What it takes to get un-stuck. Creating positive change.

Helping Your Client Find and Follow Their Pathway to Change

Time for change. New Year’s pledge, to alter something

This is an article I wrote for recent graduates of my school, the Midwest Hypnotherapy Academy; however, it’s a good read for practitioners with any length of experience and any person seeking to understand the process of creating change in their life.  In this article I share some of the underlying causes behind people’s stuck states, and a look at the types of interventions I use and find effective for each in my practice.


The guiding principal in doing change work is this:  That our main goal as practitioners of hypnotherapy is to help our client discover / create their own pathway to the desired change.

There are some underlying assumptions in this statement that need to be unpacked.  As a new(er) hypnotherapist you must learn and accept these underlying assumptions to be true in all of your work in order to do work that is client-centered, focused on the best outcome for the client, and to create change that will be accepted long-term by their subconscious mind.

Here are those assumptions:

First, that the client has the ability and all the resources needed to create their change.  This is a basic presupposition of our work: that people already have the resources they need to create the change they desire. “The mind that created the problem can create/already knows the solution.”

Second, that for some reason outside of the client’s conscious awareness their ability to find or create that pathway has been blocked.  In our work we recognize that this is being done for a positive purpose (at the subconscious level).  As we learn in NLP, “every behavior has a positive intent in some context.”  This correlates to the quote attributed to Milton Erickson that “everyone’s problem stems from a mind that is out of rapport with itself.” In other words, your conscious mind wants one thing, but your subconscious mind has a reason to oppose that.

Third, and importantly, it is not the hypnotherapist’s role to propose or impose a solution.  That may result in a temporary shift in behaviors but will not result in a permanent change nor will it be the best solution.  The best solution for each person is the solution from within.  If it were the hypnotherapist’s job to come up with the client’s solution, how would this be any different from the friendly advice they have probably already gotten from family and friends (which clearly has not worked)?

OK, so if the client has all the resources they need to create the solution and the solution must come from within them, then why have they not already created the change they desire?

The answer to this, of course, lies in the second assumption — for some reason, their non-conscious or subconscious mind is stuck in opposition to the consciously held goal. There are a number of reasons this might be the case, and in this article I’ll go through some of the ones that I encounter frequently, and the techniques that I have found effective in bringing the client’s conscious and subconscious minds into alignment with their goal.  I’ll list these from the simple to the  “complex,’ with the caveat that the complexity is in my mind, not necessarily the clients!

This list is not meant to be exhaustive.  There may be other subconscious reasons for opposing a goal but these are ones I’ve run into repeatedly over the past 10+ years of practice.

All of these reasons listed below and the techniques suggested are intended to change the client’s subconscious self image, to the extent required to create the desired change.  As Maxell Maltz said, “The ‘self-image’ is the key to human personality and human behavior. Change the self image and you change the personality and the behavior.” The smallest nudge required is the nudge to give.  No need to completely remodel the house when changing the paint color does the trick.  That’s why I work with a idea of an escalating hierarchy of techniques. The list below reflects that hierarchy.

One other note:  A client may certainly have more than one of these underlying reasons in play at the same time. Listen actively, establish benchmarks for your work, and stay flexible and you will be in the best position to neutralize what’s holding them back.

  1. The subconscious mind does not understand/has not acknowledged the goal.  There are a few different patterns that I see that fall under this category.

The client is in the habit of problem-oriented thinking.  Perhaps the client is in the habit of conceiving of the goal in relation to the problem rather than the solution — “problem oriented thinking” will keep you stuck in the problem. Your clue to this is the client who, when you ask them what they want to achieve, will start telling you all of the things they don’t want.  They are very well-versed in what they’re trying to get away from, but haven’t fully developed the concept of what they want to move toward.  Without that clearly formed goal in place, the subconscious mind’s default is to keep doing what it has been doing.

