A Double Bind waiting for change

Working with complex inner relationships
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The following annotated transcript comes from our tenth webinar with a group of Ukrainian psychologists and psychotherapists who want to use Clean Language and Symbolic Modelling to support themselves and their clients living through the horrors of war. The aim of these demonstrations is for us to facilitate ‘live’ sessions of Symbolic Modelling which can be used for others to learn from. The annotation gives some idea of what we take into account in deciding which Clean Language question to ask, and when.

Other transcripts from this series are available here.

In this session sometimes the client answers in English and sometimes in Ukrainian. The client’s responses and our questions were translated by Dr. Vladislav Matrenitsky.

This transcript illustrates of a number of features:

  • A complex session where the client accesses some difficult experiences and unwanted states, and everything doesn’t neatly ‘resolve’ by the end.

  • The structure of the relationships within the client’s inner world manifest (by our definition) firstly as a variety of binding patterns and then as a double binding pattern (see Note 1).

  • The facilitators provided a commentary immediately following the session.

  • Later the facilitators provided two schema representing their modelling of the structure of the client’s double bind.



In Metaphors in Mind, we defined an unwanted bind as a:

“repetitive self-preserving pattern which the client has not been able to change, and which they find inappropriate or unhelpful.” (p. 181)

The key word in this definition is “self-preserving” – the bind is organised in such a way that it maintains its existence almost regardless of the agents involved. In other words it involves a binding pattern of behaviours, thoughts and feelings that repeat over time which, from within the internal logic, there appears no escape.

There are often simple (but not easy) ways of untangling one’s self from a bind. However, a binding pattern becomes a double bind when a further bind at a higher level precludes escape from the primary bind.

See Lawley, J. (2013) What are Double Binds? Blog published 1 March 2013 (with links to eight further articles).


C = Client, P = Penny Tompkins, J = James Lawley.

The format of the Clean Language questions is highlighted in bold to make it easier to see their structure.







And what would you like to have happen? 



I would like to transfer despair into some kind of new place in my life. I’m not sure at the moment what kind of place it is. So I would like to have a better vision of it. 



And you would like to transfer despair into some kind of new place in your life. And you’re not sure what kind of place, and you’d like to have a better vision of it.Simply recapping.



It’s not that I want to transfer. It’s already happening. 



And you’d like to have a better vision, and it’s already happening. And what kind of better vision is that better vision?Beginning to develop the desired Outcome.



It is something that is situated in front of me. But I cannot see anything concrete there. I just know that it is there. It is right there.Musing to self: If the “transfer” is already happening, and the client “just knows” the “new place” is “in front or me”, how come she needs to have a “better vision” of it before she gets there?



And it’s right there. And you know it’s right there even when you can’t see it. And when you know it’s there, where is that know?If the client can’t “see” the “new place” she must have another way to “know” it exists. We regard the ability to “know” something as a resource.



It’s in my stomach [touches stomach]. 



Whereabouts in your stomach?Inviting the client to continue to attend to the place where she “knows”.



It’s a bit below the navel. It’s a kind of warm and relaxing feeling or sensation.The client describes attributes of the form of the “know”.



And it’s below the navel and a warm and relaxing sensation. And when it’s warm and relaxing, does that warm and relaxing sensation have a size or a shape?Following the client’s attention. This contextually clean question invites her to attend to the inherent properties of an “it”.



This kind of size [gestures], and this something is an oval shape with some volume. 



And when it’s oval with some volume, it’s oval with volume like what?Using the attributes of the “sensation” to invite the client to identify a metaphor for her experience.



Something yellow and fluid. 



Anything else about that yellow and fluid? 



I like that it is there in my stomach, I feel pleasure with it.Confirms that it is a resource for the client.




And you feel pleasure with that yellow, fluid oval in your stomach that knows you have a new place that’s out there.

And that’s a better vision of something that’s already happening, transferring to a new place. And so what kind of transferring is that transferring that’s already happening?

The client has a clear way to “know” that her “new place” is “right in front” of her – even if she “cannot see anything concrete there” (C6). What else does she know about what’s happening for her we wonder? Therefore we invite the client to switch attention to the ongoing process of the “transfer” (C2 & C4).



Nice question! It’s very strange. It’s like I am not yet moving there. Like something is waiting, and I know it’s going to happen, but I’m not moving there yet. It’s kind of like some stage of this process 



It’s a stage of the process. You’re not yet moving. And you know it’s going to happen. So what kind of waiting is that waiting?Honouring the client’s current ongoing experience of ”waiting” by attending to it.



