Is it Healthy to Trade Reality for Fantasy?

My recent column about hypnosis apparently hit a nerve or two. The most interesting response was from a Delaware Wave reader who tells me about her friend who is divorced from a man who was abusive. Her friend has a new boyfriend who is kind to her. But this is when it gets interesting: The reader’s friend has confided in her that her boyfriend has been “teaching” her hypnosis. Apparently he “puts her under” (she fakes it) and then touches her inappropriately. Even more interesting is that they don’t otherwise have any physical relationship, so she pretends so they can. The reader asks what’s worse: Her lying and pretending to be under hypnosis, or his (thinking he’s) taking advantage of her when she’s supposedly in a “trance.”

Y’know, you can paint whatever sordid scenario you want to, but it all comes down to this: Lies beget lies, and fraud begets fraud. So, dear reader, they’re both wrong.

Over a thirty-five of clinical experience has convinced me that hypnosis – as it’s popularly understood – is a fraud. I’ve explored the topic in research and coursework, and what I’ve learned is that there’s no such thing as being “put in a trance” as is commonly understood. Honest hypnotherapists will tell you that the process is, in fact, an attempt to induce a state of relaxation during which you can better introspect, self-reflect and possibly change behaviors like smoking or drinking. This is certainly worthwhile, although I’m not convinced it leads to very much. The only positive feedback I’ve heard is about temporary attempts to stop smoking after a few sessions.

The notion that somebody can force you to do bizarre things, or things against your will, is a myth. And an honest hypnotherapist will be the first to tell you this. The power of suggestion may be real, but any suggestion is ultimately self-suggestion. Some of us surrender to others, but only if we consent to it. Nobody can literally get into our minds and control what we think. (There’s certainly no shortage of people who’d like to try, but that’s a separate discussion.)

You might go to a hypnotherapist, or even a psychotherapist, and talk about your desire to quit smoking, for example. Discussing it objectively and giving it greater visibility may help you achieve the behavioral change you seek, but it’s only because you were already convinced that change was desirable.

Professional hypnotherapy is completely different from stage hypnosis for entertainment. The fraud on stage lies not in its entertainment value, but in the pretense that it’s supposedly real. That’s why I’m suggesting your friend’s boyfriend is a fraud. He’s using something that may be appropriate on a Las Vegas stage – but not in a context of romantic intimacy. Your “hypnotized” friend feeds the fraud by going along with it, and pretending she’s under his “spell.”

Of course, this all rests on the assumption that both of them are serious about what they’re doing. Is that really the case? It might not be. Some couples make fantasy a part of their lives as innocent entertainment in the privacy of their bedrooms. It might very well heighten her fantasy to tell you about it and have you take it seriously. I don’t know, so I can’t speculate. I’ll leave that to you.

You implied in your question that your friend has issues. Less relevant than the fact that her former husband was a narcissistic type is the fact that she may have enjoyed the way he treated her. Look at the situation: She clearly enjoys the illusion of being controlled by her current romantic partner. Of course, outside of the bedroom, he treats her kindly. Perhaps she has moved from her dysfunctional former marriage (which was real) to one that exists only in fantasy. I guess we could call that progress. But we would have to leave that speculation up to her.