Unbinding the double bind: An autoethnography of the lived experiences of a child growing up with a mentally ill parent




Gee, Ginnifer Cie

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This is an autoethnographic study that analyzes the lived experiences of a child growing up with a mentally ill parent. The focus is on identity construction in an adverse environment from the perspective of symbolic interactionism. A review of literature reveals that the experience of growing up with a mentally ill parent has potentially profound influences on identity, but virtually no research has explored this phenomenon from a communication perspective. Narratives of the childhood experiences are analyzed phenomenologically. The recurrent themes of fear, guilt, and anger are identified as essential representative traits of the experience. Examples from each of these themes are presented. The theory of the double bind is used to explain the communication that occurred within these themes. The double bind communication phenomenon is rooted in contradictory/paradoxical messages, which is found to have a great impact on identity formation. Analysis of the narratives reveal the double bind situations that occurred in the context of mental illness, the identity that was created from them, and the eventual reframing of the contradictory messages and escape of the double bind.


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autoethnography, double bind, identity, parental mental illness, phenomenology, symbolic interactionism