One major component of my mental health recovery has been working on eliminating double binds. A double bind is typically a situation where you’re only given negative choices with negative consequences but you still feel forced to choose one of them. During my mental health journey, there were several ongoing double-binding situations that I needed to unlearn to become healthier.
The first one was my middle school experience. I was made fun of constantly and my peers called me a number of names and told me “to kill myself” almost every time I spoke. Within this situation, I felt like my only option was to continue trying to make friends with them because the other option was loneliness. Both options lead me to feel dark and negative emotions and it was incredibly difficult either way.
This thinking pattern of having to make friends with people who were damaging towards me made me feel trapped. I had two options, neither of which were reasonable, and they both had very damaging consequences. The consequences became so damaging that I had a near suicide attempt but decided not to carry through with it thankfully. At times I avoided the other kids because it was painful to be around them but this also wasn’t very helpful.
Going forward I eventually grew out of the pain of middle school by playing sports. Being on an athletic team helped boost my confidence and helped me to make friends again. However, this created a lot of pressure to do well at sports. There was an implicit message that I had to do well at sports and be good otherwise the other options from my past were that I would either be told to kill myself on a daily basis and become suicidal or I would just be lonely in general.
Unlearning this pattern and realizing there are always positive options has been incredibly helpful. While I was younger I never consciously processed that these were seemingly my only options, however, there was definitely an implicit message through my experiences that athleticism was seemingly the only way out. Learning that I can create positive options when I’m only given negative ones has been extremely healthy but came in later years.
During my teenage years, I had a desperate desire to make friends with everyone, otherwise, the consequences seemed dire. Again, these were unconscious notions from middle school but when I unlearned them in later years it was incredibly liberating. Before learning this social situations felt like a pressure-cooker where I had to make friends in order to survive. I would do or say anything and everything I could to be friends with everyone I met. I didn’t actually listen to my own values, rather I tried figuring out what other people wanted from me and I would do anything anyone wanted to have friends.
This led to me being willing to listen to anyone for any reason just to make a friend and growing up I didn’t have a very true sense of self, and my sense of self changed from conversation to conversation. My survival technique was to make friends with anyone at all costs. Many times the costs were being made fun of, being peer pressured into doing stupid things, and treating myself in disrespectful ways along with not standing up for myself. I developed a notion that I couldn’t stand up for myself because it would lead to me not having friends and the implicit message from earlier years was that this could lead to death.
While in college, I pledged a fraternity and I believe the experience of pledging triggered the development of schizophrenia. Before pledging the frat I was fine and I had a normal life, but one of the major components of pledging was double binds. We were forced to drink exorbitant amounts of alcohol until we either passed out or vomited violently sometimes having both happen. The fraternity’s notion of caretaking was making sure you were on your stomach to ensure gravity would cause the vomit to fall downwards and away from your windpipe.
Throughout the pledge process, we were constantly told we had to put up with the abuse, pledge meetings, abusive tirades that were directed towards us, the fear and intimidation, and if we didn’t we would be damned even worse. Being damned even worse would mean quitting the fraternity, but taking the latter option meant the frat was going to hunt us down and make our lives a living hell no matter where we went on campus which was frequently stated very explicitly during pledge meetings. So having pledged the frat created the underlying message that in order to have friendships you had to be damaging to yourself no matter what and you had no other options and that you had to put up with abuse to be a part of a social group.
This was a major double bind and going forward in my life I internalized this behavior. There were a number of instances where I was only willing to give myself negative options, neither of which was very good, and I was forced to choose one or the other. For many years this was a hellacious thinking pattern that I just recently broke.
From my earlier years, it was implied if I didn’t have any friends my only option was death. Realizing I didn’t have to make friends with everyone I met liberated me in a number of ways. Originally I felt a strong desire to maintain friendships no matter how I was being treated, but there were many times people didn’t have my best interest in mind and they were leveraging the friendship to gain things from me. This happened after my first episode of schizophrenia. I had no friends but there were people I had known from earlier years that wanted me to hang out and play cards. They pretended to be my friends while taking as much money from me as they possibly could, and when I ran out of money they stopped calling me.
During this time I continued to frequent the card game because I felt this immeasurable pressure to make friends otherwise I just wouldn’t be able to deal with the consequences. It felt like a ton of pressure to maintain potential friendships that in retrospect did not have any elements of kindness or goodness or of true friendship in them whatsoever. Again the underlying notion was not making friends would lead to my death, however, I wasn’t consciously aware of this. There was so much mental and emotional pressure to have friends that I was willing to lose close to ten thousand dollars to maintain these friendships and I played cards until my bank account ran out. Once the money ran out the people I thought were my friends stopped picking up the phone.
I finally realized that I have to give myself positive options and create positive options even when others aren’t providing them for me. For a while, I was a binary thinker believing there were usually only two options within any given situation and I had to choose one or the other, even if both weren’t good. Going forward I’ve learned I can always create new options for myself and I can give myself positive options, especially when other people aren’t doing so. There were a number of instances it felt like people only gave me negative options and I had to listen to them and choose one. As I’ve grown older I’ve realized the fraternity, the gamblers, the middle schoolers, don’t make the rules, and I don’t have to follow the rules of a double bind no matter who’s making them. I’m always free to create positive options for myself and to give myself a positive way out of any situation, especially when others aren’t doing so.
Another important component of this was realizing that I was only giving other people negative options at times as well. I realized in order to create and maintain friendships it was incredibly important to provide positive options for people whether this was conversationally, situationally, mentally or emotionally, and just in any context I could. This took the form of always allowing a conversation to go in a positive direction, allowing people to feel positive emotions whenever they wanted, allowing people to think positive thoughts about themselves as well. Doing so has helped make socialization become a lot easier and has helped me to think more freely as well.
My mental and emotional clarity have improved a great deal since taking this new approach and I can say that I have friends who are truly good friends and have my best interest in mind.