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Is hypnotherapy a con?

6 May 2010. Note: I received the following e-mail from "Jake," a hypnotherapist who is having some second thoughts about his chosen career. (RTC)

"Jake's" Story

I hold several "certifications" such as: Certified Clinical Hypnotherapist (from the American Council of Hypnotist Examiners) Hypnotherapist (from the National Guild of Hypnotists) and also the American Board of Hypnotherapy and even the International Hypnosis Federation. I also have a "Master Practitioner" certification in NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming).


After all of this work on my part, I wish I had a time machine so I could go back 5 years and tell myself to get an MA in Counseling Psychology or something similar. Every effective technique I have learned is basically a derivative of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, General Semantics, Gestalt Therapy, or simple caring for another human being (à la Carl Rogers). Visualization techniques, positive thinking and self-suggestion are certainly effective, but as you point out, can be learned and utilized much more easily and cheaply.

The best definition I have ever read for hypnosis is: the power of suggestion. All hypnosis effects are simply the power of suggestion. Gil Boyne, a famous hypnotist, once said hypnotists perform the function of a witch doctor in the modern era. He was one of my teachers. I was taught to do "suggestibility tests" with clients - the more suggestible someone is, the better their results. There is also a hypnotic technique called "compounding," which basically says the more suggestions someone complies with, the more likely they are to comply with further suggestions. So, the hypnotist gives relaxation suggestions, visualization suggestions, and finally behavior modification suggestions (when it is assumed the client is most compliant/susceptible to them).

Richard Bandler (co-creator of NLP) used to say "everything is hypnosis." His partner, John Grinder, used to say "there's no such thing as hypnosis." How right they were. Hypnosis exists and is effective if you expand your definition of hypnosis to include any kind of focused concentration, relaxation, etc., and hypnotic language as any kind of influential/manipulative communication. The best definition I have ever heard for NLP was "the skill set of a con man." Seriously. What I really learned from studying hypnosis and NLP was how to manipulate people - using logical fallacies, confirmation bias, testimonial evidence, Barnum statements, etc. Hypnosis and NLP work a lot like a magic trick - I show you three cards and, before your eyes, the cards transform into three different cards. Of course it's not really "magic," as I had six cards in my hand and used sleight-of-hand and misdirection to fool you. You're not upset because it's all in the name of entertainment - it's fun to see the illusion. As a hypnotist I basically do lots of things to convince you that you are in a special state of mind called hypnosis and that means it will be easy for you to lose weight, stop smoking, whatever. People go from being discouraged by their past failures to believing they can change (with the help of hypnosis). And many people do get results. So, no harm, no foul, right? I used to think so.

When I was a practicing hypnotherapist (2005-2009) I always had the best of intentions; I was motivating and influencing people to quit smoking, lose weight, gain confidence, etc. I believe most hypnotherapists have their hearts in the right place and are trying to help people. If I help someone and make a buck, is that bad? At first I thought, "no!" But now I'm not sure. It depends on whether or not I can deliver on my promise to provide help. The problem is that a lot of these seemingly innocuous behavior changes (quitting smoking, losing weight) have other serious problems underlying them: problems I didn't have the skills to solve. Many of my weight loss clients had histories of physical or sexual abuse. Many of the smokers had histories of other addictions (alcoholism etc). I often encountered other issues like depression, ADD, PTSD, bulimia, you name it. I was told by some teachers to treat those issues with hypnotherapy also. My smartest teacher told me to do that only if they were already seeing a licensed mental health professional for the problem - that I was an "adjunct" or "complementary" therapy. I often found myself feeling frustrated because I wanted to help my clients more than I had the capacity to.

It's not what your hypnotist does that could hurt you, it's what he/she fails to do. I have a ridiculous number of certifications in hypnotherapy and yet I was never taught about therapist/client transference and how to handle it, how to specifically recognize clients I should refer to mental health practitioners, or when I had a "duty to warn" the authorities about my client. That is a short list of things I wasn't taught that all licensed mental health counselors are taught. When I asked about these things I was told to "check with my state's department of health." Hypnosis and hypnotherapy "schools" don't want to teach this stuff because then it will make it look like they're teaching people therapy (which they are) and then they'll require licensure.

Hypnotherapists resist licensure. I have been told that licensing only needs to be a requirement for professions that could harm the general public, and hypnosis/hypnotherapy "has never harmed anyone." Maybe it hasn't been proven in a court of law ... yet ... Based on my own experience, I think anyone attempting to perform therapy should be licensed and held to a standard of competency. Calling hypnotherapy "behavior change" is bulls**t. Why are you calling yourself a hypnotherapist if you aren't doing therapy?

