Sunday, 1 February 2009

Tales of everyday hypnosis

When we think of hypnotism, it usually conjures the image of a stage hypnotist, or a 19th century therapist, mesmerizing his patient, by swinging a watch on a chain. But in reality, hypnotism is far more commonplace, and far less dramatic. Consciously or otherwise, we're all hypnotizing each other, all the time, influencing each other's behavior, for better or worse.

Hypnotism is concerned with suggestion. In all forms of communication, we routinely embed multiple layers of meaning. For example, if I say "I'm fine," whilst frowning, I've simultaneously communicated two seemingly contradictory messages. It's down to you, the person with whom I'm communicating, to reconcile them. Sometimes this will be done consciously - you might notice the frown, and realize that I may not be fine. But on other occasions, you may become aware of the frown without consciously thinking about it. As a result, the frown may affect your behavior without you even realizing it. Or in other words, you may be hypnotized by a simple facial expression.

For example, a friend of mine who had been going through a tough time, was planning to go on a vacation to get away from it all. However, when a well meaning person told him that "he could not take a vacation from himself," this advice gave him pause for thought.

The statement is really just a tautology. To say you can't take a vacation from yourself is really nothing more than saying that you will always be you. So what's the underlying meaning in this statement? Simply this: if you're miserable now, you'll be miserable on your vacation as well. What this advices does is to embed a tenuous premise on top of an unchallengeable statement. Of course, you will always be you, but this does not mean that you can't change your mental state. The premise of the statement deliberately frames the situation into one where change is not possible, and as such, it is disempowering. If the person who said it intended to be well meaning, then you would have to question their underlying, perhaps subconscious, motivations.

What is absolutely key in these situations is to consciously process this type of statement, and to identify the embedded command that is piggybacking on the message, in order to ensure that we don't unwittingly allow ourselves to be programmed in this way. For if we accept other people's framing of our situation, we will begin to limit the scope of what we believe to be possible. As a result, an initial positive idea - like going on a vacation in order to get away from it all - becomes doomed to failure, because we unconsciously accept that we will not be able to change our own frame of mind.

This fact was brought home to me personally, when I was awaiting the results of my cancer staging, which would determine what treatment I required. It proved to be a very difficult case for the histopathologists to diagnose, and as a result, I had to wait a long time for the results. When I called the hospital to ask if there was any news, my nurse apologized that there wasn't, and said "you must be out of your mind with worry."

My nurse was a fantastic emotional support to me. Throughout my treatment, she did an excellent job - she was incredibly well informed, and always seemed to know exactly what to do. By saying that I must be out of my mind with worry, she intended to show empathy with my situation - to show that she understood how serious the situation was. However, what she had actually done was to communicate an embedded command - telling me, consciously or otherwise, to worry. This was a rare occasion where my nurse had got it wrong.

Fortunately, I identified the command, processed it and rejected it. The most effective way of dispelling this kind of hypnotic suggestion, when it arises within conversation, is to challenge it within that same conversation, allowing your unconscious mind to be programmed by your own consciously positive words. I explained to my nurse that I wasn't worried, it was actually reassuring that the histopathologists were taking such care in arriving at a diagnosis.

There were many challenging times ahead for me when the diagnosis finally arrived, but I can honestly say that I didn't go "out of my mind with worry" during those weeks before it was confirmed. However well meaning the advise of friends and family may be, we should always take care to look out for these kinds of hypnotic suggestions, and dispel the negative ones, before they can take hold.