If you inadvertently in this way ask your subconscious mind to crawl around all the various aspects of the problem, you are really asking it “how can I stay stuck?” It will do it’s best to provide you with what it feels you are seeking.  “Solution oriented thinking” asks for the opposite. It basically asks “how can I?”, and will result in creative and appropriate (to the client) ways to move forward toward the goal.

Techniques that can be helpful:  In a beta state, create what in NLP we call “a well formed outcome.” In hypnosis, ask the creative subconscious mind to come up with three actions the client can take to move toward their goal, or three creative and acceptable solutions to the problem.” Remember to ask if it’s ok for the conscious mind to be made aware of these actions and have those remain in the conscious awareness after the session! (If you take or have taken my Master NLP class you’ll recognize that this type of behavior may be indicative of a person’s meta-model and you can take further steps to help change that so that they map across this change toward solutions-oriented thinking in other areas of their life.)

b. The client is unknowingly giving themselves suggestions to remain in the stuck state. Listen to how the client talks about the goal and their problem attaining it.  The subconscious mind is always listening, and we are our own best hypnotists.  We have no reason not to trust what we say to ourselves.  So when we say things like, “I just keep failing at that;” “bad things happen every time I try to do that,” “every time I drive on the highway there are crazy drivers,” etc., etc., etc., (and usually said with strong emotion) then our subconscious mind fulfills the emotionalized desire. They are programming their brain’s Reticular Activating System (RAS) to draw their conscious awareness/focus to these things and because what we focus on expands it seems to them like that is reality.  Remember, the subconscious mind does not judge, it is very much a robot and simply fulfills programming.

Techniques that can be helpful:  Bring the client’s conscious awareness to their language patterns.  Chances are it is such a habit they aren’t even hearing it and they probably also have no idea the effect it’s having. Some education of how the subconscious works is in order. Explain the role of the RAS and how it’s coloring their experience of the world. Once you feel you have their understanding and acceptance of this, teach them an NLP pattern interrupt. (OK, I’ll post info on this separately or this article will get to be too long.) If you’ve already taken my NLP class, then you have that information. Work with the client to create positively stated suggestions that will move them toward what they actually do want, and provide those suggestions to the subconscious mind in hypnosis.

c) The client has never created a fully formed goal. They are thinking in terms of deletions, distortions and generalizations (again, as we learn in the NLP classes).  Listen for vague language like, “I want to feel better,” “I want to have more money/be more successful/be happier.” These are too vague to trigger subconscious goal-achievement mechanisms. There may be short-term results that aren’t even recognized by the client as related to their thoughts.  Want to have more money?  Remember your attention being drawn to that dime on the sidewalk?  “Box checked and moving on…” is what their subconscious says.

Techniques that can be helpful:  Once again, create a well-formed outcome.  Get them to really be specific about their goal. This can be challenging work for them because they’ve never done this and probably haven’t for other things in their lives. It’s unfamiliar-they just don’t (yet) have the neural pathways for this type of thinking.  The old human resources standby the SMART goal is one way to approach this, and better than nothing, although there are some specific questions for the NLP well-formed outcome that I like better.  (Again, that’s for another article.)

Once the client has a much richer, more specific concept of what they want, use mental rehearsal in hypnosis (aka future pacing) to give their subconscious mind an inner experience of what the goal looks, feels and sounds like.  They need to make it real to their subconscious minds in order for their subconscious to put the programming in place to move toward the goal.

2)  Progress toward the goal has been conceived as either/or, black/white.

Some people naturally see the world as more black and white-either/or than others.  They tend to think of change as moving from one state to it’s opposite—they think of how they are as “state A” and the way they want to be as “state B.” But the reality of change is that it isn’t an event, it is always a process.  The more complex and life-altering the change, the more complex and sometimes (though not necessarily) longer the process.

