Modelling the structure of binds and double binds

Self-preserving processes which maintain organisational coherence
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First published in Rapport, Issue 47, Spring 2000

How is it that sometimes people want to change, try to change, and may even make changes, yet they end up repeating the same old patterns. Some years ago, having observed this phenomenon in an uncomfortably high number of our clients, Penny Tompkins and I decided to facilitate these clients to self-model how they maintained the same patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviours – despite a great desire to change and all the ‘change technology’ we (and plenty of other therapists) could offer them. We discovered that they experienced themselves as ‘stuck,’ ‘going round in circles’ or ‘bound’ by an interlocking logic from which there appeared to be no escape.

This article is an extended version of my June 1999 ANLP Conference presentation.  It describes four ‘prototypical binds’, defines ‘double binds’ and summarises a process for facilitating clients to model their own metaphoric perceptions in order to transform their binds.


Every living system has self-preserving processes which maintain organisational coherence and continuity, and which act to conserve the system’s identity.  That is, the system is able to change at one level in order to maintain itself an another ‘higher’ level.  However, the same processes that keep a system from dissolving or escalating out of safe bounds can also act to inhibit, brake, prevent, constrain, hinder and block development and transformation.  I use bind as a generic term for any repetitive self-preserving pattern which the client has not been able to change, and which they find inappropriate or unhelpful.

Prototypical Binds

Although binds take many forms, there are four commonly occurring types which replicate unwanted symptoms, tie up resources and prevent resolution.  These prototypical binds – conflict, dilemma, impasse and paradox – can be defined as:




e.g. “Part of me wants to and part of me doesn’t.”


A situation necessitating a choice between two equally (un)desirable alternatives. e.g. “I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.”


A situation in which (the intention to) progress is stopped by an insuperable difficulty. e.g. “I keep banging my head against a brick wall.”


A self-contradictory statement (or statements). e.g. “My head aches through trying to stop you giving me a headache.” (ref. 1)

A bind can only exist where there are two or more components which have complementary yet opposing or contradictory intentions.  It is the inherent balance of forces in a conflict, equality of choices in a dilemma, insurmountable blockage at an impasse, and self-contradictory nature of a paradox, which means binds cannot be resolved within its existing logic or organisation.  This is why apparent solutions are either temporary (don’t last), illusory (the way out just leads back in), or translatory (the form changes but not the pattern).

The Convoluted Logic of Binds

Binds can be expressed conceptually, metaphorically or nonverbally and they come in all shapes and sizes.  When expressed conceptually they may be simple one-line descriptions like that of Groucho Marx, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member” or convoluted, recursive and multi-layered conundrums, as this example of R. D. Laing’s demonstrates:

I never got what I wanted.
I always got what I did not want.
What I want
               I shall not get.

Therefore, to get it
               I must not want it
since I get only what I don’t want.

               what I want, I can’t get
               what I get, I don’t want

        I can’t get it
because I want it
        I get it
because I don’t want it.

I want what I can’t get
        what I can’t get is what I want

I don’t want what I can get
what I can get is what I don’t want

I never get what I want
I never want what I get.

Stripped of their narrative and drama, these schematised Knots, as Laing calls them, are mindbendingly fascinating and frighteningly familiar.  When clients express their binds in metaphor, however, it is usually much easier for them to see, hear and feel how their binds are operating and thus to model the nature of binding pattern.  For example, when a client discovers:

    “I’m trying to run round a track to overtake my ideal self twice, and the more I develop the more the gap widens.”

It is obvious to both the client and the therapist that, within the current organisation, this is an impossible problem to solve. It is the inherent logic and organisation of a bind that compels each component to fulfil its function in the service of maintaining the higher-level bind.  This means that regardless of whether a component is bound, or is part of the binding mechanism, it is unable to fulfil any other function.  A jailer restricts the freedom of a prisoner, and in so doing is himself restricted.  However, it only takes one component to transform (not translate) for the existing organisation of the bind to dissolve.  When this happens, what is bound and what is binding both have an opportunity to use their attributes as resources in other contexts.

Resolving a single bind is relatively easy.  The client simply reformulates (reframes) the problem and moves on, or they accept its unsolvable nature and stop fighting them self, or they randomly decide between alternatives, or they choose a different route altogether, or they ignore the paradox, or a thousand other solutions.  In one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales a young knight is presented with a series of choices.  Each time he chooses he is faced with yet another dilemma.  Eventually he finds himself married to an old hag who, on their wedding night, says he can either accept her as she is and she will always be a faithful wife, or she will turn herself into a beautiful maiden who will never be faithful.  The knight, after much thought, refuses the choice itself.  At that moment the hag transforms into a beautiful maiden who is faithful to him for the rest of his life (ref. 2).

