Home PageBlogTherapeutic Binds and Double Binds

From: The Collected Works
Volume 10 — Hypnotic Realities

Milton H. Erickson & Ernest L. Rossi

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes, 54 seconds. 


The concept of the double bind has been used in many ways. We use the terms “bind” and “double bind” in a very special and limited sense to describe forms of suggestion that offer patients the possibility of structuring their behavior in a therapeutic direction. A bind offers a free choice of two or more comparable alternatives-that is, whichever choice is made leads behavior in a desired direction. Therapeutic binds are tactful presentations of the possible alternate forms of constructive behavior that are available to the patient in a given situation. The patient is given a free, voluntary choice between them; the patient usually feels bound, however, to accept one alternative.

Double binds, by contrast, offer possibilities of behavior that are out­side the patient’s usual range of conscious choice and control. Since the original formulation of the double bind (Bateson, Jackson, Haley, and Weakland, 1956) as a hypothesis about the nature and etiology of communication in schizophrenia, a number of authors have sought to utilize the concept of the double bind to understand and facilitate psychotherapy and hypnosis (Haley, 1963; Watzlawick et al., 1967, 1974; Erickson and Rossi, 1975). Since we use the term in a very special and limited sense, we will present only an outline of how we conceptualize the double bind for an understanding of therapeutic trance and hypnotic suggestion.

The double bind arises out of the possibility of communicating on more than one level. We can (1) say something and (2) simultaneously comment on what we are saying. We may describe our primary message (I) as being on an object level of communication while the comment (2) is on a higher level of abstraction, which is usually called a secondary or metalevel of communication (a metacommunication). A peculiar situation arises when what is stated in a primary communication is restructured or cast into another frame of reference in the metacommunication. In requesting an ideomotor response such as hand levitation, for example, we ( 1)  ask patients to let their hand lift but (2) to experience it as lifting in an involuntary manner. In requesting an ideosensory response we may (I) ask patients to experience a hallucinatory sensation of warmth, but (2) it is usually understood that such an experience is outside patients’ normal range of self-control. Therefore, patients must allow the warmth to develop on another, more involuntary level. We have many ways of saying or implying to patients that (I) something will happen, but (2) you won’t do it with conscious intent, your unconscious will do it. We call this the conscious-unconscious double-bind: since consciousness can­not do it, the unconscious must do it on an involuntary level. Conscious intentionality and one’s usual mental sets are placed in a bind that tends to depotentiate their activity; unconscious potentials now have an opportunity to intrude. The conscious-unconscious double bind is the essential basis of many of the therapeutic double binds discussed in the following sections.

In actual practice the metacommunication that comments on the primary message, may take place without words: one may comment with a doubting tone of voice, a gesture or body movement, subtle social cues and contexts. Hidden implications or unconscious assumptions may also function as a metacommunication binding or qualifying what is said on the ordinary conversational level. Because of this the patient is usually not aware that conflicting messages are being received. The conflict is frequently enough to disrupt the patient’s usual modes of functioning, however, so that more unconscious and involuntary processes are activated.

Ideally, our therapeutic double binds are mild quandaries that provide the patient with an opportunity for growth. These quandries are indirect hypnotic forms insofar as they tend to block or disrupt the patient’s habitual attitudes and frames of reference so that choice is not easily made on a conscious, voluntary level. In this sense a double bind may be operative whenever one’s usual frames of reference cannot cope and one is forced to another level of functioning. Bateson (1975) has commented that this other level can be “a higher level of abstraction which may be more wise, more psychotic, more humorous, more religious, etc.” We simply add that this other level can also be more autonomous or involuntary in its functioning; that is, outside the person’s usual range of self-direction and -control. Thus we find that the therapeutic double bind can lead one to experience those altered states we characterize as trance so that previously unrealized potentials may become manifest.

In actual practice there is an infinite range of situations that may or may not function as binds or double binds. What is or is not a bind or double bind will depend very much on how it is received by the listener. What is a bind or double-bind for one person may not be one for another. In the following sections, therefore, we will describe a number of formulations that may or may not lead a particular patient to experience a bind or double bind. These formulations are “approaches” to hypnotic experience; they cannot be regarded as techniques that invariably produce the same response in everyone. Humans are too complex and individual differences are simply too great to expect that the same words or situation will produce the same effect in everyone. Well-trained hypnotherapists have available many possible approaches to hypnotic experience. They offer them one after another to the patient and carefully evaluate which actually lead to the desired result. In clinical practice we can only determine what was or was not a therapeutic bind or double bind in retrospect by studying the patient’s response. The following formulations, therefore, offer only the possibility of therapeutic binds or double binds that may structure desired behavior.

[ Note: One may refer to the “following formulations” by reading the rest of the chapter after purchasing the book here — https://catalog.erickson-foundation.org/item/hypnotic-realities ]

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