It’s accepted amongst hypnotists and hypnotherapists that hypnosis cannot be used to make someone do something that they don’t want to do.
Despite this, the fear that hypnosis could be used to make somebody do something against their will is one of the main reasons that many people remain skeptical, or even fearful, of hypnosis and hypnotherapy. Convincing a new client that they are safe and will remain in control throughout their experience of hypnosis is the first hurdle that often has to be overcome. If a client remains wary or skeptical, it can difficult to achieve a deep enough trance for the positive suggestions that you want to make to be effective.
To really understand why hypnosis cannot make us do something against our will, we need to take a good look at what hypnosis is and also whether or not our “will” is what we think it is.
The Case of the (In)Famous “Critical Factor”
When asked how hypnosis works, many hypnotists will use the definition that hypnosis “shuts down the critical factor in our mind and allows us to talk directly to the subconscious to make suggestions and changes”. When people are first being introduced to hypnosis, this definition can be troubling though as it essentially defines the conscious mind as the “gatekeeper” of our subconscious and creates the assumption that without the conscious mind, our subconscious mind is some sort of dupe that will accept just about anything.
This isn’t the case.
It’s not that the “critical factor” definition is incorrect, but it does exaggerate somewhat the role of the conscious mind in our day to day decision making and, in particular, in keeping us both safe and within our own moral framework.
We’ve all agonized over a moral choice from time to time, but most moral decisions come from “the gut”. As your intestine doesn’t actually do any thinking, when we say something comes from the “the gut” (or the heart) what we really mean is that it has come from our subconscious.
We can all accept the idea that our subconscious mind wants to keep us safe. That’s a fairly basic function that we all need from our subconscious. However, our moral choices can sometimes run contrary to this. Consider the example of a parent who throws themselves in between their child and something dangerous. More often than not, a person who does this will say that they “acted on instinct” and they “didn’t think about it”.
What they really mean when they say this is that their subconscious made the instantaneous decision that it was right for them to be in harm’s way instead of their child and they automatically acted accordingly. You may be tempted to write this off as some deeper genetic imperative for the survival of the species over the survival of the individual but, before you do, think about how often you’ve seen those same phrases… “I didn’t think about it”, “I just acted on instinct” in relation to some other act of heroism where someone has put themselves in danger to help or rescue a complete stranger.
In situations like these we don’t have the luxury of time to navigate the moral maze and decide if it is “right” for us to put ourselves in danger to help someone else – more often than not we simply act based on our instinctive sense of right and wrong. That instinctive sense of right and wrong is, of course, encoded in our subconscious mind and we act on it without conscious thought just as we do hundreds, even thousands, of things completely automatically every single day.
I regularly use these examples with clients to help them understand that who they are, their very sense of “right” and “wrong”, is not something that requires effort on the part of their conscious mind but is something that is installed deeply in their subconscious and so will be fully functional throughout their experience of trance.