The Double Bind – Damned if you do, Damned if you don't

One of my favorite jokes starts out with a guy on his first day in prison, who upon meeting his new cell-mate is confronted with the question, “would you like to be the ‘husband’ or ‘the wife’?” Neither of those is a particularly favorable answer. Back in the days of the Salem witch trials, defendants were tossed into a pond. Those who sank and drowned were found innocent of being a witch, and those who floated were found guilty and executed. Given the choice of being tried as witch, or confronted with the two options that were given to the new prisoner, I’m not sure which one I would want to take.

The two examples above are known as double binds. A double bind is one of those “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” kind of dilemmas. The term was created by Gregory Bateson, a British linguist who studied schizophrenia, where he used the term “double bind” to describe as a symptom the stress that schizophrenics feel when perceiving two conflicting messages. A double bind as used by Bateson is a communication dilemma, and can be conveyed both verbally and non-verbally. Double binds are used by abusers of all sorts, particularly among authority figures. I recently read about a priest who had molested a number of kids over the years, always telling him that he loved them, God loved them, and they should not tell anyone about the abuse because nobody else would understand, so they should leave it between the child, the priest and God. The double bind for the children were:

If they did tell anyone: They would be breaking a covenant with God.
If the didn’t tell anyone: The abuse would continue.

Cults use double binds in many ways, and AA is no exception. AA manipulates people with double binds in many ways, and I will go over some here.

A double bind begins with a carrot on a stick. There needs to be some bait to set the trap, and that comes in the form of a benefit to the victim. The bait varies from cult to cult, but there are some similarities, as well. Most cults offer inner peace and harmony, some offer eternal life, others offer wealth. In AA the initial bait comes with their 12 promises, which to summarize offer: new freedom and happiness, no regrets, serenity and peace, selflessness, greater self esteem, wealth (economic security), wisdom, etc.

The promises are specific, but the path to getting there is vague. Part of the recruitment trap is deception. The standard lines come into play in the trap stage. “We’ll allow anyone to join us who has a desire to quit drinking”, is the standard line. One thing that will not happen is the prospect not be led to believe that there is a religious aspect to the group. Bill Wilson instructed his flock in this situation to lie by omission: “When dealing with such a person, you had better use everyday language to describe spiritual principles. There is no use arousing any prejudice he may have against certain theological terms and conceptions about which he may already be confused. Don’t raise such issues, no matter what your own convictions are.” And later with: ““Let him see that you are not there to instruct him in religion”.

Once the bait has been taken and the person is in the group, the seedlings of the double bind begins. Remember, at this point, the newly recruited AA is likely a rational and logical person. At this stage, the absurdity of the steps stand out like a sore thumb. It isn’t important at this time for the AA to believe in the steps, but they have to at least believe in the possibility that they might work. To digress just a little, the AA, who was initially told that all they needed was a desire to quit drinking, will be asked to view the program with “an open mind”. This is classic AA doublespeak. What they are really doing is asking the AA to look at the steps without questioning them. This is in fact closed mindedness, because it is asking the person to act on faith alone. Open mindedness see things from all points of view, closed mindedness is myopic.

It is at this point that the group or sponsor will introduce the AA to the idea that the reason he or she has not yet attained these promises, is because they have been blocked from realizing the potential of the steps. This is a commonality in all cults, although there may be different explanations from cult to cult as to what is blocking them. The common theme, though, is that they have not “given in”. Whatever the case may be, there is something intangible and ingrained in an individual that is disallowing them to reach their potential. Scientologists blame it on unconscious programming – engrams; Jim Jones and David Koresh blamed it on Satan, and AA identifies such culprits as ‘pride’ and ‘arrogance’. It doesn’t really matter what it is that is preventing a person in any cult from reaching their ‘potential’. What matters is that person has unrealized potential, and it is the group’s principles that will get them there. This is the basis of a double bind:

“Are you going to give in and accept where you are now? Or are going to work the program and achieve these promises?”

