Monthly Archives: October 2014

Keeping Secrets

In recent years we have got used to frequent revelations of “dark secrets” in the media. Some of them are genuinely important and relevant to the general public, but the great majority are mere tittle-tattle, most often of a sexual nature. Editors reveal these secrets merely to get ahead of their rival newspapers by selling a few thousand more copies of that day’s paper. As the Millie Dowler case confirmed, they have total disregard for the effect on those involved, who are often not even “celebs” but quite ordinary people. In this article I’ll be discussing the therapist’s approach to secrets, comparing it with that of the journalist.

Having practiced hypnotherapy in Plymouth for 18 years, I have listened to many closely guarded secrets, that could cause immense embarrassment to clients, or even physical danger. Other secrets may include a client’s real feelings about other people in their lives, which could be deeply hurtful if revealed.
The first thing I explain to clients at their initial consultation is the limits of confidentiality. As a hypnotherapist I am obliged to keep clients’ information secret. But I am also required to discuss my work with two colleagues in regular supervision meetings. No personal information that could identify a client is revealed at these meetings- they focus on problems and therapy techniques. The real limit on secrecy is where some serious crime is being planned or has already been committed. Also, if a client tells me they are planning their own death, I feel justified in assuming that a part of them at least wants me to prevent this. These limits to confidentiality are spelled out before a new client has the chance to tell me anything they might afterwards regret.
I’m interested in all aspects of human life- that’s why I’m a therapist. But I generally ask only about things I need to know- information that helps me understand the client’s problem and decide how I can help.
Counsellors and psychotherapists thus follow policies precisely opposite to those of many journalists. The journalist gathers information from varied sources, many of them hostile to the person being investigated. This information is then revealed to the public for their entertainment, even though it is of no real relevance to them. Or it may be retained on file for years, to be dislclosed at a later date when it can do most harm.
The policy of a therapist is precisely opposite to this. Therapists gather information from the client himself, respecting his right to conceal things they are not yet ready to disclose. Only information directly relevant to the client’s problem is gathered, and even this is closely guarded. Finally, the client is never mocked or vilified for changing his mind or even contradicting himself. Therapy is all about change, and counsellors are well aware that people often have mixed feelings about many things.

Improving Communication

Some years ago I wrote a letter to a quarterly magazine that deals with some of my other interests outside of hypnotherapy. The next edition of the magazine had a whole page of letters attacking me in quite “personal” terms. Now I’ve been verbally attacked countless times. In my old job as a mental health nurse I was also physically attacked on numerous occasions. So it’s no big deal. But what did annoy me was that none of those writing the attacking letters appeared to have actually read my letter that they were responding to. They were all complaining about things I hadn’t said!
This got me thinking about the rows that develop, especially between partners. These letter writers totally misunderstood something I’d said, even when they have the original letter there in black and white in front of them. So how much easier must it be to misunderstand the spoken word! Another thing I noticed was that these people all seemed to take the original letter as a personal attack. In other words, they felt threatened by it. When people feel threatened, psychologically or physically, they automatically go into “self-defence mode”. This may involve counter-attacking, escape, or just curling up into a ball. But either way it’s a problem if they’re not actually being attacked.
So how can communications be improved? One way is to be aware of our own sensitivities, our raw nerves that when accidentally touched can feel like an attack. Another way is to train ourselves not to respond immediately to what we think we’ve heard. Instead, ask the other person to repeat themselves, to make clear what they are trying to say. It’s a big mistake to think that two people automatically understand each other, just because they are both speaking English!

Learning to Assert Yourself

Today’s blog post is another book recommendation. Many clients attending my Plymouth Hypnotherapy practice complain that other people take advantage of them, and that their more confident colleagues are listened to even when they’re talking nonsense. These clients are lacking in assertiveness, and the results of this can end in frustration, depression, and occasionally even violence when “something snaps”. The good news is that you can learn to be assertive, just as you can learn to drive. Assertiveness begins as a set of behaviours, which can be learned and practiced till they happen automatically. Once these habits are developed, other people will treat you more respectfully, and this “feeds back” into your own beliefs about yourself. “When I Say No I Feel Guilty” by Manuel J Smith is an excellent self-help book for those who want to learn to be assertive. It contains many exercises and scripts, and is written in a simple clear style. It was written many years ago, but you can easily find it second hand online, or perhaps even in one Plymouth’s excellent second hand book shops on the Barbican!

Recovery from Addiction

Every few months some tragic event reported in the news focuses our attention on the subject of addictions, and why some people find it so difficult to overcome this problem. Uninformed people often seek someone to blame, whether it’s the patient, their family and friends, or their doctors and therapists. Others seek simplistic explantions, claiming that addiction is a “disease” like pneumonia, or that tougher punishments for possessing drugs will solve the problem. All these simple explanations are misleading.
Three main factors that determine whether someone will overcome addiction. Firstly there is their environment, especially the people around them. It is normally impossible to stay off drugs and alcohol if you are surrounded by users. For one thing, drinking and drug use are often social activities. The company of drunk or drugged people is boring, irritating or even frightening if you are not “under the influence” yourself. Also, users often pressurise others to indulge more. The presence of a sober person seems to embarrass them. Non-using family and friends can also be a problem. The wives of alcoholic men often protect them from the consequences of their actions, paying their debts and fines, clearing up their mess, apologising and covering up for them. They mean well, but in fact their caring gives their husbands less incentive to quit drinking.
A second factor is the individual addict. No treatment in the world can work if the patient just doesn’t want to stop drinking or using. Most addicts actually have mixed feelings about their use of drugs or alcohol. On the one hand they may fear the effects of drink or drugs, but on the other hand they really enjoy taking them, especially if this helps them overcome shyness, stage fright or other problems. Many addicts only consent to quit when their doctor convinces them that they will die in the near future if they continue using.
Treatment is the third factor. A wise psychiatrist once stated that “if you want to be this country’s most successful addiction clinic, you must become the place where people go when they actually want to stop taking drugs or drinking.” In other words, it’s the patient’s decision that matters, much more than the treatment method. Some years ago, I saw a film of a remote monastery in the mountains of Thailand, which runs a very successful drug treatment programme. The patients work, meditate, and drink a foul medicine which causes severe vomiting. Some American doctors were trying to copy the medicine so they could give it to their patients in America! I do not believe that this would ever work, because the patients in America would be nothing like as motivated as those who had trekked all the way into the mountains of Thailand, knowing that they would be made violently sick on arrival.