It is like a grape, I see it on a bush, and it’s green and it’s going to ripen. 



And you see the bush, and the grape is waiting to ripen, and it’s green. And anything else about a grape that’s waiting to ripen on that bush? 



Yes, it’s a big bush. Like green fields of a vinery. This field has been cared for very well and the grapes are big, but they’re green, so it’s not the time. 



It’s not the time. And so when there’s this big field, a vinery of these big grapes and it’s not the time, what would you like to have happen while you are waiting?The entailment of this metaphor is that grapes ripen when they are ready. This implies the client’s “transfer to a new place in my life” (C2) will happen when it is ready. In which case, what does the client want in the meantime, “while” she is waiting?



[Pause] They need to get good care. I need to water it. I need to take some insects from it, and so on. [Pause] But what can we do? It has its own pace to ripen. We just need to create good conditions for it and we can only observe and enjoy the way it ripens.We note the switch to “we” and wait to see whether it appears to be significant.



So it has its own pace to ripen, and you can create the conditions for it and enjoy. Is there anything else about that enjoy of that pace while it’s ripening?

Inviting the client to attend to what she can “only” do: “enjoy” the process of ripening.



Probably I can be more relaxed, be calmer and see it as it’s ripening itself. 



More relaxed and calmer. And you can create the conditions and take good care of those grapes. And when you take good care of those grapes, where does taking good care come from?If the grapes “need to get good care” (C24), does the client know where that care going to come from?



This is a good question because I don’t know where it comes from. I don’t feel it and I don’t see it. 



So when you don’t see and you don’t feel where good care comes from, what is happening to good care while this transfer has already been happening?Given the client doesn’t know where “good care” comes from, does she know what is happening “while” the “transfer” processes is ongoing?



It’s stuck and stopped happening.Confirms C18.




It’s stopped happening. It’s stuck and stopped happening.

And when I don’t know where it comes from, and you don’t feel it or see it, and it’s stopped, what kind of an ‘I’ is an ‘I’ that wants relax and calm?

This designed-in-the-moment question invites the client to examine her own logic: How come the client wants to be “more relaxed and calmer” (C26) given the necessary condition “taking good care” has stopped happening during the “transfer”? We are not implying the client should or shouldn’t want/have this experience, we are inviting her to consider its appropriateness.



This is something that I’m not allowing myself to do. It is something little and grey, and it is somewhere here a bit on the right of me. 



And that’s something you’re not allowing myself to do, little and grey on the right. Anything else about that little and grey on the right?Attending to the newly appeared problematic symbol.



Something that’s hovering in the air. Like a grey cloud with a white oval around. It’s kind of swimming or hovering there inside this white cloud. 



So it’s like a grey cloud with the white around and it’s hovering on your right, and that’s not allowing you to take good care of yourself.Attempting to model the client’s internal reality.



No, no. The thing that this here, this white, this grey with white around, this is the thing that would like to – This is ‘I’ that would like to relax.Corrects James’ mis-modelling.



I that would like to relax. [C: Yeah] So it would like to relax. So what would that ‘I’, that grey cloud with white around like to have happen right now?Given the symbol seems influential, what is its intention “right now”?



[Pause] There is a kind of contradiction there. It’s like the thing consists of two parts. The one part says that you can allow yourself not to worry about anything because you have money and you have resources. You’re okay. But the second part says that you cannot relax because there is worry in the country and danger and so on. And it would be unsafe to relax.Two “parts” with incompatible intentions are a classic example of the structure of a bind (see note 1).



And it’s a contradiction [between] two parts. And is there anything else about that contradiction between those two parts?Attending to the client’s name for the bind, “contradiction”. [The client didn’t say “between” and although it might be implied, it would have been cleaner not to introduce this metaphor.]



I’m fed up with it.The client’s response to experiencing the bind (presumably for some time).



You’re fed up with this contradiction. So when you’re fed up with this contradiction, then what happens?Inviting the client to attend to what happens after “fed up”.



I feel a lot of tension in my body. 



And whereabouts do you feel that tension? 



I feel this tension in my stomach, in my shoulders, in my back. 




And so you’re fed up with it. And there’s a tension in your body, and your stomach, and your shoulders, and your back. And you’re fed up with it.

And so when there is this contradiction [between] these parts, what would you like to have happen when there is that contradiction?

Given there is a “contradiction” with the “two parts”, what would the client who is observing those parts, like to happen?



