Binds, Double Binds and Unconscious Double Binds – Part One

By Alan Jones,
Principal of Empowerment Trainings
Trainer with Talisman Training Ltd & Communicating Excellence

Over a number of articles I intend to examine binds, double binds and unconscious double binds in relation to therapy and hypnosis.

In this article I intend to introduce the various types of binds and offer some of my initial thoughts. Later articles will explore how a client’s unconscious structure, and use of ‘various binds,’ creates and sustains their “problems”.

These articles are based on my observations and understanding of various types of binds as used in Hypnotherapy and NLP as at the time of writing. They are by no means exhaustive or proven and are offered here for your consideration. I do however, believe that they play an important part in client problems and solutions.

Firstly, I would like to point out that NLP and NLP’s version of Ericksonian hypnotherapy have their own terminology, some of which has been borrowed from the linguistics of Transformational Grammar; the surface structure and deep structure of language postulated by Noam Chomsky.

The more common everyday English term “A double bind” comes from Chess or Card games, where a player only has two moves available, or two cards left to play and whichever move or card they play they will loose the game, there is no way out. The concept is also stated in colloquial phrases such as, “Dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t” or “Caught between a rock and a hard place.” I’m sure you can think of some more.

The simple Ericksonian style linguistic double bind of, “Would you like to go into trance in this chair or that chair?” Could be answered by, “Who said I want to go into trance.”, or, “Neither, I don’t want to go into trance.” So the linguistic binds that NLP and Hypnotherapy refer to might best be called pseudo, optional or self imposing binds, as they do not meet the criteria of the binds of Chess or Card games, (which offer no real choice!) Provided the client accepts the binds offered to them, then they are binding themselves; if they don’t accept the binds then they have the third option of rejecting them altogether. Anyone who has children and tried the bind, “Will you do your homework before or after dinner?” knows that the stock answer is likely to be, “Who said I’m going to do my homework?” An obvious rejection or non-acceptance of the bind offered.

To paraphrase Dr Milton H. Erickson, “I give my client’s all the freedom they need to follow my suggestions.” I believe that a part of his strategy was his use of binds directed to the unconscious mind, working in conjunction with his many other unique skills.

I intend to examine the structure of NLP/Ericksonian binds, double binds and unconscious double binds in two ways; as tools to assist someone to make changes, and as circular arguments that people use on themselves to block or inhibit change.


Binds can be used to assist someone into an altered state, they can be used by the client to keep themselves in a stuck state and they can be used to effect change. They can also be the basis of belief structures. In NLP the L stands for Linguistic, though this can be misinterpreted to mean simply words, my understanding is that it is anything a person does or does not do that is perceived as a communication either by a another or by themselves.

A bind can be explicitly or implicitly, stated. Implicit binds maybe recognised as incongruent communication. As in the case of a partner stating verbally “I don’t mind you going out”, whilst their non-verbals state “I don’t want you to go”. This type of bind, incongruent communication, is sited as a possible cause for some forms of schizophrenia, where a parent gives mixed messages on a consistent basis.

Single binds.

One dictionary definition of the word “bind” is, “To impose an obligation” as in someone agreeing to be bound by the rules of an organisation they wish to join. The linguistic pattern known as cause and effect, (where one thing is said to, or is implied to cause something else to happen, which may or may not be true) is often a bind.
For example, “the more you practice binds the better you will become at using them”.
By accepting this suggestion you are agreeing (Obligation) that this is a truth and therefore binds you to the outcome that by practicing them (Cause) you expect to improve (the effect) your ability to use them, don’t you?”

The simple question, “Are you ready to go into trance now?” Met with a congruent yes reply, binds the client into going into trance, if they do not go into trance, then they were not ready. Here the implied bind is ‘ready to go into trance.’

The question, “You don’t expect to make changes without going into trance, would you?” appears to be a simple reverse yes set question, which at one level it is. However, when the client provides a congruent “No” response to this question the client is binding themselves to the subtle suggestions of expecting to make changes, and that in order to make those changes they will have to go into trance. They are imposing these obligations on them self, more often than not outside of their conscious awareness. Although there are two binds in that question they are considered to be multiple single binds as there is no implied choice, (see double binds).

You may have also recognised this bind as a tag question with an embedded command and of course you are right. The “expect to make changes” is the embedded command. Deconstruct any sentence within the frame of Ericksonian Language Patterns and you will be surprised at what subtle language patterns you can find and finding them means you can use them even more effectively now, can’t you?

Double Binds

The next bind we will examine is the Double Bind or the illusion of choice.
The question, “Would you like to go into trance quickly or slowly?” appears to offer the choice of speed, whilst the assumption that the client will go into a trance is presupposed. By answering the question either “slowly” or “quickly” they are imposing the obligation on them self to go into trance.

Unconscious Double Binds

An Unconscious Double Bind is a question framed in the present, where the answer is not known at the time of the question, and can only be known at a point in time in the future as in, “I wonder will it be your left hand or your right hand that relaxes faster as you go into trance?” Until the trance occurs the client will not know which hand will relax more, by accepting or expecting that one hand will relax more than the other, or just being curious that this is a possibility, they bind them self to the outcome.
This type of bind is also used in conversation such as, “Will it be your love of language or your desire to ethically influence people that will make you practice binds more than other language patterns?” The chances are that this question had not been considered in this way before, therefore the answer could not have been known to you. In order for you to answer the question you had to go inside and check, any answer yes or no to either or both still means that the suggestion, you will practice binds has been accepted at some level by your unconscious.

A bind can be a cliché or a paradoxical argument which is often ironic, or a belief that we have accepted, they can be family injunctions, mottos or beliefs. None of these become binds unless we accept that they hold a truth for us at some level, and therefore buy into the bind, either consciously or unconsciously.

Here are a few examples:

“Don’t take life too seriously you will never get out of it alive.” (Bind ironic truth – you will die)

Or as found on a door at the Computing Centre, University of Hawaii..

“Good judgement comes from experience, (Belief and Single Bind)
experience comes from poor judgement” (Belief and Single Bind)
As recorded in “Is There Life Before Death” by Steve Andreas

“No one in our family will ever be famous.” (Belief Single Bind)

“No one in our family makes it to old age.” (Belief Single Bind)

“No pain no gain.” (Cliché Single Bind)

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” (Cliché Single Bind)

“A tidy desk means a tidy mind.” (Cliché Single Bind)

I’m sure you can think of lots more.

If we accept that we create our own reality the only question is, whether a particular bind is useful either generally or in the specific circumstances to which it is applied?

For example, “When the going gets tough the tough get going,” has been a useful bind and anchor (The song) for me and there are lots of times when it may not be appropriate.

You may be surprised, and delighted at how many binds and double binds you notice from now on. When you become aware of yourself, or others using them; you do not have to ask yourself, what effect they have, it is an option though.

In a future article I will examine deeper the construction and use of binds, double binds and unconscious double binds.

If you enjoyed thinking about the effects of binds then you might like to come back and read the next instalment, you might also like to let you friends know about the articles.

Alan Jones

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