Double Binds

But what if life is not that simple? What if, for some reason or other, resolving the bind is unachievable or unacceptable? What if the potential for transformation is itself bound? Then another pattern – a double bind – must be operating to preserve a larger organisation. Resolving a double bind requires a different type of approach.  As Ken Wilber would say, it requires the client to “transcend and include” the existing organisation (ref. 3).

Gregory Bateson clarified the organisation of double binds.  He noted that a secondary bind prohibits escape from the primary bind because it “conflicts with the first at a more abstract level” and if opposed or ignored would “threaten survival” (ref. 4).  Thus perfectly good solutions for the primary bind cannot be implemented because they would conflict with, or trigger, another binding pattern.  Bateson points out that a common secondary bind involves the client being unable to speak about their predicament for fear of triggering the primary bind (e.g. “It would kill my mother if I told her the truth”).  In more complex, and thankfully rare cases, the way out of the double bind may itself be constrained by yet another bind (forming a triple bind).  One way or another, the client is bound by their own binds and the more they struggle, the more hopeless and helpless it seems.

You might like to note that by my definition, the common expression “damned if I do, and damned if I don’t” is not a double bind because there is only one level of bind (whatever she does she’s damned).  For it to be a double bind requires a further bind at a higher level precluding escape from the primary bind, such as, “And something terrible happens to people who reject damnation.”

The following example (reduced to the bare bones of the binding pattern) shows how enmeshed a client’s description of their double bind can be:

Client: I started a relationship recently but there’s insecurity about the relationship: it’s “too good to be true”.   I find it difficult to enjoy the relationship as I get very anxious when I am not with her.  I overwhelm her.  I have to hold back.  I’m waiting for her to say “I can’t take it any more.” I was last in a relationship three years ago which I managed to sustain for two weeks.  When I fall in love I get the feeling of anxiety – I feel almost ill – so I engineer the collapse of the relationship so I can manage the anxiety.  It gets worse because I’m aware of the effect.  I’ve had to pull back from the brink a couple of times.

Therapist:  And what would you like to have happen?

Client:  I’ve got to give her room to love me back.

Therapist:  And when you’ve got to give her room to love you back is there anything else about that?

Client:  A feeling that I’ve got to love her as much as I can because she’s not going to be around for that long. It’s like I’ve got to eat all the sweets today even though there will be plenty more tomorrow.  “It’s too good to be true”.  I don’t believe it will be there tomorrow.   I’m not meant to be happy, it’s not for me.  Love brings me happiness but I can’t handle happiness and joy.  It’s as if I have to live my life in the darkness.

One way to unravel the above, is to identify some of the interlocking primary binds:

  • He gets anxious when he is not with her and overwhelms her when he is.
  • He overwhelms her but because he does not think the relationship is going to last (because he overwhelms her) he has to love her as much as he can (which overwhelms her).
  • He feels almost ill with anxiety so he engineers the collapse of the relationship he wants.
  • Love brings him happiness (which is why he starts relationships) which he can’t handle (because he gets anxious) which means he has to live his life in the darkness (which he doesn’t want).

In addition, there are a number of candidates for secondary binds:

  • Being aware of the effect of his behaviour makes the anxiety worse.
  • His belief that it will not be there tomorrow and that he is not meant to be happy.

Furthermore, his proposed solution, “to hold back” in order to “give her room to love me back,” would, if he achieved it, only increase his anxiety because love brings him happiness which he can’t handle, etc.  Thus achieving his outcome would simply trigger his binding pattern.

Identifying the Binding Patterns

Although the organisation of each bind is unique, Penny Tompkins and I have observed a general flow to how binding patterns transform.  The process, which we have incorporated into Symbolic Modelling, uses Clean Language and was developed through an extensive modelling project of David Grove, a pioneer in the field of working therapeutically with autogenic metaphors (ref. 5).

In brief, Symbolic Modelling requires you to facilitate the client to identify metaphors which correspond to their perception of the binding process.  They name and locate the components (symbols) of those metaphoric perceptions, and then elucidate the relationships between components, and the patterns across perceptions.  Once identified, the patterns themselves can be named, symbolically represented and explored.  Thus the modelling process continues at a higher (more inclusive) level of organisation.  Taken together, this information provides a context, a metaphor landscape, in which a pattern of the patterns, a pattern of organisation, emerges and the conditions for transformation arise (ref. 6).