It is a problem that I don’t know what I want when I feel this contradiction. And when I feel this contradiction as a tension in my body, my attention begins to go to somewhere other, just not to feel it. It’s like a dissociation you know, like I begin to do something else to see something else.The client describes how she currently deals with the tension of the contradiction.



And your attention can go elsewhere and you don’t know what you want. So what kind of attention is the attention that goes elsewhere when you feel the tension in your body from this contradiction?Starting to facilitate the client to self-model the process of how her “attention” goes somewhere else as a way to not feel the “tension”.



This attention – I don’t know why –  it’s very sad. 



And when attention is very sad, where is this attention that’s very sad? 



It’s in my face, in my eyes and in my chest, and in my throat in this area [points]. 



And that’s an attention that’s sad in your face and your eyes and your throat in this area. And when that attention is very sad, what would that attention like to have happen?“very sad” personifies “attention”. If “attention” can have emotions, it can probably have intentions also. Hence this question.



This attention wants anything – all that in the situation and in the country would not happen. 



And the attention wants the situation to not happen. And so what would that attention like to have happen when it is happening?Naturally it doesn’t want the war to be happening, and it is happening. So what would it like given that is the external reality?



To go somewhere. 



And it would like to go somewhere.  And what kind of somewhere would it like to go to? 



Somewhere into the ground. Into the underground. In some underground is where it would like to go. And this underground is on my back. 



And it would like to go underground on your back. Whereabouts on your back would it like to go? 



It’s near, three meters behind my back, and a bit to the left. 




Three meters behind your back and a bit left.

And that’s an underground. And what kind of ground is the ground that your attention would like to go under?

Inviting the client to consider the wider context of “underground”.



This is a field, like in agriculture. You have a field that was done with some [inaudible] and it’s like black soil.We note a “field” was also the context at C22 and wait to see whether that becomes significant.



And like a field with black soil. And so when that attention goes underground, three meters behind into that black soil, then what happens?Inviting the client to discover the next event in the sequence.



It gets to the underworld. And it wants to have a lot of sleep. It wants to sleep there. There is a special place for it where it can sleep. 



And what kind of place is a special place where it can sleep? 



This place is like the forest, and I feel the fresh air in this forest, and there is a hole somewhere in this forest where my attention can go in and sleep there. It’s a safe place and my attention looks like a small white rabbit when it’s sleeping in this hole in this forest in this underworld. 



And it’s like a small white rabbit that can sleep in that forest and be safe, with the fresh air and how long would that small white rabbit like to sleep in that safe place?This question is a little premature. Better first to honour the appearance of “small white rabbit” with a simpler question about its nature.



I don’t know. It’s a long time for this rabbit to sleep. The rabbit doesn’t know. Rabbit just wants to sleep and can allow himself or herself to sleep as long as it needs. 



So that’s as long as it’s needed. And that’s a long time that that rabbit needs to sleep. And as that rabbit sleeps in that hole in that safe place, what happens to a contradiction [between] two parts?What is the effect on “contradiction” of the rabbit sleeping safely?



I don’t see them here. I don’t see them anymore.First indication that something might be changing.



You don’t see them. And so what happens to the sad that you felt in your body, while that rabbit is sleeping?And what is the effect on “sad”?



I feel this sadness. And I would let it be because it’s a reality. 



And you feel the sadness and you let it be because it’s a reality. And so then what happens to waiting for a grape to ripen?And what is the effect on “waiting”?



They begin to be black and rotten. Nothing good happens to them. They begin to be dry and rotten. [Pause] And it’s difficult to see this.The client realises that her way of responding to the “tension” resulting from the “contradiction” (C46) has a detrimental effect on the “transfer into a new place” process.



And it’s difficult to see those grapes dry and rotten as that small white rabbit sleeps in that safe place for as long as that rabbit needs to sleep there. [Pause] And then what happens after a rabbit has slept for as long as it needs?Presumably, eventually the “rabbit” will have slept long enough. Does the client know what will happen “after” that?



I don’t know. 



And so when you don’t know what happens and that rabbit is sleeping in that safe forest, what would you like to have happen right now?Inviting the client to set the direction for the next phase of the session.



[Long pause] I want somebody to defend me, or care about me. 



And how would you know when somebody defended you and cared about you? 



I don’t know how because I have not much experience of that in my life. I mean my adult life.Another incompatibility between an internal desire and external reality. [The incompatibilities are summarised following the transcript.]



