As a hypnotist, I often get questions and comments that relate to willpower:

“I don’t think I can be hypnotized because I have a very strong will.”
“Can hypnosis give me more willpower?”
“Can repeated use of hypnosis weaken my will?”

And so on.

So what is willpower, and how does it relate to hypnosis?

I define willpower as the conscious ability to override the urgings, habits, compulsions, signals, and emotions of the unconscious. Willpower can take many forms. The dieter who turns down a dessert he really wants is practicing willpower. The runner who decides to push on when her body is crying out to quit is practicing willpower. The depressed person who decides to get out of bed, smile, and engage in life is exercising willpower. The diabetic who sticks himself with a needle several times a day despite the pain is practicing willpower. The student who commits to studying a subject an hour every day—and actually succeeds in doing so, all semester—is demonstrating willpower. The rescue worker who runs into a burning building despite knowing and fearing the dangers is showing a type of willpower we call courage.

What all of these examples have in common is that they involve the conscious mind wrestling against the unconscious and winning through sheer determination. If there’s no unconscious impulse, then no willpower is needed. For example, the person who hates the taste of chocolate is not showing willpower by turning down a chocolate dessert.

So how does willpower relate to hypnosis?

Hypnosis is a tool for working with the unconscious mind rather than overcoming it. So hypnosis won’t give you more willpower per se, but it can modify those unconscious urgings that are so hard to defeat through sheer willpower. For example, the person who wishes to turn down dessert can use hypnosis to decrease his desire for chocolate cake, meaning that less willpower is needed. The diabetic who has been taught pain management under hypnosis may not feel the pain of the needle, meaning that no willpower is needed.

One irrational charge once leveled against hypnosis is that it will weaken the subject’s willpower. This came about from a misunderstanding of hypnosis; the Svengali-Trilby image from fiction made many think that hypnosis is a battle of wills between the operator and the subject. In truth, a hypnosis session is not a battle; it’s more like a journey in a canoe. Unless the two people in the canoe cooperate, they will never get where they want to go.

While the fear that hypnosis weakens the will is no longer common, the sister misconception that a strong will (or a strong mind or high intelligence) prevents a person from entering hypnosis still crops up. The truth is quite the opposite: Strong willpower is an asset to anyone who wants to use hypnosis. Some methods of induction involve focusing the conscious mind on one object, thought, or activity, ignoring all distractions; such concentration employs willpower. Hypnosis sessions that involve self-reflection may require the willpower to confront one’s fears, doubts, or painful memories. Ongoing hypnotic programs, in which the client uses a hypnosis recording or other self-hypnosis, require the same willpower that deciding to do anything on a daily basis requires.

Furthermore, while hypnosis may eliminate unconscious impulses in some cases, in other cases it merely weakens them over time. In the second case, willpower is very important to “help the hypnosis along,” giving the suggestions time to take root and grow. For instance, if the dieter who is trying to resist chocolate cake decides to eat it despite having hypnotically-decreased desire, he is sending a message to his unconscious: The message says that he isn’t really serious about resisting the cake, and furthermore, that he’s not really serious about hypnosis.

So why not just use willpower instead of hypnosis?

The answer is simple: Hypnosis is easier and therefore more effective.

Let’s say that you’re someone who dreads exercise, even though you know it’s good for you. Now, you could vow to exercise for a half-hour every day, relying on your strong willpower and high intelligence to guarantee that you will continue to do something you find unpleasant and boring. And you might succeed.

But wouldn’t it be easier to commit to spending a half-hour lying in bed listening to a hypnosis recording that motivates you to want to exercise? I can state from experience that it’s much easier to commit to lying in bed than it is to commit to lifting weights. Of course, after using hypnosis, you still have to get up and exercise, but the motivation hypnosis provides will make that increasingly easy to do.

Also, there are signals from your body that are difficult to ignore through sheer willpower. Pain is one of them. Through hypnosis, the signal can be turned down or even off. That’s much more likely to be successful than simply ignoring the pain.

Emotions are similarly difficult to manipulate with the conscious, rational mind. One apt metaphor is that the emotions are a horse, and we’re simply the rider. The rider might know what’s best, but the horse is always stronger. The rider is really only in charge as long as the horse allows it. Most riders manage to exert their will over the horse; hypnosis, on the other hand, is the equivalent of using a horse whisperer. A hypnotist is an “emotion whisperer.”

Hypnosis and Willpower: A Winning Combination

So, in the end we can see that hypnosis and willpower are two tools that can work toward the same goal. Hypnosis doesn’t weaken the will, nor does a strong will prevent a person from learning to use hypnosis. A hypnotist can’t give a client more willpower, but hypnosis can tip the scales in the client’s favor. Just as a carpenter needs both a saw and a hammer to build a table, a well-equipped human being needs both willpower and hypnosis to make positive changes in life.

At Harmony Hypnosis of Austin, we teach your will and your imagination to team up so that you can achieve peak performance, quit smoking, manage stress, lose weight, overcome phobias, banish stage fright and the fear of public speaking, and live without test anxiety.