When people think this way, (“I’m afraid of public speaking and I want to be a great, comfortable speaker”) without awareness of the stages of change required, they get stuck.  The pattern you’ll hear from your client is that they start to change and make a little progress, then find themselves back in their original state. This happens over and over and over. Now, while this pattern may certainly be indicative of other subconscious reasons listed here, you can also be listening for evidence of your client’s meta model, assuming you’ve had that training, and also just directly ask them, “how do you imagine your progress toward your goal happening? What will you notice that tells you that you’re moving toward your goal?” The client with this particular issue won’t have good answers to that. They may try to answer those questions but it will be pretty clear that they’re thinking about this for the first time.

In a neurological sense, you can imagine the process of change as being a series of connections, one linking to the next.  I like to imagine the Seven Pools in Hawaii.  The water flows into the first pool, spends a little time there, then flows down into each of the successive pools. As the water circulates in each of the pools it changes a bit while there-picking up mineral content and chemistry that is unique to that pool. Then it carries that chemistry into the next pool and integrates the next new chemistry, and so on. The water in the last pool is chemically very changed from how it was at the beginning of its journey — and yet, it is the same water.

In your client’s neurology, the water gets stuck in the first or maybe second pool. The idea that there are more pools hasn’t been formed.  What those pools are, where they are, what is unique about their chemistry and structure, and how you’ll know that you’re in one of those yet un-imagined pools, are all unknowns to the subconscious mind.

And one of the underlying truths of this work is that to the subconscious mind, what is familiar = good, and what is unfamiliar = bad, so until those pools, those stages of change are known, they will be avoided. The subconscious will continue to track back to what is familiar, what is known and that is the initial (and now consciously undesirable) state.  They’re stuck.

An important element of the solution is to get the client to understand that change is a process not an event.  That does NOT mean that it needs to take a long time.  It will take as long as it takes. Even if the change takes place in the space of a single session, the client’s neurology will move through the required states of change to move from point A to point (whatever it is, whether that’s E or N or X).

More importantly they need to flesh out these stages of change.  Some of the questions I like to ask are, “how will you know when this work is working? What’s the first thing you’ll notice or that other people will notice about you that will tell you that you are moving in the right direction?”

The client with an either/or black/white meta model will try to avoid answering these questions.  They just don’t really know how to.  It will be hard for them.  You’ll need to coach them through it and approach it from different angles.  Avoid filling in the blanks for them — they will want you to, and wait for you to. I imagine that this is a pattern that has worked for them in the past-they’ve waited for teachers, bosses, co-workers, etc. to fill in those blanks for them. So they’ll try to wait for that to happen again. They’re not trying to be difficult, they just really haven’t done this before, and they’re not terribly well wired for it.  But they CAN do it with the proper coaching and it’s important for them to do this to achieve their goal. It’s at least one part of what’s keeping them stuck.

Techniques that can help:  Benchmarks for success using questions like the ones above. What will they notice first, second, third, as they move toward their goal? What are three ways they’ll be expecting to feel or behave differently? I always establish benchmarks for success with clients.  Note that I don’t do single session work, so between that and the establishment of benchmarks there is an active assumption embedded in the work that change is a process. But with this type of client, more than assumptions are required, which is why I like the Chaining Anchors technique.  Again, if you’ve taken my classes you’ve been taught this. I am also teaching this at the IMDHA this spring and I’ll post information on that technique separately.  It is a great technique for any client, really. It asks them to think through in great detail the stages of change in reaching their goal, it has their neurology step into each stage of change so that it becomes familiar and then it trains their mind that each stage of change flows into the next (like the Seven Pools) until the goal is achieved.

3)  The unwanted behavior has positive associations that are important to the client’s self or world image.

Referring to Tebbett’s Seven Psychodynamics of a Symptom, (in your textbook)  this concept encompasses both the ideas of secondary gain and identification. Secondary gain is when the subconscious has identified positive outcomes of the problem behavior / problem state and doesn’t have another creative solution to achieve that benefit in another way (without the problem). For example, a person’s social anxiety, or illness, or even an allergy might give them a way to avoid situations that they really don’t want to go to. Every time they are invited to or expected to be at one of those situations, the symptoms arise and they have a “legitimate” reason not to go. When that happens the subconscious sees it as a success and repeats the behavior.  Of course patterns like these tend to generalize and what at some point might have been a “happy coincidence” that got them out of something generalizes to the point that they can’t do things that they really want to do, or creates some other negative consequence that is undesirable in their lives.