I was told that consumers should have a freedom to choose - what if they want to "try an alternative" to mainstream approaches to their problem? Well, I'm fine with that - as long as the consumers have all the information they need to make a decision. Are the consumers aware that you got your "Certified Clinical Hypnotherapist" credentials from a three-day-weekend class???? Are they aware that only one of my certifications required me to take so much as a written test? Where I live, massage therapists are required to have at least 500 hours of education from an accredited massage school and pass a licensure exam in order to practice massage. To become a registered hypnotherapist, I filled out a form and paid a registration fee. I listed my certification on the form but I was not required to provide a copy of it. Ta-daaa, I'm open for business. I have a friend who is working towards becoming a licensed clinical social worker. She has a MSW and is doing her 1000-hour supervision with an experienced social worker. We're talking 3-4 years of work for her versus 50 hours and filling out a form for me. When my friend can open a private practice, she'll probably be able to charge around $100/hour for her services. I've been charging that (or more) for the last 5 years. Hypnotists and hypnotherapists want consumers to think of them as "professionals" and "therapists" because otherwise, based on the training requirements, you'd only pay them $15/hour. The kids wearing "Personal Trainer" t-shirts at my local gym probably had more training than I did when I first started out as a hypnotherapist. In most states it takes more work to become a Real Estate Agent than a hypnotherapist. Are consumers making an informed choice? If all you want is a "motivational coach" then fine. But I think a lot of consumers mistakenly believe hypnotherapists have had far more training than most do.

Consumers: Buy books and CDs about goal setting, visualization, and self-hypnosis. If you decide to see a hypnotist/hypnotherapist, ask if he/she has an MA or similar degree in any kind of psychology or counseling field. Caveat emptor.

As for me? I'm done being a hypnotherapist. I'm going back to school for an MA in Counseling.



R. Carroll comments:  As R. Barker Bausell says: Hypnosis and the placebo effect are "so heavily reliant upon the effects of suggestion and belief that it would be hard to imagine how a credible placebo control could ever be devised for a hypnotism study." Hypnosis, however, seems to go beyond the placebo effect since it involves intentional manipulation of behavior. As such, hypnotism belongs under the broader rubric of "persuasive techniques." I recommended that "Jake" read a couple of articles dealing with charisma and techniques for shutting down people's critical faculties, since it seems that hypnotherapy often involves using one's personal skills to get clients to quit thinking critically in order to open them up to behavior modification through their belief in the power of hypnotherapy. "Jake" replied:

I think this shutting off of the critical faculty can be incredibly valuable in therapy.  I think it's one of the natural skills of a therapist -- to get people to drop their defenses and feel safe.  I think that is exactly why they require licensure, because therapists who don't know what they're doing can mess up people's minds.  Remember all those people who developed false memories of being molested back in the 90s?
I have definitely been taught the skill of shutting off people's critical minds.  It is a real skill that I can do with repeatable results, and just like that article mentioned, I can even hypnotize academics by mentioning clinical studies I've read or quoting famous literary figures to support whatever argument I'm trying to make. (Barack Obama is a fantastic hypnotist, as was Ronald Reagan.)  The question is what to do when the person's critical thinking is shut off?  The basic premise behind hypnotherapy is to "install" positive suggestions, but which suggestions should be made?  Back in the late 90s and early 2000s when the Atkins craze was going around, lots of hypnotists were hypnotizing clients to not eat carbohydrates so they could stick to this diet, which we now know was a fad that, at best, produced short-term results and, at worst, could cause health problems.
If you're going to give weight loss suggestions ... do you have any training in nutrition or physiology?  Beyond reading the latest fad diet book?  If you're going to help someone with depression or fear or low self-esteem ...  do you have any training in psychology or counseling?  I mean real training, not Wayne Dyer books. The real problem is most hypnotherapists drink enough of their own Kool-Aid to believe they know what they are doing, and that's when the mistakes are made.

It's not just hypnotherapists and "healers" that can abuse their status with clients to persuade them to change their behavior, sometimes with good, but often with harmful results. As "Jake" points out, all of us are vulnerable to con men. We are all susceptible to being persuaded to drop our guard and stop thinking critically under certain conditions. Figuring out what is and what isn't a con isn't easy. Figuring out that what one has been doing is a con, even if it has helped some people some of the time, is hard, rare, and commendable.

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