Tactics of a Narcissistic Mother by Gail Meyers

Recognizing Double Bind Coercion

As adult sons and daughters of narcissistic personality disordered mothers, we are intimately familiar with double binds.  The proverbial double bind is a form of control without open coercion.  In other words, it is using a manipulation tactic without looking like you are manipulating.  It is being put in a damned if we do, damned if we don't situation, and damned if you say anything about it.

Double bind dilemmas leave us feeling trapped, confused and often exhausted. This article looks at five types of double binds, as well providing effective solutions. 

1.  The Ultimatum Double Bind

  • A dilemma requiring a decision between one thing and another thing, but choosing either one of them will bring a consequence you do not want to experience.
  • Then, if you comment or confront the person bringing you this dilemma, that will bring you a consequence you do not want.
  • All three responses will bring you consequences you do not want.
  • So you decide you are not going to participate in this, but making no decision at all will also bring you a consequence.
  • Trapped on all sides
  • No winning
  • You are in a catch-22
This is being in a double bind, which is a form of control without open coercion.  You are not directly being told what to do.  The part that is coercion is the confusion.  We are so confused that we can not really respond to what is going on.

So we end up either trying to defend ourselves, trying to explain our way out of it or saying it is unfair.  So we end up choosing the one we think is the least repulsive.  However, we are still choosing something we do not want to choose.  We minimize it.

How to Handle Double Binds

  1. Do not introvert.  Pull back and look at the bigger picture of what is going on.
  2. Don't defend yourself.
  3. Detach. This is not your game.  This is their game.  Whether used intentionally or inadvertently, double binds are a way of controlling someone's behavior without looking like you are trying to coerce.  This is not about you, it is about the other person.
  4. Look for additional options.
  • Examine the situation and the relationship to avoid future double binds.
  • Turn the double bind back on the person who put you in it.  Example:  The double bind is the husband says stay married to him or finish school.  Respond that you are going to go to school and it is up to him whether he wants to say married to you.




2.  The Contradicting Directive Double Bind

The contradicting directive is when two instructions conflict one another.  

  • For example, a mother telling a child to show her father how she plays spontaneously.  You can not play spontaneously on purpose because if it is on purpose it is not spontaneous.  So it is mind bending.  The opposing instructions are confusing and can cause anxiety.
  • Another example is a wife wants her husband to go to the opera.  He does not like the opera.  She tells him not to go unless he wants to go.  However, he knows from previous experience if he does not go she will punish him.  So he goes, hating it the whole time, but he is having to act as if he likes it.  So he is trapped.  He is going to get punished or have to pretend he is having fun.

3.  The Double Bind Question

A question assuming a decision you have not yet made.
  • For example, you are looking at a sofa that will match your decorum, it is the right size and you like it.  However, you have not decided to buy it.  Yet, the salesperson asks you whether you are going to pay cash or use credit?  You have not said you are going to buy the sofa.  The question assumes a decision you have not yet made.
  • Solutions:  State you have not decided to buy it or pretend you did not even hear them ask that question.

4.  Two Conflicting Messages Double Bind

  • For example, your Grandmother gives you two t-shirts.  One is a long-sleeve yellow t-shirt and the other is a short sleeve blue t-shirt.  Monday morning you come down to breakfast wearing the yellow t-shirt.  She looks at you and says, "You don't like the blue t-shirt?"  The next day you come down wearing the blue t-shirt.  She says, "You don't like the yellow t-shirt?"  The message is confusing because when you wear one she implies you do not like the other one.  So Wednesday you come down and you are wearing both t-shirts, the yellow and the blue.  She says, "You're wearing both of those t-shirts?  That's just weird."  
  • Ideally, if you can communicate with her about it and resolve it that is the best solution.  Here is how to handle it if that conversation is fruitless. 
  • Solution:  Do not introvert or try to figure it out.  Don't defend yourself.  Do not attack her.  Step back and detach.  Tell yourself this is her thing, not yours.  This is her issue and not about you.

5.  Double Bind When Words and Actions Do Not Match 

  • For example, when someone is telling you you they love your or you are important to them.  However, their actions are telling a different story.   
  • Solution:  Again, look at the big picture.  Double binds cause a lot of confusion.  So, the goal is to get out of the confusion.  This is about them, not about you.  Then look for a third solution, instead of trying to figure this out.

Double Bind Life Survey Exercise

  • Survey your life and look for double binds.  
  • When you feel trapped and confused, it is often because you are in a double bind.
  • When you realize you are in a double bind, look to see who is putting you there. 
  • Look for where you are putting other people in double binds.   


