My journey to becoming a counsellor
“You use hypnosis not as a cure but as a means of establishing a favourable climate in which to learn.”Milton Erickson
When I learned that I would be covering hypnotherapy as part of counselling training, one thing went through my mind:
“Oh god. Not that shit. Next I’ll be playing around with shiny crystals…”
No disrespect meant to those that have a fondness for the supposed spiritual properties of certain crystalline structures. It’s just, I have never been the sort to invest much time in what I see as the more “alternative” forms of therapy. I know, I know. It may seem rich…
I do spend most of my time listening to Aurora, preaching mindfulness and was for the longest time a member of the green party. On paper, I am one step away from giving up on my material possessions, moving to Asia and spending my days practising shinrin-yoku.
The thing is though, something about the idea of hypnosis just always seemed so fake to me. It was either just too hippy, or something those slimy American entrepreneurs with headsets preached to gullible wannabe sales people. Without a doubt, almost everything surrounding the idea of hypnotherapy had managed to put me off.
So yes, when I first went into studying hypnosis as a form of therapy, I wasn’t too excited. But as I started reading around the subject, I realised something… A lot of its core ideas and fundamental principles shared a lot of similarities with my own outlook on life. I had spent much of my time at university studying Freud, and have always been fascinated by the power of the human mind. I have always believed that our perceptions are stronger than our reality, and that our lives are controlled by the stories we tell ourselves.
Throughout university, I had come to the conclusion that the way to better our lives, was to adapt our fiction. Years of Lacan, Zizek and Jung had made me doubtful of material reality. I lived in the intersection between the symbolic and imagined. The fold between the stories told by society and myself.
With this in mind, why was it so hard for me to believe that hypnosis could be used as a means to re-calibrate these narratives we tell ourselves?
Even my long time crush Sigmund Freud had utilised it for a time. Whilst he had struggled to successfully implement a trance state, and instead felt similar outcomes could be achieved through other means, Freud never doubted its ability to help one in communicating with the unconscious. In fact, his move towards the study of dreams, was in part due to the dream state’s similarities to that of the hypnotic trance.
My issues came not from what hypnosis actually is, but from how it has long been perceived.
Hypnosis has long been seen as synonymous with magic. It has been the weapon of choice for magicians and showmen such as Derren Brown. A means of overly dramatised entertainment. This has meant, few are able to take it seriously as a means of therapy.
However, one only has to read Happy by Derren Brown to realise just how much the study of psychotherapy and psychology has helped sculpt his performances. In fact, whilst “stage hypnotism” differs greatly from hypnotherapy, many of its performers come from a more therapeutic background. If one were to look at hypnosis as a form of communication, stage hypnotism is just a different way of implementing it.
So what actually is hypnosis?
Well, as I have said above… Hypnosis is a slightly altered form of communication. Put simply, it is about creating what is referred to as a trance state.
Many wrongly believe this entails placing somebody under your complete and total control, basically turning them into your mindless slave. This isn’t actually the case. No. That’s called capitalism…
A trance state is actually something far more mundane. It is actually a perfectly natural state that people slip in and out of all the time. It is a state of increased relaxation, in which the conscious mind is able to take a back seat. Take for example when you become completely invested in a film. You may no longer be thinking consciously about the plot details, instead, you are completely invested, lost in what is going on. For you, the characters are real. This would be a form of trance.
Or perhaps when driving home you have found yourself reaching your destination without realising, having made the journey without any real conscious effort. This state of automation, of working outside of your conscious reality is trance.
So, as I have said, hypnosis aims to place an individual into this state of trance. But why might you ask?
Well, in order to understand this, one first has to understand how our mind is structured.
The shape of the mind:
Freud famously mapped out the human mind. He changed the way we think about ourselves forever by declaring that we are in fact, “not the masters of our own house.”
By this, he meant that our conscious mind is controlled by something deeper. Something we are altogether unaware of. For Freud, and those that practise psychotherapy, we have an unconscious mind that shapes our psyches without us knowing.
If our mind as we know it is the top of an iceberg, the unconscious is everything hidden deep beneath the sea. The larger structure that keeps us afloat. Over 90% of an iceberg is below water. Much in the same way, the majority of our thoughts and feelings are hidden beneath the surface. The mind is so vastly complex, so huge, there is no way any one person could remain conscious of everything it has going on.