Of course the client is absolutely consciously unaware of all of this going on at the subconscious level. 

This pattern prevents or makes it unnecessary for the client’s subconscious to access and utilize other resources that would give them the desired outcome without the problem. Two things need to happen: awareness of the secondary gain and for the subconscious to create a new way to access resources to achieve the benefit (or render the benefit unnecessary) without the problem.

Identification is when the subconscious has associated a behavior or way of being with an important person or concept in the client’s life and the subconscious fear is that without the (problem) behavior there will be a loss of that association (and therefore a loss of the important person). Examples from Roy Hunter’s book include the person who smoked because subconsciously they were emulating their hero, John Wayne. These types of situations underscore the assumption I mentioned at the  beginning of this article — every behavior has a positive purpose at some level.

Techniques that can help:  There are any number of techniques for uncovering subconscious motivations that can be used to discover the nature of the secondary gain or identification/ association that is keeping the problem alive; I won’t go into all of them in the scope of this article.  Parts Therapy is a wonderful tool because it facilitates both getting to the subconscious reason for continuing the problem behavior and accessing resources/creating new solutions that provide the benefit without the problem, or eliminate the need for the problem.

4) Past associations were created in a time of heightened emotion and therefore cannot be changed through conscious effort.

Beliefs can be formed through what psychology calls “single trial learning.” This most often happens in a time of heightened emotion — fear or anger — and/or in a situation perceived as a threat to survival.  When these events happen, memory is encoded through a different pathway, using the theta brainwave frequencies and bypassing the hippocampus.  Because of this different learning pathway these memories are highly resistant to change from subsequent learning that is done in a way that uses the normal pathway for coding memory.  These events and their memories are treated differently and reaching them through the subconscious using hypnosis is really the only way to retrain these without a subsequent, naturally occurring event of equal emotional charge that would override them. Which, let’s face it, doesn’t happen very often for people.

Techniques that can help:  This is truly where age regression shines as a technique.  Having the client, in hypnosis, access the exact state where the learning happened and then in that state presenting the subconscious with new information that renders the “lesson learned” as no longer needed for survival, is the fastest route to change.  This can also happen spontaneously as soon as the original state is accessed.

5) A conflict of equally held personal values is in play.

We think of ourselves as having a set of personal values that all jive with each other and support each other — this gives us a feeling of being congruent in our personality and our behaviors.  But we can have values that, in particular circumstances, conflict with each other.

An example is a woman I worked with years ago who wanted to become a full-time motivational speaker. She had a wonderful topic and platform and had already achieved membership in the National Speaker’s Bureau, so she had really worked hard and achieved a lot. But when she came to see me it was because she was sabotaging herself.  Every time an opportunity was brought to her attention she would find some way to blow it — by missing deadlines, etc. She was frustrated with herself because a part of her really wanted to become that motivational speaker, to bring her message to the world. She loved speaking, she loved traveling and meeting new people. She just loved every aspect of it so she really didn’t understand why she was doing this pattern, but she recognized that she was, in fact, sabotaging herself. The sabotaging behavior began when she had achieved a level where she would need to begin traveling significantly more, and more frequently.

In Parts Therapy we discovered that she had  conflicting values — she was still a mother of school age children and she valued family and motherhood and being present for her kids. And this value was a bit stronger than her value of reaching the world with her message (how much stronger? Enough, and that’s all that matters.)

This is an example where sometimes what the client *thinks* they want when they come into your practice may not end up being the right solution for them.  In Parts Therapy the creative solution she was given was to keep her speaking regional and less frequent for the time being, until her children were older.  Her mind told her that she would “know when” it was time for her to go bigger with her speaking career.  She was comfortable with that, acknowledging that this allowed her to honor her values as a mother and to continue to develop and improve her skills and materials.  Win-win.  Not what she came in asking for, but ultimately the best solution for her. And of course it came from her!

