Stage hypnotist or hypnotherapist: What’s the difference?

© Emily Fennell, 2015

This spring sees the broadcast of ITV’s new gameshow, ‘You’re Back in the Room’, in which a stage hypnotist encourages willing contestants to perform tasks under hypnosis in the hopes of winning a prize. Whether you will or won’t be watching the show itself, the portrayal of hypnosis as entertainment on such a mainstream TV channel is bound to reignite debate and prompt questions.

For me, the most important questions that I have already been asked as a result of this programme are as follows: is this programme a true reflection of what I could expect to experience during treatment with a hypnotherapist? (To which I answer, certainly not! I have yet to meet a reputable hypnotherapist who would/could/would even want to encourage you to cluck like a chicken or juggle spaghetti!) So is there a difference between a stage hypnotist and a professional hypnotherapist? To which my answer is a resounding and emphatic ‘Yes!’ There is a very great difference between these two professions that just happen to share a similar title and both use a common tool, albeit for very different purposes.

So let us start with that tool itself then. I am, of course, referring to that much misunderstood tool of hypnosis.  Hypnosis is a tool which, much like any other, can be used for different purposes. A pair of scissors might be used by a hair stylist to create a fabulous new hair-‘do’, by a surgeon within a complex life-saving procedure or by a jilted lover to cut up photos of their former flame – three very different goals, uses and outcomes, all from the same tool. And in just the same way, hypnosis can be used for different purposes – by the therapist for therapeutic purposes and by the entertainer for entertainment.

This understanding of hypnosis as a tool is really important when we consider the difference between a stage hypnotist and a hypnotherapist, which to my mind are chalk and cheese. It appears from his website that the performer credited with hypnotising the contestants on ITV’s new “Back in the Room” very much describes himself as a magician, mentalist and hypnotist – so an entertainer, possibly a very good one, but not a therapist in any way shape or form.

However, some other stage performing hypnotists market themselves concurrently as both hypnotists AND hypnotherapists, appearing to infer from this that one career improves and informs on the other. To my mind, this confuses the issue – they are different professions entirely that happen to share a common tool and a similar looking title.

If we take as a different example the idea of music and how it may be used (as a tool) by both rock stars and music therapists alike. Now most people would acknowledge that these are two very different jobs – one using music for entertainment and the other for therapeutic purposes. Of course it may well be that some music therapists could also be rock stars or entertainers in their spare time, performing local gigs or auditioning for TV talent shows. And perhaps some famous rock stars go and get the required qualifications and also become music therapists in their spare time. But either way, they are not doing these two jobs at the same time. Although both jobs may involve that common tool of music, each is working with a very different set of objectives and outcomes depending on which purpose they are aiming for – entertainment or therapy.

Most importantly it is worth reflecting that the skills of our hypothetical music therapist and  rock star in using that tool for one purpose does not (and should not) vouch for their skill using it for another – the world’s greatest rock star might make an appalling music therapist, no matter how good or entertaining their music is. We cannot base our assessment of what one does by looking at the other – to say “I don’t think I’ll go to see a music therapist because I might end up performing on stage like Ozzie Osbourne” is clearly illogical! And so in just the same way, for anyone considering seeking help from a reputable hypnotherapist to be deterred from doing so due to their concerns about stage hypnotism and the prospect of clucking like a chicken or juggling spaghetti would be a great shame.

Such a perception of hypnotherapy, however illogical, is certainly understandable in an arena where such confusion around the role of hypnotist and hypnotherapist persists and where portrayals of hypnosis are being broadcast on Saturday night TV. However, any hypnotherapist will be happy to reassure you that the experience of hypnotherapy is indeed quite different to this TV portrayal. Hypnosis within a therapeutic setting can be enjoyable, productive and life-enhancing. And not a chicken in sight.