by C. Roy Hunter
Frequently over the years I’ve seen scripts that contain aversion imagery. Last year, two different authors of scripts containing aversion imagery asked for my opinion on those scripts, which I provided by email. Since this topic comes up occasionally, others may benefit from an article expressing my concerns.
Let me preface my discussion of aversion imagery by presenting to important concepts that I reveal to all my clients. This information is very relevant to my discussion of aversion suggestion, and I will explain why later…
- Imagination is the language of the subconscious.
- Emotion is the motivating power of the mind.
Here’s how I discuss these concepts to both my clients and my students
Before giving a suggestibility test, I tell a client, “I’m going to give you an opportunity to discover the power of your imagination…”
Whether or not the client responds verbally to that statement, I proceed with a suggestibility test. The one I use most frequently is the water bucket test. I say:
“Hold your arms out in front of you, and imagine you have a bucket in one hand, and the other hand is holding 100 helium balloons. I don’t know which is easier to imagine, the bucket or the balloons…but just imagine water is pouring into the bucket. SEE the water pouring in…HEAR the water splashing…FEEL the bucket getting heavier and heavier. OR you might find it easier to imagine someone DOUBLES the number of helium balloons. See them…or hear them gently bumping into one another…and feel them pulling up your hand. Now the bucket is getting fuller and heavier, and someone drops in a heavy rock…
Now I ask the client to keep his/her arms where they are and open the eyes. My next comment is: “Your arms did not move because I told them to, but because you imagined the bucket or the balloons. This demonstrates that IMAGINATION is the language of the subconscious.“
From here, I explain that the client must fantasize a peaceful place when requested, because imagining the freeway during rush hour will not produce a sense of peace. Likewise, when I ask a client to imagine his/her benefits for quitting smoking, if he/she is instead fantasizing lighting up because they hear every word I say, what suggestions do you think the subconscious will buy?
The energy of the subconscious is emotion. Some people say that we have a fight or flight syndrome. There is actually a third way the subconscious sometimes deals with a very unpleasant emotion: it will freeze it into the inner mind. Just as a deer will sometimes freeze in panic in front of a pair of oncoming headlights, we sometimes freeze our emotions during a state of extreme emotional anxiety, unable to either fight or flee. Sometimes these emotions, frozen into the inner mind, become subconscious blocks that prevent us from accomplishing goals until they are discovered and released through hypnosis.
Often people wishing to quit smoking feel an inner conflict, because the emotional desire to quit is not as strong as the emotional desire to light up. The same is true with dieters who give in to their snack urges when junk food is nearby. When the dieter imagines the taste of the snack and fantasizes the emotional satisfaction, the emotional desire to enjoy the junk food is stronger than will power…and imagination almost always wins when it is combined with emotion.
People who are highly motivated to succeed have a passion about their goals, whether these goals are professional, personal, or athletic. For example, an Olympic medal candidate will sacrifice much while training to participate in the Olympic Games; and it takes a strong emotional desire to motivate the athlete to go through an extensive training program.
Likewise, people will fail at even the most logical goals when they have an emotional desire to avoid paying the price. If that were not true, there would be no need for the multi-billion dollar weight control industry…and there would be far less need for hypnotists to help people overcome undesired habits.
Because fear is a strong emotion, proponents of aversion work often use fear as the motivating energy to scare a client into quitting an addiction by using suggestion and imagery to have the client wallow around in the possible consequences of continuing their behavior.
Does Aversion Have a High Success Rate?
In my opinion, it is quite possible that some hypnotists who use aversion suggestions may have a higher initial success rate than those who use a positive approach. However, my primary concern can be asked in the form of a question: what are the possible consequences to those who backslide?
Let’s explore the answer to that question by considering the power of the subconscious when it engages in negative imagery over an extended period of time. No matter how effective any hypnotist believes his/her success rate is, nobody has a 100% success rate. Also, some who succeed initially may backslide several weeks or months after an initial success. Consider the last two sentences carefully as you read the rest of this article.
The Law of Expectancy
Charles Tebbetts taught his students that whatever the subconscious expects tends to be realized, especially when combined with imagination and belief. This leads to a conviction at both a conscious and subconscious level, which produces results – regardless of whether they are positive or negative.
Now let’s relate this to aversion imagery. While the aversion suggestion may indeed work for many clients, in my professional opinion aversion imagery has an unacceptable risk. The client who backslides becomes more vulnerable to imagining the same pain, etc., that such imagery implants in his/her subconscious during hypnosis. When the fantasized pain and/or disease is combined with belief and expectancy, this could cause the client to become convinced that he/she will develop the disease. Is the same mind that can accelerate the body’s healing process also capable of accelerating disease?
