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The Therapeutic Paradox

by Trevor Silvester MNCH(Reg) FHS

Category: Hypnotherapy


Miss X arrives in my office complaining that she never meets nice men. Investigation uncovers her fear of being hurt. How is it that with this fear she keeps ending up in abusive relationships?

Mr Y finds himself increasingly isolated socially because he smokes, yet we establish that his unconscious motivation to smoke began when he was 14 and wanted to belong to the ‘in crowd’. Why does the unconscious cause a behaviour that brings the opposite of its intention?

I have found this paradoxical pattern in many of my clients. Research has suggested that 90% of our daily behaviour is produced unconsciously. If that is the case why would the unconscious produce behaviour which ends up with the opposite of what it desires, and keep on doing it?

An explanation requires certain assumptions. The first is that behaviour is purposeful. From the point of view of Evolutionary Psychology our actions are designed to assist the survival of our genes. From that perspective all behaviour has a positive intention for the individual. Our unconscious moves us towards pleasurable experiences, and away from negative ones – or ones it perceives will be negative based on previous experience (the pleasure principle).

The second presupposition is that we are creatures who seek meaning. Nothing is allowed to ‘just happen’. From the earliest age we are looking to make sense of the world, to make it predictable. Cognitive psychology suggests that we act as scientists, forming personal hypotheses about the way the world works, and creating behaviour that is appropriate to these beliefs. The writer Robert Anton Wilson suggests a dual mental mechanism of ‘the Thinker’, and ‘the Prover’. He suggests that once the ‘Thinker’ has developed a belief about any aspect of existence, the ‘Prover’ will adjust the input from our senses to validate the belief. The maxim is ‘What the Thinker thinks, the Prover proves.”

The third presupposition is that the unconscious acts as a protective device, using previous events in our life to determine appropriate action in the present. An easy illustration of this is to describe a phobia using these presuppositions:

A man came to see me with a fear of fish. He couldn’t even watch the Goldfish credit card advert on TV. Using Cognitive Hypnotherapy I regressed him to the first event connected to the problem. He recalled a time when he was three when his father came home early in the morning from a night of sea fishing. As some fathers do he thought it would be funny to make his son jump, so he put his catch (which sounded like a conger eel) on his son’s bed. The little boy felt the weight of it and opened his eyes – to find the face of the eel inches from his. As you can imagine it scared the life out of him.

Now, working with the assumptions I began with, his unconscious needs to protect him from any similarly ‘dangerous’ occasions. At that age, as the work of Swiss educationalist Piaget demonstrated, a child’s logical ability is limited to what is termed ‘nominal processing’. This equates to ‘this is better than that’ ‘this is because of that’ ‘this is right, that is wrong’ etc. Using this level of sophistication the unconscious searches for black and white causation, ‘What has caused this fear? It must be the fish. If I keep you away from fish you will be safe’. Thus, this significant emotional event acts as a reference point for the unconscious to measure threat in the future. Every time he comes into contact with a fish, or anticipates doing so, his unconscious kicks the fight or flight response into action to get him away from the danger, (or to kill it).

Because this event is stored unconsciously he is not aware of this mental computation, only of the result - an overwhelming emotional response – proximity to a fish causes, what he describes as a ‘panic attack’. The intention is to protect him; the result is to inappropriately restrict his life. Remember, I said the unconscious is there to protect you, not necessarily to make you happy. Every time he confronts a fish and emerges unscathed because of the response it reinforces it. (what the thinker thinks…)

That is a simple illustration of part of the model that produces the paradox, not the paradox itself. The next part of the model is to do with the way perceptions are shaped. Two factors are central:

1. Don’t think of a blue tree. What came to your mind? Your mind cannot process negatives, so to ‘not think of something’ it has to think of it. It is the structure of craving. Imagine someone who is trying to diet saying to themselves “I mustn’t have that cake/biscuit/chocolate.” The negative structure of that thought forces them to think of eating. Repeating that structure through a whole day brings you to the point of obsession about that chocolate chip cookie!

2. The concept of figure and ground. The picture you can see is probably familiar to you. Some see the young lady, some the old. An interesting question is ‘who decided which one you saw?’ The answer is, your unconscious. It processed the picture and gave it meaning, and produced one version for your conscious awareness. It did not say to your conscious “I’ve got two choices here, which one do you want?”