Name that Emotion

In an earlier post I showed how “feelings” are made up of different components. These include the physical experience such as heart palpitating and hands shaking, the names we give to these sensations, the outcomes we imagine, and the beliefs we have about ourselves based on these emotions. In this article I’ll be discussing the second component- the names we give to our emotions.
When we feel a physical sensation, we will probably react quite differently depending on what name we give to that sensation. If we call it “fear”, we may run away, hide, play dead, surrender, grit our teeth, fight back, or even launch a pre-emptive attack. If we call the sensation “being madly in love” we might react quite differently, even though the physical feeling is the same. Someone who is swept up in passionate “love at first sight” may experience a palpitating heart, sweating, shaking, dry mouth- all the same sensations as sheer terror. Think how many people have a first date in a restaurant, only to find that they can hardly eat the food in front of them! And think how many people “bail out” at the last minute, “running away” from the one they love as if they were a mortal enemy. Even the “pre-emptive attack” is a common reaction to the “love” sensation, just as to the “fear” sensation that it so resembles. Most people have had someone being extremely rude to them, only later discovering that this person was greatly attracted to them.
Whatever name we give to an emotion, the problems arise when we react automatically to that emotion, without using our intelligence. If you study the biographies even of great geniuses, you will see how their intelligence flies out the window as soon as their emotions are aroused. If we can control our emotions we can control ourselves, and if we can control ourselves we will have a better chance of controlling our own destiny and choosing the sort of life we want to have. By naming a sensation as “excitement” rather than as “fear”, we are opening up different possibilities of how we could react to it. Most people enjoy excitement, whereas they see fear as something to avoid.

What our fears say about us

In previous posts I’ve discussed several components of fear and anxiety, such as physical sensation, thoughts, and imagination. In this one I’ll be looking at a further aspect of the problem, namely “meanings”. By this I mean what our fears mean to us, what they tell us about ourselves.
An example will make this clearer. Suppose someone is anxious in social situations, becoming “tongue-tied” and embarrassed when meeting new people, especially people whom they find attractive. This will often set off a train of thought in which you imagine the other person to be thinking that you are pathetic or ridiculous. You might even imagine them mocking you to other people, damaging your reputation. All of these imaginary ideas might lead you to form certain negative beliefs about yourself. Beliefs such as “I am an unpopular person, an odd person, a misfit, who will never get anywhere in life”. The most common distressing belief that people have about themselves is that belief that “I will always be like this, I was born this way.”
Once we create a belief about ourselves, it tends to feed upon itself and become a permanent feature. This happens because our memory and attention are selective. Suppose we believe we are a social misfit. We will notice evidence that agrees with this idea, and ignore evidence against it. Likewise we remember things that agree with our beliefs, and forget things that disagree with them. in this way, a negative self-image persists long after the events that originally created. Challenging and testing negative beliefs is an important part of effective counselling.


When people try to improve themselves, such as by losing weight, stopping smoking, on improving their education and career prospects, they often experience opposition from their family and friends. This can be quite blatant and upfront, or it can be devious and subtle. For instance, a woman decides to lose weight, and initially succeeds in losing half a stone. Her husband congratulates her, and buys her a box of chocolates as a reward! This is actually very common.
It’s obvious why someone would resist change if the change was for the worse, but why would they resist a change that’s clearly for the better? In my experience, this generally happens when the other person feels threatened by the changes that are being attempted.
For instance, some men fear that if their wife loses weight, she will be more attractive to other men, who will entice her away from her husband. They feel safer if the wife is unattractive, especially as less attractive women will also generally lack confidence.
Obviously to think like this, the man has to be very lacking in confidence himself. Suppose he’s no longer the handsome young chap whom the woman originally married, he may assume that she now only stays with him because she can’t find anybody else. Hopefully he actually has other qualities that the wife considers more important, even if she hasn’t spelled this out to him. A surprising number of married persons really don’t know what their “other half” sees in them, and are pleasantly surprised when they find out.
The same applies to other forms of self-improvement, such as education. An insecure partner may fear that their “other half” will look down on them, if they are better educated. Again, hopefully this isn’t true. People generally get together because their personalities are compatible, and this will not be affected by improved education.
Another common reason to feel threatened is that people fear that if their friend or partner makes a change, then they too will be pressurised to make that change. For instance, if the wife quits smoking, she will want the husband to quit also.
In the case of seriously harmful behaviour, such as very excessive drinking, people often feel shamed by anyone who doesn’t drink excessively. They are “shown up” by that person’s ability to be happy without getting drunk, and will often make strenuous efforts to drag them back into their former habits. Where peoples’ lives revolve around excessive drinking, it is really very difficult to stay friends with them if you no longer drink so much. That is why religious-based programmes are often very successful with this problem, because the church or mosque provides a ready-made set of new friends, to replace the old drinking friends whose company is no longer so attractive.