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Surviving Families and the Holidays

In the last 50 years or so, the face of the family has been changing rapidly. Technology has allowed family members to move further away from each other and pursue education and job opportunities. In addition, families are now made of blends of divorced persons, gay and lesbian combinations and occasionally multiple person relationships such as open marriages.

Whatever we define as family, the holidays bring us together, for better or, sometimes for worse. The shadow of the past is present during these times, with memories of prior gatherings not far from the minds of all those present. For many of us, these shadows are scary with old conflicts lying just around the corner, waiting to rear their heads and bring us into the same old patterns and arguments.


Part of the problem is that often people’s files about their relatives haven’t been updated. Our memories are from years ago and we haven’t seen the change and growth that everyone has undergone in the meantime. Even if we have been in close proximity we are so tied into the old patterns that we remain captured in the dynamic.

We want to keep our family obligations, in spite of mixed feelings about the holidays. The old feelings contain both the good and the bad, so how can we actualize the former and minimize the latter? Here are a few strategies:

Compassion: Remind yourself that we are all in the same boat in life. Even that relative that you can’t stand has gone through some of the same trials and tribulations that you have. If they create troubles for others, remember that this is often a response that has come out of some kind of fear from the past. One simple but true perspective is that for many people, fear runs their lives and when someone acts out its often when they are most fearful.

Be Helpful: The holidays have lots of obligations in one way or another. Keeping yourself busy with being helpful in various ways is a simple way to build up your positive image, both for yourself and your relatives. Remember: people may have old impressions of you that they need to update, show your best self to allow them to do that updating.

Do Something Different: This is in keeping with the last idea, but you should employ it more generally. Breaking out of old patterns with your family can leave everyone able to more relax and try something different. This could be something major like being the first to call and invite someone to your place for a change to suggesting something totally new and fun for an activity. It may be some small change like making a personal gift for everyone instead of buying something from the store. Whatever it is, a small change can snowball into something bigger, often making the holiday a special memory for everyone.

Consider and recognize the positive
: Make sure you tell people what you appreciate about them. Bring up old memories of things you liked in the past. This may set people on a role of what positive things they remember. Old Santa Claus stories or tales of New Years past can bring up good memories if they are done well.

Play With the Children: The kids in the family are often less threatening than the adults. The children appreciate the attention that an adult gives them and you may become their favorite “aunt” or “uncle” even if you’re their cousin! Remember to approach each child in an age appropriate way, an older child can feel misunderstood if they are invited to a game that’s meant for a younger one.

If all else fails become an anthropologist! : Taking a step back and observing may allow you to get the distance you need to deal with all the emotional triggers that you come across. Imagining yourself as a scientific observer studying the family can be one way to deal with the most difficult of situations. Ask yourself what may be behind the behaviors and patterns that you are seeing. Use your curiosity about the people that you’ve known all your life and you may be surprised to see them in a new light.

Using one or, even better, several of the above ideas can really help to shift the holiday experience for you and your family. Setting out with a positive, adventurous attitude is half the battle. You can be the one person to tip the whole event in a positive direction and make it a holiday everyone will remember.

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Hypnosis as a Special (or Not so Special) State of Mind

I am asked if I do hypnosis with my clients, often in the context of eating or smoking or some other kind of habit pattern.  Many people think that hypnosis is really only used for breaking or inducing new habits, but the hypnotic phenomenon is actually more complex and interesting than that.

One story that I tell to explain hypnosis goes like this:

A psychologist named Ernest Rossi had been in biology graduate school prior to shifting to psychology.  He also got training as a Jungian analyst and had a special interest in how the mind and body interact with each other.  He was reading a report on how some biologists were contracted to see if they could find out how air traffic controllers made mistakes, in an effort to decrease errors which could, at times, be fatal to hundreds of people.

