‘So what do you want to achieve?’
This is, almost invariably, my first question to a new client who comes to see me for hypnotherapy.
Traditionally, talking therapies have started by asking ‘what is the problem?’ but this in itself makes the problem the centre of attention. Arguably worse still, if it is a school of therapy that encourages you to re-live or go over the problem many times, this may embed the difficulty more deeply for some people.
When I was taught to drive, my driving instructor gave me a useful tip for driving through a narrow gap; don’t look at the gap you are trying to drive through, look where you want to go instead.
Try it; it works, because this is how the brain is programmed. Deep inside the brain is an area called the anterior cingulate cortex which tells the rest of the brain what is important, and what it needs to look out for. And from then on, your unconscious takes over, gravitating towards whatever it is that you focus on. So if you concentrate on the problem, the problem will pull you in. On the other hand, if you start by focussing on the solution, that is the direction in which your mind will naturally travel, and once it starts to imagine and model the solution, everything else will follow.
This is not to say that the process ignores the problem; far from it. The process of imagining the solution actually defines the problem, albeit in a healthier way, at a level where it cannot dominate the discussion to the same extent.
In the words of one of its leading practitioners, Michael Yapko, hypnotherapy can help any condition which is affected by stress, or in which an attitude of mind plays a part. Hypnotherapy can be quicker and more cost-effective than other talking therapies which can continue for months and years. Some conditions regularly recur; phobias, pain management, giving up smoking, increased confidence before an exam or presentation. Other issues may be more individual; one client, when stressed, had a response of calling out the name of her very first boyfriend who broke her heart more than 50 years before. After just one session, she was able to lay down this burden that had been weighing on her heart all these years.
But this leads us on to the hidden question; how much do you really want to change? Because, whilst hypnotherapy is a powerful tool, it is not a magic wand or a miracle cure. You really do have to want to change if you are to get the most out of the process. A hypnotherapist can’t force you to do what you don’t want to do; your subconscious is far too protective for that. And, just to answer the question that I am always asked at cocktail parties, that explains why I will not – and in fact cannot – click my fingers and make you cluck like a chicken. Unless, of course, that is what you want to do.
It is that desire to change that drives hypnotherapy, but it is important that it is treated with respect. We all have needs but sometimes they get out of hand, or you may continue to behave according to a need which is no longer helpful or required.
Let’s give a simple example. A client may come to see me who is overweight and wants to give up their love of chocolate cake. For a hypnotherapist, one approach might be simply to tell the subconscious that each time the client sees a piece of chocolate cake, he or she feels sick. That is perfectly possible, but is it helpful? The more holistic view might be to move the client to a position where he or she saw a piece of chocolate cake, but was then able to resist it if they chose, alternatively, to sensibly enjoy having one piece and then have no more.
Most conditions that present themselves are simply expressions of an underlying stress. The danger is that if you suppress the desire for – in our case – chocolate cake, it just creates a gap into which the underlying stress will immediately move. And that is why much of my time in the consulting room may be spent – at least on the surface – not talking about ‘the problem’ but the underlying stress.
Much of my work is simply returning people to a state of healthy balance. One of my clients said that she wanted to give up smoking, but it soon became clear that she secretly quite liked whatever it was that smoking gave her. She did not give up, but after one treatment, without any effort, she reduced her smoking from 20 a day to five a day. That was probably the outcome that, after all, she really wanted, and at that level it was a success.
Another client was able to move from being terrified of spiders to simply being able to manage them. Another success; no-one ever said that you actually have to like spiders.
So if you really want to change, hypnotherapy can adjust those parts of your mind that may have got a little out of balance, enabling you to see where you want to go, rather than worrying about what’s holding you back, and then leaving the natural powers of your mind free to do the rest.