Lots of our unconscious consists of our basest instincts and urges, as well as acting as a source of our desires. This is what Freud referred to as the Id. The important thing about the Id is that it does not work rationally. It cannot be consciously reasoned with. It also really likes sex…
The Id works in opposition to the superego. This is most easily understood as the part of our mind built by our relationship to the society around us. It is where we internalise cultural rules, expectations and develop our moral reality. This is an idea greatly expanded upon by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, in what he later referred to as the symbolic order. I only recommend those with way too much time look into this further…
The Id and Superego are mediated by our conscious ego. Our rational, problem solving mind. This has the difficult job of keeping the other two brats in check. It makes sure our desires are met whilst obeying the cultural rules set by our society. For example, the ego would try to satisfy the Id’s desire for sex, in a moral and consensual manner.
But again, why hypnosis?
So now that we understand how the mind is structured, we can begin to understand the reason behind the trance state in hypnosis.
As we grow up, certain things become accepted on an unconscious level. They become key truths from which our sense of identity is formed. For example, if you are told from a young age that you are worthless, and this negative idea is repeated again and again, eventually your unconscious will accept this as fact. It will get filed away as an indisputable truth, right there alongside Coldplay being crap, and number IV being the best of the Rocky films.
As a result, when your Ego, or conscious mind, comes to making decisions, it will do so under the impression that you are worthless. It will actively fight against anything that goes against this.
Take for example if you wanted to apply for a new job. In mediating this decision, the mind may begin to consider that going for the job would go against the accepted truth that you are in fact worthless. To go against this would be dangerous. Your entire sense of self is at risk after all, it’s better to not risk it. As a result, you may find yourself consciously making excuses not to go for the job. The thing is, you may not even realise it is to do with these deep rooted feelings of worthlessness. They’re unconscious and unspoken. They rule from behind the scenes.
Like Freud said, you’re not the master of your own house.
This is where hypnotherapy can come in. Once something is filed within the indisputable truth category, it cannot be easily changed. It is not something decided on a surface level, it can’t be reasoned with through logic alone.
In inducing a trance state, the therapist hopes to communicate on the level of the unconscious. On the level of these truths.
Once one is in a state of trance, they become more suggestible to change on an unconscious, emotional level. It allows them the opportunity to access their unconscious, and make changes to any of the lies they may have told themselves. It does this, because in a normal state, the conscious will step in. Like a bouncer, it will do all it can to protect what it believes to be true. By creating a trance, the therapist and client hopes to tip-toe around the sleeping or distracted bodyguard.
Hypnosis, is to infiltrate one’s own mind. To reclaim control of their house.
Is it dangerous?
Many people become nervous over the idea of hypnosis. They worry that the hypnotist can make them do anything. That they will lose control over their faculties and be at the whim of the therapist.
This is entirely untrue. The unconscious will only respond to things you want. An individual cannot be made to do anything against their will.
Why then do we get people on stage acting like chickens you might ask? Well why not!? Who doesn’t want to be a chicken?
But seriously, the circumstances surrounding stage hypnotism has to be taken into account when considering how such bizarre results are achieved. It is entertainment. Many of the people go wanting to be entertained. For lots, they want it to work. As a result, they are more likely to accept such surreal suggestions.
As for dangers, there are very few. Like I have said, it is a natural state we often fall in and out of. Having said that, hypnotherapy does deal with our emotions and feelings on a deeper level. As a result, those that have been through traumas and are likely to be triggered should always make their therapist aware. The therapist can then discuss it with them and decide whether or not it is the best approach. After all, there are some things more focused, long term therapy is better equipped to help.
So is it real? DOES IT WORK?
Hypnotherapy, as a hugely subjective practice, is difficult to prove. Whilst there have been experiments, it is not something that is easy to measure.
Unlike say, cognitive behavioural therapy which is far more rigid and measurable, hypnotherapy is almost impossible to quantify.
My personal opinion is this:
It is a form of communication. Different people respond to different modes of communication. Some will respond on a deeper, more emotional level to music for example, whilst others may not. Some will cry at films, whilst others feel nothing. Some like Coldplay, whilst some are right. Every person is different.
How well one responds to hypnotherapy, very much depends on how open they are to it and how much they want it to work. Milton Erickson, a hypnotherapist and psychoanalyst, famously stated, “You use hypnosis not as a cure but as a means of establishing a favourable climate in which to learn.”
It is not a cure. It is up to the individual mind to cure itself.
Hypnosis, is just one of many ways in helping it along the way.
So yes. If you are interested in hypnotherapy after what you have read, I would definitely recommend it. Best case scenario, it really does help you. Worst case… You have a nice relaxing time and get to talk to someone about your issues, and at least you’ve made the first steps towards change.
So what do you think? Hypnotherapy: is it helpful? Have you ever tried it? I would love to know.
Thanks for taking the time to read this.
All the best,