With AA, if you answer ‘yes’ to the first question, you will remain in the same alcoholic state that got you there to begin with. If you answer ‘yes’ to the second question, you are implying some sort of agreement, which is counter to your rational thinking. You are also told that it is your pride and selfishness that is preventing you from giving into the program, and you are encouraged to shut off your brain and believe the emperor has no clothes – “Your best thinking got you here” and “Think, think, think me another drink” are examples of the things told to a person. Neither choice is any good which is the nature of the double bind.

A ride that never ends

If a person is working the steps and failing to prosper, they are presented with a mental mind fuck of the highest caliber. They are left deciding whether their failure is that of program – which they are constantly reminded cannot fail. Or, is their inability to give themselves over to an irrational belief the cause of their failure. They are in a double bind because they have already acquiesced to the idea of the possibility that a higher power™ will rid them of their addictions, if only they weren’t so prideful, arrogant, selfish. They have no idea when to hop off the ride, because they don’t know if it isn’t the next meeting when they will “get it”. Or the next one, or the next one. If they leave AA, they will never know if they are making a mistake. They will never know if their concerns about AA and mind control and manipulation are justified. Ever. This is why it is often difficult to convey to those who haven’t experienced AA, or those currently under its spell, that it is a cult. A double bind is a psychological and subjective thing, and they are not ‘provable’.

There are other types of double binds, as well. Here are some examples, and how they pertain to AA:

Guilt/Fear Double Bind:

“I could openly question the mind control tactics used by many of the old-timers and people in authority, and that I see that the things I am being told are simply not true, and I just want to walk away and enjoy a sober life.”

Staying in AA and working the steps and pretending to believe the dogma is uncomfortable, but it makes me acceptable to my AA peer group, and acceptable to my family who believes that only my presence in AA will allow my sobriety.

Leaving AA will detach me from my social circle, which is centred around AA; and will detach me from my family, who I love.

Fear/Guilt Double Bind

“I have always been honest with people, and if I see something I think needs to be pointed out as good or bad, I do so. I see a lot of things being said and done to people that I don’t like”

Damned if he does:
His honest appraisals will be characterized as false.

Damned if he doesn’t:
He will be guilt ridden.

Guilty Double Bind
“Getting it” is a favorite term in AA. What is often heard is something to the effect of, “I was like you. I struggled with what I was being told, I questioned how this could possibly work, and I thought I knew everything. Finally, I gave it all over to God and said ‘you take over’, and I finally got it.” I’ve heard this eureka moment described in varying ways a thousand times over. “Finally, I understood”, “Finally, I felt at peace”, etc. Essentially, it is a description of the fulfillment of those 12 promises. If you don’t reach the point of “getting it”, and you are still struggling, you did not try hard enough. “Sure you did X, but you didn’t…” The “but you didn’t…” becomes the the new ingredient needed to reach your own “get it” moment, and if you never get it, you are guilty of having not worked the program:

If you don’t work the whole program, you are guilty of not being sincere;
If you do work the program, you are guilty of not being honest.

At this point, the “suggestions” that AA speaks of become a false choice, and a way to pull a person further into the double bind: “do these things, or you cannot reach those promises”. Basically, “these things” consist of shutting off your brain and accepting on faith what AA is offering is true. This leads to another double bind:

If I shut off my brain, I won’t be able to discern the truth, as my tool for determining the truth has been shut down;
If I don’t shut off my brain, I won’t be able to believe what is false.

  • Cuda

    Here's the top 10 cults. AA didn't make the list for some reason. Maybe because we don't steal things, prostitute ourselves or sell our children to raise money for our leader. We do however cough up a buck to cover the expenses. We also don't kill people on an airstrip when they try to leave. Maybe it's because we don't shave our heads and run around in an orange toga playing the tambourine and being such a constant irritant. So much that people pay us to go away. We do have leaders of sorts but none of them has tried to convince anyone to kill themselves so they can catch a ride on a spaceship that's following a comet.
    Anyways, here's the list and I guess we'll have to try a little harder. Would type more but I've got a lot of catching up to do.
    1. The People's Temple
    2. Branch Davidians
    3. The Solar Temple
    4. Heavens Gate
    5. The Manson Family
    6. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK)
    7. Children of God
    8. The Unification Church (moonies)
    9. Hare Krishna
    10. Scientology

    • M A

      I wouldn't put AA up there with Jim Jones and David Koresh, although I know some batshit krazy AAs. AA doesn't have the top down structure of a normal cult. It's unique in a lot of ways. It is more of a rhizome cult. Of those groups you listed, the one I would most compare it to is Scientology. They are the same in many ways.