After considerable study, the biologists found that the error rate rose every 90 to 120 minutes, dropping once again to a baseline level.  While they examined all sorts of biological markers, the ones that they found were based mostly on observation of the air traffic controllers.  They listed such things as:

  • slowed blink rate
  • slowed movements of the body, even stopping completely
  • swallow rate slowing
  • staring in one place
  • slow breath rate

Rossi looked at this list and found it to be the same as what was given him years before by the world’s greatest hypnotherapist, Milton Erickson, M.D. except he called it “signs of the common everyday trance“.

Rossi went on to study this phenomenon and write extensively on it.  From this, he developed the idea of a new “state” theory of hypnosis: that we slip into trance every 90-120 minutes a day, but utilize it mostly to rest. If we DON’T get the chance to take these breaks, then we end up with all those classic problems that come from modern life in the form of stress reactions, along with the chronic health problems connected to them.

This state of hypnosis then is not anything unfamiliar to anyone who daydreams.  While certain religious and spiritual groups have doctrines against hypnosis (most notably Christian Scientists and Theosophists), these arguments are based on a concept of trance that is over 100 years old and talks about control of one mind that is weaker by a stronger mind.  While that idea was useful in its time, usually to bring fame to the hypnotist and instill confidence in his techniques (almost always it was a male hypnotist and more frequently a female subject), it really has no place in the modern theories of altered states.

What does this state allow you to do?  One important component of trance is the ability to connect to states of mind in which memories are more vivid.  Scientists have found that the state of the mind and body in which memories form can be important to remembering them.  If something happens to you when you are drunk, the ability to remember it will be much easier if you are again tipsy.  They have even shown the effect when students take a test in a different room than that in which the lectures took place!

Remembering events and, in a sense, “re-coding” them is one important part to hypnotic psychotherapy.  The trance state can also be used to work with the mind’s natural connection to the body and influence it.  It’s been known for over a hundred years that a hypnotic subject can respond to an imagined lit cigarette pressed against the arm with a blister.  The range of responses in this mind/body interface are still being investigated, but there seems to be evidence of hypnosis being used for breast enlargement, skin disorders and even increasing height in an adult male by several inches.

What happens between the hypnotist and the subject in a session?  That will be the subject of my next blog entry.

And finally, a classical and completely  inaccurate depiction of hypnosis:


Psycho-WHAT? (Part Six: Life Coaches, hypnotists, etc.)

Many mental health professionals would like to ignore the role that unlicensed individuals have, but, the truth is, there will always be room for, and a place for, those people who haven’t gone through the traditional route in established universities.  I’d like to talk briefly about three of these, starting with the relatively new phenomenon of Life Coaches.

Life Coaches – undergo varied training, depending on the type of program they go through, although there is nothing to prevent someone from taking the title on themselves.  As yet, there is no regulation and no standards, save for some organizations that are attempting to self police the field, outside of government licenses or regulation.  Typically, coaches work either over the phone (which is fairly common) or in person, helping individuals to keep on track with goals that they mutually set in the early sessions.  Some life coaches also focus on business:  keeping an entrepreneur on track with goals, or helping a busy executive to keep focused.

The distinction between Life Coaches and psychotherapists can be a tough one to make at times.  Rhonda Britten, a life coach who has booked more time on reality TV than any other adviser (and, for full disclosure, my cousin) defines psychotherapy as focusing in on the past, while life coaches focus on the present and future. While that may be true, psychotherapy has recently been more future oriented, as exemplified by the schools of “solution focused” therapy, with one of the main exponents, Bill O’Hanlon, talking about the evolution of psychotherapy as moving from past to future focused.

Whatever the case may be, Life Coaching has proven a possible route to being in a helping profession with avoiding government regulation, large university tuition bills and a certain freedom of practice.  For those that are business oriented and like to marketing themselves, this is a great opportunity to put oneself out there and develop a career.  Life Coaches also have the advantage that there is no “stigma” to been seen consulting them, whereas the shadow and labeling of mental illness inherent in other professions that are licensed can be a factor in stopping people from getting help.

As with any profession, some people are better than others and some programs are better than others.  I would note, however, than even a badly trained or practicing Life Coach will mean that you have to tell someone each week what you are doing to reach your goals, increasing the level of accountability and helping you keep on track!  Most of us, if we know we are being watched or followed by someone else, will start to have an investment in looking good to the other person!

