Why didn’t it work on me?

It is rare that hypnotherapists take the time to talk to, or question clients about their subjective experience of hypnosis. It is even more unusual for stage hypnotists to take the trouble to question their volunteers about their experience. I don’t see why not.

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Time is money… the therapist needs to get on to the next client, which is understandable if you’re running late, as often happens. The stage hypnotist doesn’t want to be seen chatting to his subjects after the show in case there are accusations of collusion or fakery – this is also understandable given stage performer’s need retain any sense of credibility, and he might well have a three-hour drive home to look forward to!

One of the advantages of speaking at student psychology and professional therapy conferences, as well as teaching hypnosis at Europe’s prestigious Hypnoseakademiet, is that I do have chance to explore subject’s subjective experiences. In addition, at the student psychology conferences, members of the audience are free to ask the participants about their hypnotic experience; how it felt, what could they remember about it, and most important of all, was it real?

Attending one of these events and listening to the questions and comments of both audience and participants alike could be something of an eye opener, especially for stage hypnotists, who generally don’t have a thorough enough grasp of, or fully understand the nature of what they’re doing. Of all the questions asked of me after more than 6,000 public shows, lectures and demonstrations, the most frequent is ‘why didn’t it work on me?

In previous articles, I looked at some of the problems of stage hypnosis, of which there are plenty – practical, psychological, as well as a host of counter-intuitive pitfalls, stumbling blocks and general difficulties. But the conundrum that rears its head most often is the inevitable question from the subject who ‘couldn’t go under.’

It’s no secret that not everybody gets hypnotised when they volunteer for stage hypnosis. This is also true of those taking part in demonstrations done solely for the benefit of psychology students. The main reason offered is that it was just because of the time available – a good ‘get-out’ if ever there was one. But not all stage hypnotists are of equal ability or experience. (There are some who are woefully incompetent and could be fairly and accurately referred to as an accident waiting to happen!)

But there are more complex reasons why some volunteers ‘fail’ whilst others seem to enter hypnosis naturally easily. For instance, the circumstances may not be conducive to relaxation and focus of attention. Think of a stage hypnotist plying his trade in a noisy bar in Benidorm where the patrons are either completely pissed by 9.00 or high on drugs by 9.30, and you get the picture.

But it’s a shame stage hypnotists never bother to enquire about subject’s experiences because if they did, they might be surprised by some of their comments – comments which may well shatter any illusions the hypnotist has about his own abilities!

In the case of the hypnotherapist, there are a host of techniques and disciplines to fall back on if a client proves unreceptive to suggestion. In any event, all the client wants from the session is to feel better and sometimes hypnosis might not always be the best solution. I’ve always said that hypnotherapy is 90% therapy and 10% hypnosis, but either way, the therapist does not suffer from the same constraints as his stage counterpart. And if necessary, there’s always the possibility of more sessions.

Clients or subjects may have preconceived ideas about hypnosis and therefore expectations of what constitutes hypnosis. Most people’s experience of hypnosis is that of watching a stage show or seeing it (heavily edited) on TV. This sort of exposure can give people a completely false expectation of what is going to happen if they then choose to undergo hypnotherapy. Hypnosis on the stage can appear almost magical as subjects are seen to perform in spectacular ways. But the techniques that appear to be the causes of these amazing changes in behaviour are very different to those employed in the therapy room.

It’s therefore important, particularly in the therapeutic situation, where the therapist must achieve a 100% success rate, to explain to clients what their expectations should actually be – you won’t fall asleep, you won’t lose consciousness, but you will feel very relaxed.

It is vital to prepare the client properly so they don’t harbour false expectations of what is about to happen – which is, the client will feel very relaxed (although this is not always absolutely necessary) while the therapist employs a series of suggestions that will help them focus their attention, which in turn will represent a peak experience for the client so that the suggestions will take on significance and importance in the client’s memory, thereby modifying future behaviour.

Hypnosis takes place in the conscious mind – many people erroneously believe that hypnosis means being zapped out into a zombie-like state where they will have no knowledge or recollection of what is going on and that they will ‘awaken’ at the end of the session miraculously cured of whatever it is that ails them, the hypnotist having tinkered around in their subconscious, having ‘rewired their brains.’

This never happens, although I have known clients that relaxed a little too well, and literally fell asleep in the chair. This is a fail, sadly, because once asleep, the client is deaf to anything the therapist says.

However, in the therapy room, clients always get what they want – because there is plenty of time and a million different things the therapist can explore and suggest.

After a stage show, or even a demonstration at a conference, the question ‘why didn’t it work on me?’ can be a very delicate one. In my experience some individuals find this an emotional issue. They have seen their friends ‘go under’ and yet are unable to participate themselves. It is possible for rejected volunteers to experience feelings of disappointment or concern there might be something lacking in them. After all, it worked on their friends, so why not on them?

This is particularly true when one is dealing with younger people. Sensitivity to perceived rejection has to be handled with the utmost care. It might not be enough to simply state that ‘it was just because of the time’ because that explanation is not always credible, and in any case it is inaccurate.

In any group of people, there are ‘high suggestibles’ and ‘low suggestibles’ just as in any group there are going to be people who are good at maths, some at music, history or art or sport.

Some people are more suggestible than others, but suggestibility is not a constant. People are generally more suggestible in the evenings, while suggestibility itself can vary wildly because of a host of external influences – the weather, what sort of day you’ve had, what kind of mood you’re in – whether you are feeling happy or sad, or confident or vulnerable, can all have an effect on suggestibility. Even the immediate environment can have an effect on an individual’s suggestibility, as can the approach adopted by the hypnotist. Different day, same hypnotist, better weather, different result.

Suggestibility is a variable the individual has little control over.

Of course alcohol can have the effect of increasing suggestibility because the defences are down. A subject’s critical faculties and their ability to distinguish reality from imagination can be compromised by the effect of alcohol or drugs. With some, it can have the opposite effect, making the subject more difficult to hypnotise because they are unable to maintain an adequate level of concentration. Alcohol and drugs can make subjects more aggressive. Every subject is different, and you have to be on your toes all the time.

But back to the immediate problem – why didn’t it work on me?

The most important thing for the hypnotist to understand is the range of emotions failure can produce in an individual. True, mostly young people, students for example, are remarkably robust, but there are some that aren’t and the hypnotist has a duty of care to deal with problems such as this, if and when they arise. Explaining some of what I have been talking about (variations in suggestibility) is a good start but the most important thing is to care about the person asking the question. You should take the opportunity to sit down with them for a couple of minutes and chat. Reassurance that they are perfectly normal should be an important feature of this.

Astonishingly, people are more likely to be disappointed because they weren’t able to be hypnotized than if they found themselves with their trousers round their ankles at the end of a show! The truth is, people don’t like to feel left out – especially if they are the only one it didn’t work on. ‘My boy, you beat me fair and square – you’re too logically minded for my trickery!’ is an old chestnut, but a useful and effective one.

I have had considerable experience doing this sort of work and it’s something that should not be underestimated. I have learned how to deal with these things. Now all I have to do is to convince other stage hypnotists to adopt the same attitude. That could prove a lot more difficult.

Copyright Andrew Newton 2016. All rights reserved.