Suggestion and Other Creative Fictions

Posted By William Dubin, Ph.D. on March 4, 2016 at 3:46pm | General, Recursive Traps [Neurosis]

Self suggestion makes you master of yourself

 —  W. Clement Stone

Suggestion is an effective method of reifying a particular creative fiction. The effect is achieved by pretending, or acting as if, the suggested premise was true. You can take suggestions as seriously as you like; they are merely invitations to a try on a particular perspective.

Barry’s Biased Appraisals:

Barry is at a used-car lot where a salesman is showing him a shabby looking vehicle, saying: “It may not be much to look at, but is actually worth much more than its listed price, whereas your trade in vehicle is a piece of crap and nearly worthless.” The salesman may attempt to reify the fiction by quoting false Bluebook values.

The salesman is acting in bad faith, because he is engaging in a self-serving lie. Unlike the value of a motor vehicle of a particular make, model, and year, which can be appraised by an authoritative appraiser, there is no Bluebook value for Barry. According to some appraisal criteria Barry may be highly valued, according to others, not so much. But no appraisal of Barry’s worth is more objectively valid than any other. Unlike the self-serving salesman, Barry’s appraisals promote bad outcomes and unnecessary suffering for Barry and those close to him. His self-sabotaging abstractions such as negative self-appraisal are made up by Barry, and are no more valid than self-enhancing abstractions.

When I asserted that his harsh self-critical perspective hinders his social performance, he replied that he knew that, but did not want “to lie [to himself] just to reap the benefits of doing so.” I countered that appraising himself as worthy of affection is no more a lie than appraising himself as unworthy of affection. Both appraisals are creative fictions made up by Barry and exist only in his mind. The abstractions that Barry buys into determines how he reacts to the things that happen.

If you were Barry’s therapist, how would you perceive his predicament?

Recursive traps occur when your interpretation of the things that happen impairs your performance, and thereby confirms the validity of the handicapping abstraction. We could be invulnerable to recursive traps if we did not abstract. But that would be impossible; to make sense of the world you have to abstract from specific observations to general hypotheses, and act as if these hypotheses are true. They often are. But sometimes they are not. And sometimes, such as Barry’s concern about how people will perceive him in the future are neither true nor false yet.

Worrying about whether the people at the party will like him causes Barry social anxiety. The suggestion that “they will not like me” will impair his social performance compared to the suggestion that “they will like me.” Since these speculations are about an event that has not yet taken place, one is no more valid than the other. The reality will be created by how Barry actually performs socially at the party. Sadly, there are several cause-and-effect principles that make it more likely that Barry will buy into the handicapping suggestion. His poor social performance will then confirm his self-sabotaging suggestion.

Those of us rooting for Barry want him to replace the self-sabotaging suggestion with an equally valid one that did not handicap his performance, or better yet a suggestion that was performance enhancing. The direct path to willful influence of your subjective reality is the hypnotic method described first by Mesmer, and since has been used mostly by stage hypnotists.

Hypnotic Suggestion

The method of hypnotic suggestion, so powerfully demonstrated by stage hypnotists, can be a powerful tool in the service of therapeutic 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. In fact the hypnotist is just reciting a script. The mechanism of action is the subject’s reification of the suggestion. The demonstration can produce humorous or shocking consequences when the subject acts as if the concepts suggested by the hypnotist’s script were actually true.  Acting as though an objectively false suggestion were true—e.g., flies are buzzing around your head — produces behavior that appears absurd to the audience who are not asked to buy into the suggestion.

Whether the source of the suggestion is a hypnotist, salesman, or you, the suggestion is an abstraction [e.g., the words, “there are flies buzzing around your head”] presented as if it were real or objectively true. Typically, the suggestion is designed to promote the interests of its designer — unless, of course, the designer is caught in a self-sabotaging trap.

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 follow your path of greatest advantage.

Hypnotists and salesmen have their own motivations for getting you to act one way or another and may use lies as part of their suggestions. You have no ulterior motives for using suggestion, so lying is unnecessary.

The most important suggestions — the suggestions that determine the course of each individual’s life — are neither true nor false. “Are you are hero or a loser?” The definitions of “hero” and “loser” are not part of the natural world; they exist only in the mind of the appraiser. You are neither a hero nor loser until you label yourself such. Once you do, your suggestion will have profound, self-confirmatory influence on how you perform during crises, and on your ability to persevere through difficult times.

Negative suggestions in daily life

By the time of our first visit most of my clients have tried to resolve their problems many times. They sincerely intend to try hard, but expect to ultimately fail. The outcome of our collaboration depends upon them abandoning the suggestion that their efforts are doomed to failure.

Not surprisingly, those who are able to buy into the “hero” suggestion tend to perform better than those who cannot shake the “loser” suggestion. Appreciating this, I want my clients to replace their self-sabotaging suggestions with more helpful ones. Sadly, getting clients to give up their pathogenic suggestions is a major challenge, because they believe them to be true. Pathogenic suggestions have all the advantages, including: They are more salient; you may have been conditioned during childhood to buy into them, or to resist positive self-evaluation.

To overcome these advantages we have to do something special: Self-Suggestion is the method of exercising a willful influence over your subjective reality by pretending or acting as if the suggested reality was true.

The classic heavy shoe challenge asks you to imagine a subjective reality in which your leg and shoe are made of lead. Obviously, the premise is false. I am using it to give you an opportunity to experience how suggestion works, and use to method to intentionally manipulate your subjective experience.

As you work with this method you will be exercising the faculty of reifying helpful creative fictions. The benefits of using this method are indirect, and come primarily from stopping the reification of harmful suggestion than from buying into the helpful one.

SelfSuggestion is the most straightforward path to change: You simply act as if the helpful abstraction were true. If, for example, your social performance is impaired by the belief that the people at the meet-up group are not going to like me [Fortune Telling], you can use suggestion to imagine and act as if the people at the group want me to interact with them so they look and feel popular.

The talent to use Self-Suggestion varies from person to person. However, everyone improves with practice. For those who develop this capability, Suggestion is the most direct and fast acting puppy-training method to escaping self-sabotaging traps.


Efficacy-enhancing suggestions, called Affirmations, are useful to counter negative creative fictions, including self-critical evaluations and predictions of failure. An audio example: Affirmations Script.



Hypnotic Inductions and Audios > >

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Posted by William Dubin, Ph.D.

Bill received his doctoral degree in Psychology from the University of Iowa. He has dedicated his career to the study of mood and addictive disorders and how to escape them.

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