Transformations cannot be manufactured to order.  When, where and how they occur is indeterminate.  You can, however, encourage the conditions from which transformative changes emerge.  These conditions include the client recognising and working directly with the embodied logic of the binding pattern of organisation.  As this process progresses one of three things happens:

(a) The components of the bind translate to maintain the same binding pattern but in a different form.
(b) A secondary bind becomes apparent.
(c) There is a spontaneous transformation which transcends the limitations and includes the creativity of the current organisation.

If (a) occurs, the client (and you as therapist) will need to ‘go round the loop’ again. Very often this has to happen a number of times before the client accepts the unsolvable nature of their binds (within the current organisation).

If (b) occurs, the client may initially experience frustration, anger, angst, despair, or depression in response to being incapable of escaping from their binds. However, this gives them an opportunity to identify the components of the secondary binding pattern and to specify its relationship to the primary bind.  When the client recognises the nature of the interlocking patterns which constitute the double bind, they will be faced with the same three options, but at a higher, more significant, more inclusive level of organisation.  Thus, the double bind will transform or translate, or, in the unusual event of a triple bind, the process may need to continue at an even higher level.

If (c) occurs, you facilitate the client to develop and elaborate the form of the changed symbol, to evolve the change by moving time forward, and then to find out what effect the change has on the rest of the metaphor landscape.

The general flow for the client to model and transform double binds is diagrammed below.


A Process for transforming double binds

Note: “Operational Closure” occurs when the pattern of components and relationships is well-enough specified that the whole operational unit is manifest in awareness (ref. 7).

Concluding Remarks

As client’s become aware of their binding patterns they are faced with a stark choice: to be forever constrained to act out of the bind; or to venture into that most fearful of places – the unknown – and transform.  No wonder translation, disguised as transformation, is often a preferred option.  As Ken Wilber says:

With translation, the self is simply given a new way to think or feel about reality. The self is given a new belief – perhaps holistic instead of atomistic, perhaps forgiveness instead of blame, perhaps relational instead of analytic.  The self then learns to translate its world and its being in the terms of this new belief or new language or new paradigm, and this new and enchanting translation acts, at least temporarily, to alleviate or diminish the terror inherent in the heart of the separate self.  But with transformation, the very process of translation itself is challenged, witnessed, undermined, and eventually dismantled. …

And as much as we, as you and I, might wish to transcend mere translation and find authentic transformation, nonetheless translation itself is an absolutely necessary and crucial function for the greater part of our lives. Those who cannot translate adequately, with a fair amount of integrity and accuracy, fall quickly into severe neurosis or even psychosis: the world ceases to make sense – the boundaries between the self and the world are not transcended but instead begin to crumble. This is not breakthrough but breakdown; not transcendence but disaster.

But at some point in our maturation process, translation itself, no matter how adequate or confident, simply ceases to console. No new beliefs, no new paradigm, no new myths, no new ideas, will staunch the encroaching anguish. Not a new belief for the self, but the transcendence of the self altogether, is the only path that avails. (ref. 8)

When binding patterns transform, some clients report how strange the transformed pattern feels at first, while other clients become amnesic for the old problem!   Mostly, however, it is not until they notice themselves automatically responding in new ways to old situations, or their changed behaviour is pointed out by others, that they become aware of the significance of the change.

When I am privileged to witness a client’s pattern of symbolic perceptions transforming and their metaphors evolving, I like to acknowledge I have been working alongside what Wilber calls “the spirit of evolution”, and that these are sacred moments indeed.


1. R. D. Laing, Knots, (1970) p. 30 and p. 32.

2. Paul Watzlawick, Munchhausen’s Pigtail (1990)  pp. 201-203.

3. A slight rewording of Ken Wilber’s Tenet 5 in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution (1995) p. 51.

4. Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972) p. 207.

5. Visit cleanlangauge.com for articles about Clean Language and David Grove’s work.

6. Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life, (1996) pp. 153-157

7. Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, The Tree of Knowledge (1992) p. 89

8.  Ken Wilber, The Essential Ken Wilber (1998) pp. 141-142

Many thanks to Penny Tompkins and Philip Harland for their comments and encouragement.


Also, see:

An annotated transcript of a client session involving a binding pattern: When Science and Spirituality have a Beer. [Link available soon]

A follow-up article Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Using Symbolic Modelling with Binding Patterns. [Link available soon]

What are Double Binds? (2013)

Note: The above article was reformatted on 25 April 2010 to bring the diagram and description in line with that given in Chapter 8 of Metaphors in Mind.

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