting decades for a peace that never came. If targets of narcissists want to end their abuse, they have to be the force for change. The good news is that narcissistic no-win mind games aren’t necessarily the impossible situations they seem. When we take a step back, we begin to find lots of solutions Whether we’re the target or the person a target approaches for help, we can all do something to combat the abuse of double binds.


  • CoolHardLogic

    Exquisite presentation and content as always. Your point at the end about victims of narcissists having support on the internet also has a flip side. So-called social media predictably enough has fomented a lot of very self-absorbed people. I wonder how many become full-blown, game-playing narcissists. Given the growing infantilisation of people, and "reality" shows essentially pushing the admiration and mimicry of the self-absorbed tantrum-throwing rejects such shows attract (as if they were somehow "role models"), I suspect that the two effects (not growing up + self-absorption) combined would have a higher outcome of full-blown narcissistic behaviour than either one in isolation.

    Picking up on your points about religious groups, this also seems to have fed into new dogmatism of the "progressives" and their witch-hunt mentality. Identify the "witch", and demand an apology for their alleged behaviour or thought crime. Any apology is simply a confession for which there is punishment (unless you are Justin Trudeau it seems). Fail to apologise and you're still guilty merely by the allegation. Due process be damned. That said, since there is nothing to be gained by apologising to the inquisition, not apologising still seems to give the better outcome from what I can make out.

  • DarkStormErx

    Very good video. The end highlights something that we as a nation must accept, especially with all these false rape allegations against men.

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