A "double bind" is a particular type of conflict that creates a "no way out" situation, i.e. one in which one is "damned if you do it, and damned if you don't". According to anthropologist Gregory Bateson, who first identified and defined the concept of double bind, these conflicts are at the root of creativity and psychosis. What matters is whether or not one is able to identify and transcend the constraint appropriately.
Double binds often have a quality of circularity, which makes them a kind of "Catch-22", and leads to a feeling of confusion and helplessness. The classic example is the Salem witch trials, in which one of the tests to determine if someone was a witch was to tie them up and throw them in the water. If the person floated and survived, they were considered a witch and were put to death. If the person sank and drowned, they were exempt from being a witch, but were, of course, also dead. Thus, the essential structure of a double bind is as follows:
If you don't do A, you won't be able to (survive, be safe, have fun, etc.). But if you do A, you won't be able to (survive, be safe, have fun, etc.).
The most emotionally intense double binds occur in the context of important interpersonal relationships. They often involve what appears to be a power struggle in which one person tries to "prove" the other. Such a struggle can also occur within a person.
These types of intractable struggles are often the root of mental and physical illnesses. They can also occur during a person's attempts to heal and thwart progress towards wellness. Yet, even though double binds can seem daunting, it is possible to pull it off, provided you have the right skills and conditions. Breaking out of a double bind situation essentially involves recognizing and dealing with the "conditions" that are necessary to produce the double bind.
In his book Towards an Ecology of the Spirit Gregory Bateson defines the essential "ingredients" of a situation of double bind. This program will cover ways to identify double binds and the underlying conditions that create them, as well as some of the ways in which double binds can be resolved, transformed, and transcended.