Align your messages to avoid confusion and pain
Adouble bind is a dilemma in communication in which a person receives two conflicting messages. Often, this sort of communication causes distress and, particularly when experienced by a child, may cause psychological harm.
“It’s always been this way with my father. When I was visiting him last night, he told me he was willing to put up the down payment for a property I was looking at. It was extremely generous of him, and I told him how much I appreciated it.
“For a few minutes we were both in a great mood and started chatting about lots of other things. I told him how excited I was that my band — I play drums for a hobby — was asked to play at a very fancy wedding.
“ ‘You’re not afraid to show your face in public pounding that thing?’ he asked me. He was totally serious. Bottom line is that my dad thinks I’m some sort of loser and makes sure to let me know that in almost every conversation. Because of his generous financial offer, I’d accidentally let my guard down and told him something authentic about myself. As usual, he made me regret it.”
Although the person in the above scenario is now an adult, his pain is still acute. We can only imagine how a child might feel receiving mixed messages like this from a parent. In addition to the pain, there would be confusion. The two messages clash in the youngster’s brain, leaving him feeling unbalanced, uncomfortable, and unsafe. Eventually, he learns to protect himself by limiting the depth and quantity of interactions he has with this kind of parent. Unfortunately, a lot of damage is done by the time a person acquires this protective skill.
“My mom would buy me a gorgeous outfit and hand it to me with an angry snarl. She’d say things like, ‘You don’t deserve this, but it was on sale so I got it for you.’ The clothes were beautiful and I’d want to wear them, but they were ugly because of how they were given to me.
Children tend to be more “black-and-white” in their thinking than adults. As grown-ups, we understand the concept of mixed feelings and can therefore — even though we don’t like it — rationalize how a parent might hold resentment and love at the same time.
“I know my mom loves to host all of her children and grandchildren. But I know she feels really stressed by all the work involved, so I guess she has a kind of love-hate relationship to it.”
We can also understand the “passive-aggressive” style of communication that people use when they’re afraid to state their real feelings of frustration, disappointment, hurt, or anger. Whether because of their own communication problems or because of communication issues with the recipient, it isn’t always easy to speak one’s truth.
In these cases, a person may deliver contradictory messages by saying two different things or by saying one thing and conveying another through tone of voice or facial expression.
No matter why it happens, we’ll often suffer when we are the recipient of someone’s mixed emotions. But sometimes we’re the ones creating the double bind. We all need to understand how hurtful and damaging mixed messages can be to those we love.
We need to take responsibility for our own mixed feelings, settle them, and then communicate. For example, if a mother doesn’t feel her daughter deserves a new dress, the mother can align with that feeling and choose not to buy it for her.
Or, if she feels she must get the dress because her daughter needs it (even if the young lady hasn’t been well behaved lately) she can align with that feeling of responsibility and just give the daughter the dress without making negative comments and without pretending to be overjoyed in offering it. In other words, actions, body language, and words are all aligned. A straight message can be delivered, such as, “I picked up a dress that I thought you needed. Here it is.”
We can avoid creating double binds for our loved ones by sorting out our own mixed feelings. Self-reflection can help us clarify and articulate our true feelings and consciously decide which message we want to communicate. We’ll be healthier communicators, our loved ones will be healthier, and our relationships will be healthier, too.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 670)