  • mcgowdog

    How about biker gangs? Pussy-faced tweenas who get tats all over their face and necks and arms and knuckles? If you have a tat, you're somebody's bitch.

    What a morose article this was. It really depressed me. What was your illness M.A.? Seriously? If it was depression or hemoroids or ulcer, I could believe it.

    Who wants to think about poor little kids getting Father Nelsoned? Or poor paranoid schizophrenics? My brother is schizo. I had a really mean girlfriend once, a fire-crotch… and I took here to meet my parents for Christmas. My bro was out of the loony bin for the weekend and he makes me nervous. He smokes a cig in about 35 seconds, paces the floor, stares at the mirror, stares at you, spouts off jibberish and stuff, then sits down and slurps little sips out of his dr pepper, or which he drinks about a case of daily.

    Well, Fire-crotch was going off about how immature I was behaving and stuff and telling my mom all this… not a good move, but then my bro, God bless his heart, walked right to the closet, grabbed a broom and handed it to Ginger and said, "Here, fly away."

    Well anyways, I did kinesiology on this post and came up with a 70. That's right down there with Revelations. I'd rather punch myself in the ear than read some of this stuff.

    Happy Super Bowl Weekend!

    • AnnaZed

      What is a "tweena"?

      And, dude, your hatred and fear of women is really bizarre and extreme, even for a sad semi-literate loony guy posting anonymously on the internet. "Fire crotch?" yikes, you need to get that checked.

      • friendthegirl

        Let's not forget "Pussy-faced."

  • Cuero

    AA is a wannabe cult; at best. If it is that. basically, it is an ersatz social club. The operative question is not why people leave. That is obvious. All you need do is read what Cuda and mcgowdog write. The question is: Why do people stay?

    Because it serves a purpose. Which begs tjhe question. What is the purpose of staying?

    the purpose of AA is to 'stop drinking' and that purpose is served, yet people remain. Why? What is the kick?

    I will let 'devotees' of the 'AA cult' to explain why they stay after the apparent purpose has been served. What better place to explain oher than the belly of the beast of 'anti aa' which, by all accounts, is this web site.

    So, speak 'devotees' of the 'aa cult'. You entered the belly of the beast, 'devotees'. Speak.

  • Cuda

    Either you missed that day in AA training or you never went to AA at all . If that be the case then you're blindly mouthing off.
    The main gist of AA is Alcoholics helping Alcoholics. We stay sober and ensure permanant sobriety by helping other alcoholics. Who in turn help other Alcoholics. Helping others is only mentioned about 300 times in the book. I said that because I assume you don't have a book. Of course that means that you're blindly mouthing off. But we already knew that.
    Here's Dr Bob's take. It's in the book too.
    1. Sense of duty.

    2. It is a pleasure.

    3. Because in so doing I am paying my debt to the man who took time to pass it on to me.

    4.Because every time I do it I take out a little more insurance for myself against a possible slip.

    It's like asking someone why they go to Church since they've accepted Jesus, been Baptized, and asked to be forgiven. What the hell dothey need togo to Church for?

    In a nutshell, it's not about me. When you've finally had your ass handed to you by alcohol enough times you may end up in an AA meeting.
    When you do you'll be thankful that some of us dumbasses stuck around.

    • M A

      I understand your motives for staying in AA, Cuda. I don't doubt you want to help others. A lot of people in AA have that motive. A pay it forward type of idea. I can buy into that, and I've seen that, and I don't doubt your desire to help others and show appreciation for your own sobriety. I've also seen other motives, as well. They aren't altruistic motives, but insidious ones. Here are three:

      We all know there is a hierarchy in AA, albeit an unwritten one. Old-timers rule the roost, and I would bet my pet dog that you have seen old-timers with a god complex abuse their status within the group. AA affords a person who is an otherwise loser the respect he cannot attain in outside world, simply because he has remained sober. Their motive in continuing AA is not altruistic, but to satisfy their ego, which is ironically what the steps are supposed to temper.

