SO, LET’S GET the definitions sorted out up front. A psychologist is somebody who studies human behaviour. Psychology is a science, and a psychologist may never see a client in a therapeutic setting.
A psychiatrist, on the other hand, specialises in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness and will see and treat patients. Psychiatrists are highly-trained medical doctors who specialise in mental illness.
I am trained to be a psychotherapist. That means that I listen to people and help create the circumstances in which they can work on their own issues and make changes in their own lives.
I will not deal with schizophrenics or sociopaths or psychotics or anybody with a serious mental illness because I am not trained to do so. Nor will I deal with severe depression. I am not a doctor. If I come across serious mental illness in a client, I am duty bound to refer that client on to a more highly-qualified medical practitioner.
On the other hand, most people are, to a greater or lesser degree, neurotic. The dictionary definition of neurosis is: a relatively mild mental illness that is not caused by organic disease, involving stress but not a radical loss of touch with reality. Neurotics know they have a problem; psychotics think it’s everybody else who has the problem.
I work on neuroses: fears, anxiety, phobias, obsessive behaviour, social anxiety, fear of public speaking, loss of confidence, procrastination and so on. Many of them have their roots in childhood. We all know somebody who is afraid of heights or of flying or of spiders, don’t we? Well, that’s my territory.
I am also a coach and mentor. All that means is that I help people work out what they want out of life and then work with them to set achievable goals. In the process, I may help them overcome limiting beliefs about themselves or to stop procrastinating and just get on with it. In some cases, I will help them develop new and powerful communication skills.
I became a psychotherapist after spending more than four decades as a working journalist, interviewing people every day. I must have interviewed thousands; it has been a long career.
I was quite young when I discovered that strange things happen when you listen to people, and I mean really listen. In interview, people would quite often tell me something and then say: “I’ve never said that to anybody before.” I wondered why they would choose to tell secrets to a journalist, but it was probably just because they were being listened to properly, perhaps for the first time in years.
As I got older, I also learned to suspend judgement in interview. People do things and believe things that many of us might find odd. But I understood that what they did was their ‘normal’, and that they were entitled to their beliefs. I worked out, too, that the interview was never about me, so I developed a habit of leaving my ego at home.
The effect of listening deeply and without judgement was at times startling. I remember interviewing a counter-espionage agent in The Connaught Hotel in Mayfair. With a music industry standard MP4 recorder switched on and flashing red for ‘recording’ in front of him, he told me things I didn’t believe he should have told anybody anywhere. Later, and because I’m a nice guy, I sent him a transcript I’d made of the conversation. He went ape, and I killed the story forever. I didn’t want to do him harm, and he clearly regretted the things he’d said in interview. But he had said them.
As my hair turned white, people began to ask my advice. I didn’t look for this to happen, it just happened. At one point, a psychiatrist asked me to have a word with her teenage daughter about her future. I thought it strange that a psychiatrist should turn to me for help, and then I realised that she was principally a mother and a puzzled mother at that. Even psychiatrists need help sometimes. Anyway, that’s how I became a coach and mentor. It just happened.
The other thing I am is a clinical hypnotherapist. And, once again, this is for me rooted in journalism – or, at least, in language.
Language is inherently hypnotic. Don’t believe me? Let’s do a quick test.
If I ask you to think of a wheelbarrow – go on, think of a wheelbarrow, give yourself a moment to do it now – you have to go inside yourself to find an image of a wheelbarrow, probably one that you’ve seen. I have done this in classroom settings with around 150 people – and, do you know, I’ve heard them describe 150 different wheelbarrows.
There was one woman whose eyes moistened as she described the wheelbarrow full of flowers outside her late grandmother’s house. Her description was beautiful and full of emotion. She went into a light trance as she remembered it – and so did most of the people around her as she told her story. They connected to the emotion: we’re a tribal species, we connect. But even when you run that internal search for a wheelbarrow, you cease to be entirely present in the moment, which means that you trance out ever so slightly.
Have you ever seen a group of children listening, with open mouths and big eyes, to somebody telling them a story? That’s a trance. And that’s pretty much all a trance is.
Stories are, of course, inherently hypnotic – if they were not, why on earth would you be scared by a horror film or shed tears over a ‘weepie’? You know that they’re just stories and the characters are fake – so why the emotional response?
There is so much tosh spoken about hypnotherapy that it would take a book to unravel it all. But – for the record – it is just a way of focusing the mind on a single subject. It should be called mono-focus, or something like that. James Braid, who invented the term hypnosis (from the Greek word for sleep) very quickly regretted it. He tried to change the name to ‘monoideaism’, which is closer to the truth but less attractive: it didn’t take.
So, let’s bust at least a few myths:
1. All hypnosis is self hypnosis. The hypnotist does not control you – and if he asked you to do something that was against your principles, in the moment or at some point in the future, you’d just open your eyes and say no (or something ruder).
2. Stage hypnosis is entertainment. Some stage hypnotists use plants or stooges in the audience to get people going. And they’re all very good at picking those members of the audience who will ‘play along’. There’s a lot of pretending in stage hypnosis, a lot more than you might think. There’s a lovely conversation between the philosopher Alain de Botton and stage magician Derren Brown on YouTube, in which Brown explains what he thinks happens in stage hypnotism. Here it is.
3. There is no such thing as a hypnotised state – it differs from person to person. Some people experience something close to sleep, others are wide awake with their eyes shut and may even be giggling. I’ve seen that.
4. People cannot get stuck in hypnosis, just as they can’t get stuck in daydreaming.
Think about it like this. When you’re anxious – and we’ve all been anxious haven’t we? – you have this feeling of unease. It doesn’t come in crisp and tidy sentences that circulate in your brain and tell you what you’re thinking. It’s just an unpleasant feeling. If you stop and write the feeling down – actually put words to it (and this is a technique used in cognitive behavioural therapy), the feeling is likely to change.
In the same way, somebody who lacks confidence, for instance, may feel that lack in a very generalised way. In hypnosis, however, he is able to focus on the feeling specifically – and may track the feeling all the way back to an initial sensitising event in his childhood. Hypnotherapy is all about the focus.
Hypnosis by itself is surprisingly powerful. Way back in the early 19th century, a Scottish doctor working in India, James Esdaile, performed 345 operations using a form of hypnosis as the sole anaesthetic. Google the name – there’s a ton of stuff about him. And hypnotism was used as an anaesthetic in both world wars when other medications ran out or when they were not available – in prisoner of war camps, for instance. Even today, hypnobirthing – self hypnosis to relieve the pain of giving birth – is relatively common.
The British Medical Association has endorsed hypnosis as a therapy since 1892, and hypnotherapists can become registered healthcare workers by signing up to a list run by the UK government’s Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council.
All of that said, I don’t use hypnosis much in therapy sessions. Deep listening, Socratic questioning and clean language are usually enough to help a client get to where they want to be. I do produce tailored hypnotic inductions as audio files, however, for clients to listen to when I’m not around. They usually find them helpful – although I have to stress that this isn’t about me. It’s about creating the environment in which my clients can make the changes they want to make.
And, do you know, they are pretty good at it. I’ve seen a woman with a serious fear of flying work on herself until she actually fell asleep on a plane. I’ve had a guy petrified of speaking in public deliver a keynote address at an international conference. And I’ve seen a young woman defeat her panic attacks just by thinking about them differently.
For me, it’s a a privilege to be around while clients are doing this work.
To be honest, being in a therapeutic interview doesn’t feel much different to interviewing somebody for a magazine; it’s all about the way you listen. But the outcome is very different, and I think much, much more useful.