Years ago a client saw me for hypnosis to quit smoking, and told me that his former doctor had used hypnosis to help him quit smoking about a year earlier. The doctor used aversion suggestion, having him fantasize poisoned lungs, cancer spreading, etc., unless he quit smoking. Because of what his doctor told him a year earlier, he expected to get sick if he started smoking again. During hypnosis, aversion suggestion caused him to imagine pain and disease in his lungs if he kept on smoking, and the aversion suggestions reinforced his belief that such a disease could happen to him. By the time he left his doctor’s office, he was convinced that backsliding would cause his lungs to quickly deteriorate. The emotion of fear was used during hypnosis to scare him into quitting.
Although the aversion suggestions lasted for a few weeks, he backslid – and almost immediately started experiencing lung pain. Because of the law of expectancy, what might have happened if this client had not made another serious attempt to quit smoking? According to my client’s own lips, he believed that his lungs would develop cancer if he kept on smoking, and he was blaming the doctor who implanted the suggestions a year earlier. He told me that I saved his former doctor from a malpractice suit.
If you use aversion imagery with your clients, please consider the possible consequences, as it could be costly to both you and a minority of your clients. Even if you have a 90% success rate, is it worth the risk to the 10% who backslide?
Even a percentage of those who succeed initially will backslide within a year or less during a stressful event. For the client who backslides, the fear of negative health effects could be dangerous if combined with negative images put into the inner mind during hypnosis…and possibly accelerate the progress of a disease.
Although alternative choices might often require two or three sessions, the positive approach minimizes the risk of a backslider’s subconscious accelerating any negative consequences. Here is the approach I use…
I ask my clients to list their own personal benefits for quitting (or reducing, etc.). During hypnosis, the client is progressed forward in time so that he/she may bond emotionally with the benefits of achieving the desired goal. This utilizes the positive emotions to energize the subconscious into action.
Sometimes negative emotions previously frozen into the subconscious will prevent the client from enjoying the desired success. When this happens, I often use hypnotic regression to take the client back to the core cause; or I may employ parts work to help the subconscious resolve the inner conflict. This is why I require the client to commit to at least three sessions before accepting him/her for overcoming a habit.
There are four primary hypnosis objectives to consider. When suggestion and imagery are not enough (objective #1), we must accomplish three more objectives: (2) discover the cause, (3) facilitate release, and (4) facilitate subconscious relearning. Suggestion and imagery will then follow the other three objectives…and these four hypnosis objectives form the four cornerstones of successful hypnosis.
When a hypnotist skips any of the above four objectives, this reduces the client’s chance of long-term success. Conversely, when we accomplish all four objectives in a client-centered manner, the client becomes empowered to maintain his/her own success. Even this approach will not help all the people all the time, but it will help most of the people most of the time. (Note: my parts work book from Crown House Publishing covers these four objectives in the 3rd chapter.)
When the Client Backslides
Nobody can guarantee another person’s behavior, and moments of stress sometimes contribute to a client backsliding into lighting up, etc. When the client returns to get back on track, we can simply deal with what emerges and fit the technique to the client.
I prefer the client-centered approach whenever possible, because it empowers the client. My normal approach for a backsliding client will be either parts work (to resolve the inner conflict), or regression to core cause (initial sensitizing event).
On a few rare occasions over the years, a backsliding client has requested aversion work from me. After expressing my concerns and indicating that I will only use mild (and temporary) aversion imagery, I ask the client to put his/her request in writing. The one I’ve used with a few smokers is to have the client imagine a foul odor when lighting up…and it disappears when the cigarette is extinguished. A woman who was addicted to chocolate asked me to suggest that chocolate produced a very bad taste in her mouth. Although I was initially reluctant to do so, she told me that her doctor wanted me to use aversion imagery on her for chocolate because she was diabetic.
The Bottom Line
In summary, if you choose to use aversion imagery, my strong recommendation is that you limit the aversion imagery to temporary discomfort only. Also realize that a person with a strong “rebel” button can easily overcome aversion suggestions, especially if that person is an analytical resister. Using imagery of pain and/or disease to enhance the aversion is, in my opinion, an unacceptable risk to the client; and I believe such negative imagery should be considered unethical because of the danger to the client.
In 2006, the author of an aversion script wrote to me and said what I consider to be the bottom line:
“First, let me thank you again for raising my awareness of this concern. If the chance of doing harm to a client is only one in a million, it’s a chance I’m not willing to take. I will no longer use that script as is. I may rework it using the first one third or so of the current text, eliminating all references to death, pain, cancer and yes, stupidity; while adding more positives.”
I publicly applaud this professional’s integrity and courage to respond in this manner, and appreciate his decision to make the changes in his script.
Perhaps you might wish to look at the scripts you use, and edit them as needed.
Roy Hunter, M.S., FAPHP, CHI,
practices hypnosis near Seattle, in the Pacific Northwest region of the USA, and trains parts work to professionals around the world. He also works part time for the Franciscan Hospice facilitating hypnosis for terminal patients, and teaches a 9-month professional hypnosis training course based on the teachings of Charles Tebbetts. Roy is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Order of Braid (NGH) for lifetime achievement in the hypnosis profession. Roy also was awarded an honorary PhD from St. John’s University for lifetime achievement in hypnosis.