      You also have the AAs who are afraid to leave because they have been convinced that their leaving is a first step in relapse. This idea has been conditioned into their brain. This is actually an example of a double bind that this post discusses. If you verbally tell someone who wants to leave the group, "fine, you can leave anytime", but your tone and body language imply that in so doing, you are going to slip, that is a double bind. It fucks with the other person's head, and they will most likely stay out of fear of going back to the hell they were in while actively drinking. They will think of examples of a "dry drunk", and will be deathly afraid they will be one, which by AA's definition they will be if they aren't working the program. A person is only in recovery if they "work the program". So this person will stay and keep attending meetings.

      Finally, there are AAs who stay because their social circle is almost exclusively AA, and they will be shunned by a good many of their AA buddies if they leave the group. This is very common. You should read some of the letters our blog receives from people describing the treatment they received from their AA buddies when they left the group. For many, not all, but many, the love given in AA is conditional. People want to be loved and cared for and not judged, which why many were motivated to go to AA to begin with. The love bombing "most important person in the room" works. There are lots of closet AAs who have lost faith in the dogma, and stay because they don't want to lose friends.

    • raysny

      Cuda writes:

      "When you’ve finally had your ass handed to you by alcohol enough times you may end up in an AA meeting."

      I'll end up at AA meetings again, but only for amusement or to keep it fresh in my mind.

      See, I don't worry about getting into trouble with drinking ever again. I've been sober for eight years now, my life is set up so that it's easier not to drink. I mat take a drink again someday, I may not, but it will never again be a driving force in my life.

  • Cuero

    Curiosity Cuda. I appreciate your honesty. And, your sense of humor. Thanks.
    MA, your pov is close to mine.

  • Susan

    Guilty Double Bind
    “Getting it” is a favorite term in AA. What is often heard is something to the effect of, “I was like you. I struggled with what I was being told, I questioned how this could possibly work, and I thought I knew everything. Finally, I gave it all over to God and said ‘you take over’, and I finally got it.”

    Interesting post, MA. This last bit makes me wonder if there is some term for the moment when you accept the cognitive dissonance, or it is no longer dissonant, i.e. "getting it". A sort of 2+2=5 kind of moment, if you will. (Other than brainwashing, which seems the obvious.)

    I had always described these things in AA as a catch 22, but I like knowing that there is a slightly more scientific term for them.

    • friendthegirl

      How about, "going 'round the bend"? 🙂

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  • Z

    Double binds, and everything is always the opposite of what you would think.

    You know what you want? That's impulsive.

    You are still undecided, but are thinking it over? That's obsessive.

    And on, and on.

    But they definitely don't want you to think or meditate.

    However, I have been meditating on this and wondering if it is obsessive but I think it is more like being a monk in the desert, not breaking meditation and keeping on with the project — not for the sake of "productivity" but for the sake of … knowledge.

    I discern that what the "program" does is teach you how to turn your most positive skills against yourself.

    It is out of field for me but I believe there are theological terms for these kinds of distortions and misdirections.

  • Z

    Ah – I really am starting to get it!

    In this system, you have to become an open wound – it is inevitable, given the terms they set out.

    Victory or overcoming is denial;

    Healing is dishonest;


    Also, it is a quasi system with a quasi language – not just a vocabulary, but also a syntax of sorts, a standard narrative structure. People try to acquire it as they would an actual system, but it turns out to be kind of faux (and solipsistic, I guess). I wonder whether it could bear study in this sense. The key is the way it has some apparent characteristics of an actual theory, but not enough, and they aren't real enough – only enough to convince people that they just haven't tried hard enough yet. That keeps them whirling and looking again. I think this is what in the old days would have been called demonic.

  • diablo

    hey you already visited this subject. Thanks ftg for the plug. This is something that has interested me since reading it maybe 5-6 years ago. I assisted me on closing the door on AA and finally understanding my past life in residential treatment programs.