6) A “subroutine” suggestion was accepted (imprinted) at a younger age (through authority or repetition) and has been included in the subconscious self/world image.  These suggestions can, and often are actually in conflict with the rest of a person’s model of the world.  I like to think of them sort of as subroutines, and that’s why they are felt so keenly as blockages or “limiting beliefs.” They feel out of step with the rest of what the person feels to be true about him or herself.  It’s as though the “who I am and what/how I can be in this world” program starts to play, hits the subroutine and gets stuck in a loop.

I’m sure an example or two would help.

I’m reminded of a story told by another hypnotherapist (I won’t mention names) who found herself in a pattern of self-sabotage early in her career. As she tells it, she was kicked out of office after office because she couldn’t make rent.  She was a single mother with two young boys and things kept getting worse and worse. One day she was in the grocery store with $10 to buy food for her and her kids for maybe a week, looking at the rice and beans, when one of her sons came to her with pleading eyes and a $5 box of name-brand cereal.  This was a crisis moment for her and after this she did the work to uncover her subconscious reason for this block and the self sabotaging behavior.  Her subconscious, in a direct questioning technique told her that the behavior was “because she wasn’t pitiful enough yet.” When she went deeper into this, it was revealed that she had (what I call) a subroutine that said, “you need to be rescued. Damsels in distress get rescued. If you haven’t been rescued yet, you aren’t yet deserving enough of being rescued — so you need to be in greater distress.” (Cindy’s note: I blame Disney!)  Upon revealing this *contradictory* subroutine belief to her conscious mind, this belief was eliminated and she went on to earn millions in the field of hypnosis.

You see, the programming (or self image) that would facilitate her successful achievement of her goal was already in place, but it was hitting this *concept* that was probably triggered when she initially found herself struggling.  The mind needs/must have a reason for everything that happens, and when it went to find a reason for her initial failure in business it found this concept from who knows when in her past, activated that and because it had a logical pathway to its own goal (“become pitiful enough to be rescued”) it prevented her mind from getting out of that subroutine—until it was exposed.  And that is generally the case with this type of issue.  The “subroutine” is so out of keeping with the rest of the person’s map of the world/self image that once it floats to conscious awareness it can’t hold water and collapses.

Often this happens with a flash of elation or a sense of disbelief, along with a statement like, “that’s a stupid reason for…!”  This reaction is your clue that this was a subroutine that was out of keeping with the rest of the person’s self and world image.

I’m sure there are more.  But for the purposes of this article, I hope this illustrates the variety of underlying reasons that people experience stuck states or problems, and how to start recognizing those and good pathways to moving your clients toward their best outcomes.

The most important things to remember are the foundational ones.

— The client’s mind is the source of their best solution. They have all the resources they need to  create their positive change.

— All behaviors are useful / beneficial in some context. Our job as hypnotherapists is to help the client’s subconscious mind see that those benefits are either no longer appropriate for the person (aka, they’ve outgrown them and just need to update their programming) or that the benefits can still be achieved in some other way that also allows them to release the problem.

Happy Hypnotizing!

Cindy Locher, BCH, MNLP

3 thoughts on “What it takes to get un-stuck. Creating positive change.

  • at

    Positive change begins with a positive self-image. But Cindy, how should a person be assisted, one who was trained with a negative self-image? I need to help a neighbor. Thanks!

  • at

    I do agree with that. Self-image is actually the key and primary determining factor on the outcome of one’s personality. Very thoughtful post. Thanks for sharing.

    • at

      Thanks for your comments, Daniel, and your kind words. Self-image is formed at a young age but is changeable, too. My Dad was a Master Social Worker who used hypnosis to help juvenile delinquents change their self image to prevent them from re-committing their crimes. He used this tool to help them wake up to their potential. It is a powerful tool and I’m glad that it makes sense to work on the self-image above all else. Namaste!


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