And so you don’t have much experience of someone defending and caring for you. [C: Yes]  And that’s what you would like to have happen. And so what would you like to have happen until someone can defend and care for you?A similar question to J23, J45 and J53 although this specifies “until” rather than “while” or “when”.



I don’t know what I would like to have happen. I don’t want to think about it and I feel some emptiness.

Since C72 the client appears to be accessing a series of unresourceful states. [Possibly now experiencing some of “despair” mentioned at C2.]

Every response to the “contradiction” of C38 (the primary bind) has not produced a satisfactory outcome – indicating that a more complex double bind is operating.



You don’t want think about it and feel some emptiness. And you feel some emptiness. Whereabouts is that emptiness?Given that the client has not found a satisfactory way to avoid her unpleasant or unwanted experience, we invite her to attend to her metaphor directly.



It’s around me, this emptiness, and inside of me and outside of me and there is nobody around who would care. 



It’s an emptiness around you.  And it’s around you like what? 



It’s like empty space around me and inside of me and I feel like, something like a depression, or something like that. It’s like, not acute depression, but you know, apathy and no energy.“Apathy and no energy” may be related to “stuck” (C30) and form a piece of the ‘replicating mechanism’ (Grove) that keeps the bind repeating.



And it’s like a space around and inside, and no energy. And that’s the emptiness when there’s nobody around to care for you and you don’t know what you’d like to have happen until there is someone. And when there is that someone who can care for you what kind of care will that care be?We do not dwell on “emptiness” because the client appears to have a good enough sense of it and we are nearing the end of the time for the demonstration.



This care is some person who is near, around me, and they would not leave me in danger. And I’ll know that this person is here and this person takes me seriously and can ask, for example, ‘do you want to eat? or ‘do you want to sleep?’ or ‘what can I do for you?”. 



And when you know this person cares and will take care of you, where is that know that this person cares and will take care of you? Where is that know that this person will care like that? 



I don’t know. I don’t trust. I don’t believe that it can happen.A similar structure to C28 and C78, although here the incompatibility is between an internal desire and the belief in an external reality.



So you don’t trust and you don’t believe that a person will take care of you and keep you from danger. So what would you like to have happen when you don’t believe?Acknowledging the client’s [painful] reality and inviting her to consider how she would like to be when she doesn’t believe.



I say that I don’t know because now I have very strong and very unresourceful emotions and feelings in my body so I am not able to continue maybe. I would like to stop.The format of this question can be difficult for the client since it invites them to be face-to-face with the difficult reality of their situation.



And you’d like to stop. Okay. Just one last question then. And so what’s happening to that little white rabbit sleeping in that forest?We honour the client decision and want to check on the welfare of this crucial symbol.



That rabbit is okay. It’s sleeping in this place, in this hole, in this forest and he feels that he can relax and feel safe. 



Okay. So we’ll stop and talk to the group for a little while. 

James to the group

Well, that was quite a complex session. Let me summarise the main points.

The client started out knowing that the “transfer to a new place in my life” was already happening, but she did not have a concrete vision of this new place – so what she wanted was “a better vision of it”.

It turns out that the “transfer” process is like a “green grape ripening”. The client knows that the grape needs “good care” taken of it but she didn’t know where good care comes from. And because the client was “not allowing myself” to be relaxed and calm and enjoy the process while “waiting” for the ripening, the ripening was “stuck and stopped”.

Further examination of the logic of the client’s landscape revealed a “contradiction” between two parts (represented by a “grey cloud with white around”): one part says not to worry about anything, and the other part says you cannot relax because of the war.

This results in a tension in several places in the body and a “problem”: the client doesn’t know what she wants when she feels the contradiction. Predictably the client’s attention then “goes somewhere” else to avoid the unpleasantness.

What came out of the client’s self-modelling was the metaphor of a “small white rabbit” that needed a safe place to sleep in a forest, and he needed to sleep for a long, unknown, time.

The client wanted someone near to take care of and defend her, but currently there isn’t anybody. Again, the client doesn’t know what she wants when there isn’t somebody to take care of her. And, she doesn’t want to think about this situation. On top of this, she didn’t trust or believe that there would be anybody, leaving her with a sense of “emptiness, apathy and no energy”.

All of this indicates that a number of interacting patterns with a similar structure mean the client keeps experiencing difficult emotions and feelings, as happened during the session. The client doesn’t want to give up her desires and needs, and she can’t change the external situation. This is her in-the-moment ‘current reality’.* In other words, the client is in a bind, which keeps the pattern repeating.