    Here is a comment a friend of mine made concerning AA and a TC;
    One thought about the ”Double Bind and the AA connection”:
    I think the core idea with all this shit, is that the person is fundamentally flawed, and in need of being fixed, but the double bind, as I see it, or at least, a double bind, would be that it requires abandonment of the self, and without the self there can be no growth. There can be no anything really. It’s like trust yourself but don’t. Everything about you is wrong, so be right, but how do you be right, if you re fundamentally wrong. The only way, you could attempt it, after accepting those premises, would be to give yourself completely over to an authority .. but then the authority says, ”be yourself”, and now here we are again, at the double bind.

    there is a double bind going on in the rooms of AA but I disagree that it originates from the literature or Bill Wilson. ( I am open to have my mind changed) I believe the AA that exists today the “only one I know of” is creating a “Double Bind”. The people are leaving TC’s and coming in to AA already de-flowered and entrenched in the “Double Bind”.

    My experience with a TC happened over 30 years ago in Maine a place called Elan One Corp, What a hell hole this place was. I was 16 years of age when I went, I did not enter AA until 10 years later.
    I will speak more of this later.


    Do the steps or die …. then its only a suggested program

    Attraction not promotion …. but the judge mandated me …

    Our leaders are but trusted servants they do not govern …. Avail yourself a sponsor 90 meetings in 90 days

    The men with the men and the woman with the woman … what if your gay?

    This is a spiritual not religious program … Now lets close with the lords prayer

    Keep the focus on yourself ….. I am responsible to extend the hand of AA

    We have no dues or fees …. But get yourself a big book

    Anything you put before the program you will loose …. My wife and family don’t understand why all I do is go to meetings

    No relationships in the first year …. Our basic inability to have a relationship with another human being

    keep the focus on yourself …. our problem has been our self centeredness

    I can go on and on and on and on with this and you want to know why people in the rooms loose it …. Its because the philosophy is inherently flawed … you cant go in a straight line all you do is wander in a meandering circle sooner or later …. its nutsvile

    glad to be cult free another day ……:)


    Cuda first 8 cults are serious law breakers … 9 is very …. visible …. 10 is known as a hollywood cult … AA is a secret cult like the free masons or the skull and bones …. thats what makes it really dangerous …. you don’t know its a cult when you join

  • yahoo

    No wonder a lot of people put guns to their heads in AA/NA. When I was using I never once thought about killing myself but when in the rooms I thought of it constantly after 3 years. It wasn’t until I opened my eyes & ears to the bullshit that I stopped taking meds & suicidal thoughts went away. I do believe AA is the cult of Bill Ws personality. The fear-mongering in the rooms kills any self-confidence & self-esteem in people who are already vunerable from the effects of using.

  • Z

    @yahoo, cult of *Bill W’s personality*, now that really makes sense!

    I still have suicidal ideation when the pain gets too bad. I don’t think it’s natural to me — I have an optimistic nature and all that — it’s that double bind that catches me in its vise and when the pain grips me tight I feel I would be willing to renounce anything, even life, just to get away from it.

  • Z

    P.S. @Johnny Crash, *great* points on the inherently flawed philosophy! 🙂

  • Ronny


    You specify some cults in your. But do not forget that double bind is cognitive dissonance that every human has a potential to suffer from or commit. You can find this cognitive flaw in your daily life and even in more “established” and “decent” religious or ideological environments.

  • Serena

    The tautology of “works if you work it” drives me up the wall every
    time, even though I say it myself. The thing is, it is true. Any change
    program works if you work it. Just as the Atkins Diet works if you
    sustainably cut carbs drastically, cutting calories moderately at the
    same time and still exercise, but… most people fall off it who try it.
    Not because they were dishonest or lazy at all, but because they didn’t
    have enough energy on a low-calorie diet to still exercise, and carb
    cravings became overwhelming. There are many reasons for that, social,
    economic, genetic and psychological, but they worked it as well as they
    could and yes, they failed it, but that’s because it failed them by not
    meeting their needs and being unsustainable. The same with Jenny Craig,
    the Mediterranean Diet and any diet at all. The same with any recovery
    program. Of course it works if you work it, since by definition working
    it means staying sober as well as all the rest of the requirements of
    the program. But not everyone finds it a sustainable way to stay sober.
    So saying it works if you work it is like saying it works if it works.