Here’s What I Know About Hypnosis and Therapy….

I keep revising this — because it’s important — so if you read it and it seems like there are paragraphs out of place or missing — just come back in a few hours….

I’ve written before about the process of change — that it is possible (which is good news;) that it is not trivial — and is, in fact, difficult (which is less ‘good’ as news goes;) and that it required intention.  All things considered, this is still good news.  Change happens.  And it happens on purpose.

Which is why all the best therapists I’ve known in my life have said — most of the work that has to happen in therapy actually happens the moment the client telephones to make the appointment.  That act alone says that they have the desire and the intention to change something about themselves.  It’s only the means — the tools and the actual work — that are missing, and that’s what therapists are there to provide and foster.  Different therapists have different tool boxes and methods, and many are quite competent and diligent at the work they do.

All in all — good news.

While training to work in therapeutic hypnosis, there was always that funny disconnect in my head about the difference in perception about stage hypnosis — the kind done in cabarets and business conferences for entertainment — with people clucking like chickens and purring like kitties on a stage; as opposed to therapeutic hypnosis, which allows the practitioner to have direct contact with the unconscious mind of the client in a therapeutic environment.

We’ve all seen movies and TV where someone very carefully explains that it is impossible to get someone to perform an act under the influence of hypnosis that they would not willingly do without the hypnotic altered state.  At least once every year there is some hot-shot television writer who uses this point to spin a plot.

And then there’s the Manchurian Candidate.

Which sort of shoots the innocent hypnotism plot-devise in the kneecaps.

But Manchurian Candidate does bring the other problem with hypnosis into the bright light of cinemascope: the Svengali-Zombie nightmare.

Here’s the headline of an ad I pulled from the internet today:

“Who Else Wants To Quickly & Easily Put
People Under Your Control
And Get Them To
Do What YOU Want?

“Yes! Discover How To Supercharge What
You Say By Stirring In Secret Magical
Phrases Which Drip With Power, To Put
Other So Called ‘Wizards’ To Shame!”


Bad grammar aside, the first thing you want to notice is that both lines are in quotes.  I didn’t put the quotation marks there — the person who built the page I lifted this from put them there.  BECAUSE THEY CAN CLAIM IN COURT THAT THEIR ADVERTISEMENT DIDN’T MAKE ANY CLAIMS — THEY WERE QUOTING SOMEBODY ELSE (who is conveniently unnamed) WHO MADE THESE CLAIMS.

It’s a no-fault advertisement.  This guy is selling the idea of having power over others without fear of litigation.

And, it’s nonsense.  Bullshit.  Whatever you want to call it.  (Greed is a useful word for it.)  This is a snake-oil advertisement.  A bottle of castor oil that loosens the money from your wallet.  Not therapeutic hypnosis that exists to help people become healthier and more like what they want to be; and not stage hypnosis, which exists to entertain, amuse, and thrill.  This is snake-oil hypnosis, designed to fleece sheep who want something for nothing.

Let’s back up a little.  I want to be very clear.  You can’t have both the “you won’t do anything you wouldn’t do normally when you’re under hypnosis” dream, AND the Svengali-Zombie nightmare at the same time.  They are mutually exclusive.  Either hypnosis is a G-Rated any-schmuck-can-do-it activity that has no effect at all beyond a little clucking; or we should all be shaking in our boots because hypnosis is like instant access into our unconscious minds and any unethical and evil intentioned criminal off the streets can use that access to turn us (unknowingly) to the dark side.

You can have one unfounded and irrational belief or the other, but not both.

And the truth is, neither one is completely true or completely false.  Like so many things, hypnosis is a lot more complicated that it is made out to be in movies.

If you’ve ever been hypnotized by a professional therapeutic hypnotist, raise your hand.   Not many — right?

Of those who raised their hand, how many ever clucked like a chicken?  None.

Of those who raised their hand, how many were trying to stop smoking, lose weight, or trying to make some other habit or addiction-based change?  Most of the rest, right?  Right.  Why? Because there really aren’t that many clinical therapists who have the skills or the interest in learning to use hypnosis effectively, and most of the rest are so litigation-shy that they’ve avoided using any tool that falls in the murky territory of causing real change to happen from the outside specifically because of stories like the Manchurian Candidate — or the girl from California who conveniently remembered (while hypnotized) that her father abused her sexually when she was a child.

It’s murky, dangerous, and a bit scary in Zombieland.

What’s important here is that all therapeutic hypnosis is designed to get the client to do or think or believe or remember or understand something that they would not be able to do without the hypnotic altered state.  That’s what hypnosis is all about.  Talk to the childlike unconscious mind and get it to retrieve a memory long forgotten or suppressed.  Talk to the ever-willing-to-please unconscious and get it to change a behavior long habituated.  Talk to the unbelievably powerful unconscious mind and get it to rewrite the script or the code that controls how the human body is working (or not working.)

There’s a story about a really talented and capable therapeutic hypnotist on a coast-to-coast flight with a parent wrangling a loud 4-year-old.  He walked the length of the plane to get to the bathroom, and when he leaned down to pick up something off the carpet, he whispered something so the child could hear.  On his way back up the aisle, he did it again — and the child fell asleep, and slept quietly for the rest of the flight.

The first pass was to alter state, and the second was to supply a different behavior possibility.

Which is a clever story (if somewhat unethical) — and a demonstration of my point.

What is the purpose of therapy if not to help someone change from what they are to what they want to be?  And what is the purpose of hypnosis if not to help create that change?  It looks like a parlor trick — but in the hands of a healer, it behaves like the best curatives.

The next time you see some clever plot devise slide by on the who-done-it train of prime-time, or in the words of a straight-to-video screenwriter — remember that the whole plot is skewed toward convenience for the writer, and a big hole in the reality of the story for the audience.  Whether for the cabaret stage or the therapist’s couch, hypnosis’ whole purpose is to take down the barriers which prevent us from changing who we are, what we think, and how we behave.

In the end, it’s all about whether you trust the hypnotist. (or does she look like Angela Lansbury?)

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