    1. Gail, thank you for this insight. My NPD mother recently put me in a situation that until today was very difficult to explain. I live in Florida, as do her 2 sisters, with whom she is very close. One more than the other, but she prioritizes her relationship with her sisters above all else. Twice now, she has caused a fight that culminates with her having a temper tantrum and deciding NOT to come visit me. I've pulled far away from engaging in her abuse & dysfunction and so what did she do? She bought 2 tickets for her & I to…take a cruise together! This way, her goal of always having a good time and being pampered is met, and if I decline - she's the victim / hero because she's shown to be 'trying to mend the relationship' with her daughter! As I write this, she's on the cruise with my enabling / abusive father - after having (again!) another meltdown prior to coming to FL and (again!) saying they're not coming to see me. Well, my father is on this trip, and I think he wants to come see me anyway, and is going to force the issue - Though she's screamed they're not coming here, I believe they'll pull into my driveway unannounced this weekend. I'm a wreck as to how to protect myself, whether to even allow them to come in, and basically..where to go / what to do from here.

    2. Take a trip for the time period they may show up unannounced, even if it's staying with friends. Disassociate yourself from their sickness.

    3. Dear Ms. Meyers, I just finished reading this article, and I have been in a horrible double bind for 2 years now with no solution in sight. 7 years ago my husband decided to take over his family's home, which is in a foreign country, after his mother passed away. It was badly in need of renovation. I did not want to take on this project at this stage of life nearing retirement. Married for 32 years, my husband told me he was doing it anyway, so I felt I had no choice and got on board 100% to help with the renovation while still working full time.The house was barely finished when I learned he had been having an affair for 3 years in this house and had used our new bed. this other woman basically moved in and used my things whenever I wasn't with him. I have been in therapy ever since this devastating betrayal was revealed. Now the dilemma is this: If I go there with him to keep an eye on things I am miserable and depressed because I imagine the two of them everywhere. But if I stay home I am convinced they will resume the affair because she lives only a a half mile away. I want to sell the house, but my husband refuses, though he has also at times promised that we would sell. However he keeps reneging on these promises, or he denies he made the, claiming that I must "get over it". I am considering leaving him but at my age it would also devastate me. I have bee in therapy since this broke but I am still in this double-bind dilemma with no end in sight. Any suggestions?

      1. 63, I am not a licensed therapist and I cannot advise you in your situation. My heart goes out to you as you continue to work through this with your therapist.

    4. My wife who I believe has NPD (unfortunately a married a woman just like my mother). Here is a typical double Bind that she plays on me (we cannot go out to eat because of all her food allergies and I cannot cook good enough to please her):

      Wife: Deeply sighing and looking very distressed. I just do not feel like cooking supper tonight.
      Me reply #1: That is all right, I am not that hungry.
      Wife reply #1: I am hungry all you care about is yourself. I need to eat.
      Me reply #2: Would you please cook supper?
      Wife reply #2: All you care about is yourself, I work so hard and now you want me to cook supper.

      She does that often and if I catch a glance when she does not see me looking, she has the most evil look on her face. Getting rather old.

    5. Could you try to cook together- just wonder how that would go? If she complains the whole time- let her know it- and walk out of the room letting her cook on her own- I did this and it does work eventually because they end up doing all the cooking or they learn to be quiet when you cook or back to NOT doing any of the cooking again!!! Also maybe pick one or two nights each week to eat out in advance! Good luck!

    6. good information. thank you so much

    7. I went through all of this in youth, from a very young age, with an openly abusive over the top narcissistic father and an underhanded neglectful covert narcissistic mother; always willing to throw me under the bus, "for the good of the family". She was clever enough to turn my honest and healthy hatred towards my father around so that the objective became to try to win the respect and approval of a highly critical parent who was very much into scapegoating, ridicule, mockery, and derision, which was one hell of a set up to deliberately put upon a child, as if I could be responsible for the behavior of an alcoholic parent, and win over a hateful drunk; with the imposition of guilt and shame should I not succeed. Brilliant, covert narcissists are far more damaging and dangerous than the overt ones!

    8. Great advice for adults, but I can't imagine a child be sophisticated enough to respond in these ways. The double bind technique is used often by narcissistic parents and it is truly impossible for a child to cope. Example: My older brother tormented me relentlessly emotionally and physically. He mocked me, teased me, called me names, stole, hid, destroyed my belongings, hit me, kicked me, tripped me, pulled my hair, and even pushed me to the ground, sat on me and tried to strangle me once. I learned the hard way not to tell my mother. She would respond with "What did you to him?", "Don't be a tattle tale", "You're too sensitive", or "Just ignore him and he'll stop." It was always, some how, my fault. I once made the mistake of telling my dad. He confronted my mother and disciplined my brother appropriately. The following day, when he was at work, she proceeded to punish me for "going behind her back" and she gave him the cold shoulder treatment for days. How is a child supposed to win that sadistic game?


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