Many of people who seek my services have great intentions, but low expectations. They want to perform heroically, but previous failures have conditioned them to expect failure. Both their intentions and expectations are creative fictions that exist in their minds not in the objective world.
In fact, since intentions and expectations pertain to future behavior, they cannot be objectively true or false when they come to mind. It is only when the opportunity to perform arises that objective reality is determined. And at that critical moment, the creative fiction the person buys into, will have a profound influence on how he or she will actually perform. . People who believe they are heroes perform differently than those who believe they are losers.
When you tell yourself to raise your hand it goes up, but when you tell yourself to calm down, become sexually aroused, or salivate, you may not get the desired response. This is because consciousness is a property of the rational processing system, which can operate your skeletal muscles, but cannot directly control your passions.
There is, however, an indirect method by which you can exert a conscious influence over your biological responses: Instead of willing the response, aim your attention to the stimulus that elicits the intended response. For example if you want to salivate, instead of telling yourself to salivate, imagine licking a juicy but sour lemon—the same approach works with sexual arousal, anger, and other emotional reactions.
Thought Experiment: Evoking a Cringe
Take a few moments to relive a time when you embarrassed yourself. You will find that the more vivid the image and the more you can get into it, the greater the cringe effect.
If you were able to evoke the cringe, then you successfully initiated trance formation—that is, you willfully aimed your attention to a particular stimulus—in this case, an embarrassing moment—in order to produce the intended state change.
Because this is an early exercise and I wanted to make it easy, I used cringe imagery rather than efficacy-enhancing imagery, which would have been more useful for our goal of encouraging virtuous self-fulfilling prophecies. Indeed, it requires effort to use self-suggestion in a positive way because most people are biased against efficacy enhancing suggestion. Some people actively work to suppress suggestions such as I am competent, successful, loveable, etc., because they were specifically trained to be modest or self-deprecating. For many individuals, the shaming suggestion [I am not good enough, I am defective, etc.] is the key to their addictive trap.
Suggestions are invitations to a try on a particular trance. Whether the entity that creates the suggestion is a hypnotist, salesman, or you, the suggestion is always a creative fiction rather than assumed to be objective reality. Typically, the suggestion is designed to promote the interests of its designer—unless that entity is neurotic.
The interests of the stage hypnotist are served when the subject performs in a way that makes the audience laugh; the interests of the salesman are served when the customer buys. Your interests are served when you act in accord with your interests and principles.
The method of hypnotic suggestion, demonstrated by stage hypnotists, can be a powerful tool in the service of behavior change. But because the procedure is portrayed as comedy, the public has developed the wrong idea of how it works. The popular misconception that hypnosis compels the mindless subject to obey externally generated commands results from a technique called, the challenge—for example: “Your leg is getting heavier and heavier/you can try to lift your leg/but it will be so heavy/that you won’t be able to do it.”
This sounds like a battle of wills between the hypnotist and the subject, but it is not. In fact the effect is an intra-personal rather than an inter-personal phenomenon. Scripts such as this are used to demonstrate that simple verbal suggestions can influence the experience and behavior of a cooperative subject. The demonstration can produce humorous or shocking consequences when the subject acts as if the reality suggested by the hypnotist were actually true. Acting as though an objectively false suggestion were true—e.g., your shoe is made of lead—produces behavior that would appear absurd to an observer, and so the audience, who are not asked to buy into the false suggestion, finds it humorous.
The Neurotic Trance
But some things are neither true nor false. Are you a hero or a loser? There is no objective answer to that question. Concepts like that exist only within your mind. But how you perform in the real world depends, to a large extent, upon your subjective reality at that moment. The heroic version of you would react differently than your loser persona. Consider Barry’s predicament: He wants, very badly, to perform well, but his self-evaluative perspective produces the wrong trance:
The Trance of Social Anxiety
Barry, a clever but socially anxious engineer, can be very funny but is inarticulate in social settings in which he feels like a loser. The appraisals: “I’m a loser,” or “I am a witty guy” exist only in Barry’s mind and not in the objective world. Nevertheless, his subjective reality influences how he behaves in the objective world. Whether he reacts to the snide insult at the office party with a witty come back or with a humiliating silence depends to a large extent on his subjective reality at the time. His retort is more likely to be clever if he is in a confident trance than if he is in his “loser” trance. He wants to bring on the clever version of himself and enjoy a social victory for a change, but he expects to be intimidated as usual. Observers who know Barry have their predictions. But these expectations exist only in their minds. Only the actions Barry performs become part of objective reality; the other expectations and possibilities will fade into oblivion.
It would be good for Barry if he performs well during his crisis. But there is a battle between his intentions—to be the cool and clever Barry—and his expectation that he will be tongue tied. The winner of the battle determines which Barry shows up at the critical moment? The expectations have the advantage—both Barry and his audience believe them to be true. From our dispassionate perspective we can see they are both creative fictions, which are neither true nor false until Barry performs and actualizes one of them.
Barry’s limitation does not come from outside of him, nor is it due to a slow wit. He is handicapped by his own self-limiting suggestion. In contrast to injuries that tend to heal with time, the source of Barry’s misery is Barry and so the passage of time offers no respite. Barry’s creative fiction continually recreates the conditions for the nervousness and social incompetence that confirm his worst fears.
Like Barry’s social anxiety trance, Bernie’s anger is the creation of his psyche. But the anger, once evoked, distorts state-dependent phenomena. The truth when you are angry is different than the truth when you are contrite.
The Trance of Anger
Bernie reported that “during a chaotic situation at an airport ticket counter someone kicked me in the back of the leg. When I turned around to confront the asshole I saw a handicapped girl in a wheelchair, which had evidently rolled, out of control, down a ramp and into me. She was terrified by the rage on my face.” He contritely described how his subjective reality changed instantaneously as a result of the new information, although objective reality now included a terrified little girl, a fact he still cringes over.
You get to determine what is meaningful, nature determines what is salient. As the stories of Barry and Bernie illustrate, anxiety and anger provoking stimuli are highly salient and often elicit self-defeating trances. We want your core motivation—rather than the most salient stimulus of the local environment—to influence your motivation, appraisals, and behaviors during high-risk situations. Our goal is for you to develop the skills and faculties that enable you to the use of your imagination in ways that promote adaptive rather than maladaptive trances.