Hypnotists and NLPers – have been in practice since the days of Mesmer, with techniques changing over time, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly.  Nowadays, most non-licensed hypnotists will seek out training with a program connected to the American Guild of Hypnotists, which certifies people at various levels of expertise.  Only a few states regulate hypnosis, but these hypnotists must always be careful of practicing within their areas of expertise.  For instance, while they can note that someone is “sad” to label them “depressed” could get them in trouble, since that’s a diagnosis a licensed professional has to make, no matter if the client themselves uses the term!  Much of the focus of these practitioners is on smoking cessation and weight control, certainly both worthy topics to focus on and an area that is taught in even the most basic of courses.  There may be others that venture into other areas, even spiritual work, looking to use the trance phenomenon as a stepping stone to spiritual progress or even psychic abilities.  Certainly in this last category, the tradition is even older than Mesmer, since traditional, pre-literate societies used trance for their healing methods via what the anthropologists would label as shamanic practices.  Indeed, one hypnotist I was in communication with described himself, rather delightedly, as a “shaman with a neck tie”!

Neuro Linguistic Programming or NLP was invented in the 1980’s, started by a professor of linguistics, John Grinder and a mathematician and general genius named Richard Bandler.  They started out building linguistic models of psychotherapy sessions, trying to find common patterns in speech in the best of therapists.  They also analyzed the language patterns of the then best clinical hypnotist in the world, Milton Erickson, a psychiatrist in Arizona.  Soon, they started to notice non verbal patterns in communication and found that they could use their basic approach to build a teachable model of any mental skill to others.  One of their first successes was to model how good spellers of the English language manage to defeat the very non-phonetic nature of English spelling!  

NLP has been used widely in advertising, marketing, business consulting and, naturally, psychotherapy.  The easiest way to describe the whole field is by means of thinking of the brain as a computer (not an uncommon thing today).  NLP attempts to go into the mind, find the mental patterns or “software” and then “upgrade” the programs to be more efficient and allow the person to have more choices.  Because of the modeling of hypnosis that NLP has done, most NLP trained professionals also use hypnosis.

Astrologers, Tarot Readers and Ministers – As shown by my statements about shamanism, spiritual advisers of all sorts have long been a source of wisdom for people stuck in the various difficult conditions life can bring us.  The parish priest or the pastor of the local church one is a member of frequently receive all sorts of requests of advice and counseling, as do clergy of any faith: Buddhist, Hindu, Wiccan or Muslim.  Most main stream denominations require seminary training which gives experience and classes in Chaplaincy, giving experience in active listening, spiritual counseling and problem solving.  Some clergy go on to advanced training and some get doctorates in pastoral care, further education moving into the area of psychotherapy.  More biblically based groups may have ministers who have simply attended a Bible college and may be actively against any forms of counseling, even those labeled within their faith.  Once again, quality of help depends on personal competency as well as training.

More off beat advisers, such as Astrologers or Tarot readers are consulted by any number of people in all socio-economic classes.  Whatever one thinks of these, at the very least, the effort to formulate a question and to get advice, even random advice, can move the person out of a cognitive “rut” they are stuck in and provide ideas on a new course of action.  The famous writer Edward DeBono calls this “lateral thinking” and conducts courses which even use randcmoe words from the dictionary as a way to start creative thinking about problems, certainly comparable to letting the mind contemplate the possible relationships between a tarot card or planetary position!  While these methods have a socially marginal air to them, their mystique can often compel the person to a different course of action and, as the above mentioned Bill O’Hanlon talks about, doing one thing different can make a lot of difference.

So, with this, we come to the end of my brief excursion into the area of advice giving, counseling or psychotherapy professionals.  The vast array of appears to grow every day, with odd corners such as “Spiritual Direction” or Mind/Body therapists or “Spiritual Companionship” seeming to pop up every day.  As is often the case, referral from someone trusted to a professional of any sort is often a good way to examine your options, but this series is meant to show just how many options there are.

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