Knowing there are two choices most of you will be able to switch between both versions, but you cannot see both simultaneously. That is the gestalt principle of figure and ground; whichever one you focus on is the figure, which sends the other option into the background with all other possible information available to your senses. Those of you with any contact with NLP will be aware that your unconscious filters 2 million bits of information every second. Conscious awareness can only handle approximately 7 bits per second, so your unconscious is making figure/ground decisions on a grand scale every second.

The final part of the paradox model is the formation of Beliefs. For the purpose of this article I will take a Belief to be a generalization about yourself, or the world, based on experiences or lessons delivered by people significant to us, such as “I’m no good”, or “The world is a tough place”. In the words of John Burton “Almost all, if not all, limiting beliefs about self, others or life form during childhood.” In the main this is the first 12 years of life.

So let’s return to Miss X. At 5 years old her parents divorce. The father she adores moves out. At 5 years old children place themselves at the centre of the universe, and are the ‘cause’ of the things going on around them. It is a common experience to find that the 5 year old blames herself – “If only I’d been better he would have stayed.” She feels generally insecure and her unconscious looks for something to make her feel better. She attaches strongly to her maternal grandfather, who is loving and kind towards her. At 9 years old her grandfather dies suddenly of a heart attack. Another loving male figure has left her suddenly. The task of the unconscious is to keep her away from negative experiences. Finding the similarity between these two significant emotional events, it forms the belief “Men you love leave, don’t let them close.” Emotionally this is stored as a fear of getting hurt.

As the years go by her behaviour falls into a pattern. The dominant aspect of herself, the maturing woman with a healthy sexual appetite finds herself attracted to, and attracting men. However, she finds that as soon as it begins to develop into something meaningful she finds herself withdrawing. Worse still, her unconscious is fixated on avoiding men who will hurt her. Men likely to do this are the ‘figure’, men who are not likely to hurt her are the ‘ground’ and so are hardly noticed by her. It appears to Miss X that the world is full of ‘bad men’, and the best she can do is pick the best of the worst. By the time she comes to see me she has a history of broken relationships, is scared of committing, and has been hurt repeatedly.

Here is the therapeutic paradox: Miss X arrives with a fear of getting hurt. The behaviour her unconscious generates to protect her actually manifests the hurt she is desperate to avoid. The dangers of a well intentioned unconscious mind using archaic beliefs as a reference for present action. I hope the story demonstrates all three of my presuppositions.

With Mr Y the story follows the same paradoxical lines. When a young man he was quite small and was often picked on. Children fear rejection by their peers and will go to great lengths to avoid it. The repetition of being excluded and made to feel stupid because of his size leads to a feeling of insecurity and of ‘not belonging’. He becomes one of those boys who fall in with a gang and do whatever the leaders suggest in order to ‘belong’. He gets into trouble and becomes disruptive. Teachers describe him as ‘easily led’. At 12 behind the bike sheds he is offered the next level of ‘belonging’ – a cigarette! His initial refusal is met with jeers. The message to his unconscious is clear ‘smoking = belonging, not smoking=rejection’. There is no contest. He begins to smoke. Twenty years later he comes to me to give up. He has tried on many occasions, but always ends up giving in. He describes to me how nowadays in his work environment and even at home, he ends up smoking outside alone. It makes him miserable, but

Here again is the paradox in action: Mr Y’s motivation for smoking is because of his fear of ‘not belonging’. Now, as an adult the action of smoking tends to isolate him from the people he wants to belong to (i.e. his friends and partner). This triggers the fear. His unconscious associates the act of smoking with belonging, so, in effect says to him “Go on then, have a fag, you’ll feel better.” The cycle continues. I have come across the paradox in similar forms connected with issues of comfort; company; belonging; being loved, and many others in relation to both smoking and weight issues. In essence this suggests that just dealing with the symptom – the smoking -is unlikely to succeed. Work on the underlying issue which provides the motivation to smoke, and success is more likely. It will also have a much greater impact on their life.

The very problem they are complaining about maybe caused by their unconscious attempts to avoid it.


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