Bounded choice is a term that describes a situation wherein a person appears to have choices, but none of them are really attainable or viable. For Second Generation Adults – those who were raised in high demand religion, I believe that they face at least two specific kinds of bounded choice. One involves ignorance of alternatives. The other involves double binds.
Ignorance about a Better Way
Imagine asking a blind person to describe color or a deaf person that has never heard any sound to understand and describe music. Children who grow up very cloistered will understand their baseline as a normal, healthy life, and they will not conceive of anything outside of their small world. I recently spoke to a woman who was raised in a very isolated cult, and her family didn't have a telephone or a television. As an adult, someone asked her why she didn't phone the police when she was assaulted.
Having spent most of her life without a telephone and without observing adults using phones, that option didn't occur to her – had a phone even been available. She didn't have television, so she never saw a newscast or a drama where someone in danger phoned the police for help. Not until years later did she realize that she was completely ignorant about what our society considers a typical and healthy response.
Many children who grow up in high demand homes or within high demand religion may find that they are “damned if they do and damned if they don't.” Unreasonable standards may be expected of them, but they lack the authority and skill to perform well enough to meet that standard. Confusing mixed messages give way to a type of pessimism and resignation because the child depends on the support and care of their parents and their religious group. They could walk away, but they don't have the means by which to walk away. They are forced to choose between the lesser of evils or one with the least unpleasant consequences.
My Own Bounded Choice
I was molested when I was a school age child – by the adult son of the woman who babysat for me. I don't believe that I could have survived reporting the matter, and I didn't even identify it as problematic for a few years. But I knew that I suffered shame and punishment when I failed. This situation couldn't possibly seem like more of a failure in good fortune.
Did I have a choice to report my abuser? Yes and no. My choices were bounded, and none were really viable. I was inseparably tethered by my thinking to the stake of my parents’ own problems and expectations. I was not truly free, I could only function within the short range of tethered options. I was stuck in a double bind – a dilemma that offered no true good alternatives. Each choice presented terrible consequences, and I was too young and too limited to be able to really make decisions of such magnitude. I also didn't have reliable emotional support from my significant others at the time.
Bounded choices that result from double binds offer mostly bad bargains, but I never really thought of it as a bargain. I had only one possible choice which I didn’t really see as a choice at all — to go along with the abuse. I chose to make the sacrifice that seemed to me to benefit the most people by paying as much of that cost myself. I did it because I loved my parents, and I sought what was best for them (and for my abuser). None of my options were good ones, and they were beyond what many adults could face. But I wasn’t an adult. And due to my mother’s depression and her own issues of shame, I didn’t even have the resources that well-adjusted children had. At that point I chose to spare the lives of those most immediate to me, but at the continued cost of myself.