The way we worked with this was to fully acknowledge the client’s reality, however painful that is, and as you saw, in a variety of ways, invite the client to consider what they would like to have happen when that’s the way that it is.

What makes this particularly difficult for the client is the logic which prevents the resolution of the primary binding patterns [which, by our definition, make it a double bind]:

Not allowing herself to be relaxed and calm, and enjoy the waiting for the ripening (transfer) to happen.

Not knowing what she wants when she experiences the contradiction.

Not trusting or believing that someone near can defend and care for her.

Not knowing what she would like until the current situation changes.

And at difficult moments her attention goes elsewhere and she doesn’t want to think about it.

We want to value all that a client experiences – the wanted and the unwanted – and we do this by acknowledging their reaction to whatever happens.

We also trust they have many resources and qualities and we trust their metaphor is doing what it needs to do. In this case, we trust that the white rabbit will sleep for as long as he needs and eventually he will wake – and when he does, that will have an effect which will start to change these experiences – even though we have no idea how that will happen.

[* “Current Reality”, as we use the term, means the entirety of what is true for a client at that moment in time. The term is borrowed from Robert Fritz, The Path of Least Resistance (1989).]

Penny to the group

The whole theme of this session was about “waiting”. Waiting for the grapes to ripen. Waiting for the white rabbit to wake up. There doesn’t seem to be anything the client can do about their situation, and they cannot allow themselves to “relax and be calm” while they are waiting for something to change.

It is not up to us to try to make anything happen. We will not rush the deep process that is taking place. We want to honour the time the metaphor needs. We trust the wisdom in the client’s system. In the meantime, we also trust that the client has the resources to handle this difficult situation. So if the motif of the whole landscape is waiting, we’re going to wait and see what happens.

So I’m going to finish by saying: we want the way we work to support the client to understand that this is their current landscape, their current way of being in the world, and it is out of this that change will emerge and a new metaphor landscape can evolve.

Participant A: I have a question about how we finish a session like that. If for example, it would be a real session and visceral for a real client and the client refuses to continue with their metaphors, how do we finish the session? Do we say to the client something about we trust them, we trust that they have enough resources? So what to do?

James: First of all, this is a real client and this is a real session, and the client was having real visceral experiences. Secondly, the client didn’t refuse. The client said they wanted to stop. So we trust that if the client wants to stop, they know what’s best for them. We honour that. I asked one more question just to check that the rabbit was okay.

We don’t give our opinion on their metaphors or make the kind of comments we are making to you now. What we do, is to suggest some things for them to do after the session as a way to keep the metaphoric process going.

Penny: For example, you can say ‘Take all the time you need to get to know more about that small white rabbit sleeping and to find out what care that white rabbit needs, and begin to wonder what you would like to have happen next.’

Also, we usually recommend that the client draw their images and we would leave it there. Okay, any other questions?

Participant B: Regarding this recommendation, do you advise clients to make a kind of exercise, to go into his or her inner space and work with the images. For example, I would advise them to do a formal exercise once a day – to go there and check if the rabbit is still sleeping.

Penny: What you suggest would fit for some clients way of being. But since the essence of this metaphor is “waiting” I wouldn’t recommend they do a formal exercise in this case. This is because I want to be careful to avoid pushing or even look like I’m pushing for something to happen.

James: From many years experience what we find is, if you keep your after-the-session suggestions clean, clients do what they want or need to do in a way that works for them. And at the start of the next session you get to find out what they did or didn’t do. If they go ‘Oh, I never did any of that stuff that you suggested’, we’ll ask ‘And so what did you do?’, then ‘And what happened as a result?’. We work with these answers because they reveal some important things about how the client does or doesn’t make changes in their life.

Penny: So I’m going to finish by saying: we want the way we work to support the client to understand that this is their current landscape, their current way of being in the world, and it is out of this that change will emerge and a new metaphor landscape can evolve.

James to the client: As a way of ending I would appreciate knowing if there’s anything you’d like to say about the session.

Client: I would say that maybe I would not really document anything because there’s a lot of things going on inside. That’s all.

James: Okay, and that’s fine.

A week later the client reported

Thank you for the session…

I am fine, the white rabbit is sleeping in her hole in the forest… I feel more calm and relaxed…

And something is going on in my inner states, I don’t control it, just observe…

It was a very deep work…

Schema of a double bind part 1
Schema of a double bind part 2
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