The Double-Bind

One of the things I spent a lot of time coming to understand, in grad school, was a psychological theory called the double-bind. More information (of the Wikipedia variety) here. If you’re not familiar with the double-bind, I think of it also as a catch-22, lose-lose, or damned if you do/don’t. It’s a frustrating situation in which you’re put into a position that no matter what you do (including nothing), there’s no way to succeed. The example from the originator of the term (Gregory Bateson, who used it in a  theory of the origins of schizophrenia that hasn’t been empirically proven) was of a child dealing with a withholding parent. The mother commands the child to give the mother a hug. If the child reaches out to the mother, the mother turns away or stiffens, clearly resisting the affection. If the child does not reach out to the mother, the child is disobedient or unloving, and the mother uses the behavior to justify being withholding. I absolutely acknowledge that we, as people, put each other in situations like this all the time, and that it’s crazy-making in a conventional sense of the word. I have always been uncomfortable with the idea that a parent can be a singular cause of a child’s mental illness, and with the idea that his examples revolve so much around problematic mothers. So understand that, in the following, I’m not endorsing his examples or speaking of clinical schizophrenia, just of the ways that we put ourselves and each other in impossible-to-resolve communications tangles.

Since I studied it, I’ve seen the double-bind in my own life. It never fails to make me feel like my head is going to cartoonishly pop off my shoulders. It came up yesterday in a meeting with my boss. She repeatedly asked me to acknowledge that I’m “driving” a project– that I’m “in charge” of it. I established and tested the process and lined up the major players several months ago (but didn’t have input into who they were or what parts they played)—I’m not entirely disconnected from the project, but someone else (usually her) is identifying the files that we’ll be capturing, managing the person who is capturing them and transmitting them to the person who’s editing them. That person (my boss also manages her) will edit them without my help and make them available. None of these people are accountable to me. So I am “driving” a process that I don’t control, over which I have precious little influence and no real authority. “In charge” would imply to me at least one of those things. So I can take it to mean “responsible in the event of failure,” or that this is an attempt to bolster my ego.

I can deal with the first option— I’m a big girl, and I trust the process I established as well as the major players, so I’m reasonably confident that it won’t fail, and that we can recover if it does. Everyone knows the stakes and their roles are clear. I take practical responsibility for making sure everything works the way it should without having to be told to do so— organizing and attending meetings, driving policy, testing software. I can’t really deal with the second— it feels patronizing and obviously empty. If you think I need placating for some reason (which is dangerous territory, for me. I don’t take pity well, partly because I don’t believe I’m pitiful, 95% of the time— I think I’m smart and hardworking, responsible and effective, and if you pity me, it implies that you do so from a position of superiority that I tend to choke on. As a matter of basic respect, I try not to approach people from a position of superiority and I appreciate that courtesy being extended to me), you should know that this kind of an attempt is not likely to have the intended effect. If you think I need bolstering, giving me actual skin in the game is the way to make that happen. Give me authority over some aspect of it. Trust me on any level to do my job and to do it as well as you say I do it.

I said, in response to the repeated requests to acknowledge that I’m “in charge” of this that I acknowledge that I’m in charge of this, insofar as it is one person’s responsibility on-site, someone else’s responsibility off-site, and that I hold a non-consequential role at best. I said that I acknowledge that I’m “driving the project” insofar as I have almost nothing to do with it— none of these people report to or are responsible to me in any meaningful way. My boss seemed to recognize what I was saying, there, but we moved from it without comment. I spent all day yesterday frustrated, wanting to go back and say “is there something about this that you’re trying to say that I can’t see? Is there something you’re expecting of me relative to all this that I’m missing?” But I’m not sure what that would do. If she’s trying to throw me a bone, this would underline how ungrateful I am for the bone, which is impolite, and if she’s trying to make me take responsibility for something— well, as I’ve said, I’m already fine with that. I think I’ve said everything about this that I can respectfully say. But could I find a less satisfying outcome?





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