Can you erase bad memories or forget someone with hypnotherapy?
I am frequently asked if you can erase bad memories or forget someone with hypnotherapy. The question often stems from misconceptions of the power of hypnosis from the media. Films like “Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind” further reinforce the fantasy of these possibilities that you can undergo some brainwashing process to erase the bad memories of someone.
Or maybe the enquiry originated from being a member of the audience in a stage hypnosis show in which the memory of a subject was temporarily “erased”. Witnessing the subject being placed in a “trance” and then forgetting their own name can sow seeds of belief into the audience that memory erasure is possible.
Then you are faced with a personal trauma. You find out that your partner has been cheating on you…more than once! You’ve managed to break out of the relationship but the trauma doesn’t end there. You are desperate to get your (ex) partner “out of your head”. But there’s another problem: the more you try and forget them, the more the memories of them just rebound back into your consciousness.
It’s in those moments of helplessness that what you have “learned” from the movies or stage hypnosis shows can seem plausible. You’re desperate to find a memory erasing process that can rescue your torment in a “flick of a switch”. But is it really possible to erase bad memories or forget someone with hypnotherapy? Or is it just something that exists in fantasy movies and stage hypnosis shows?
Erase bad memories or forget someone with hypnotherapy: fact or fiction?
In order to distinguish what happens in the fictional portrayal of hypnosis against what typically happens in a hypnotherapy treatment, it can be useful to redefine what hypnotherapy is and how hypnotherapy works in practice.
Hypnotherapy is a form of psychotherapy that uses hypnosis to create therapeutic change. Various hypnotic techniques are used to enable you to achieve a “heightened state of consciousness” in which you can concentrate your attention into the achievement of your hypnotherapy goals.
The word hypnosis is derived from the Greek word “to sleep”, but the state of hypnosis is not a state of unconsciousness. Ask someone to “role-play” being asleep and they would instinctively close their eyes. When watching hypnosis in films (and in hypnotherapy treatments), eye closure is often promoted to focus the attention inwardly, but the hypnotherapist is not encouraging sleep in that treatment session.
The state of mind in hypnosis is often compared to states in meditation and mindfulness. In these different practices you are refocusing your own awareness into (or away from) different situations for calmness or re-clarification. Assisted externally by the hypnotherapist, it can be argued that hypnosis is a state of guided “meditation”. Similar to these other practices, it can enable you to perceive your situations with different thoughts, emotions and beliefs.
When defining hypnosis, hypnotherapists refer to being able to access the subconscious mind that holds many of the automated “patterns” of thoughts, emotions, beliefs and behaviours that can remain hidden from the conscious mind. Some of these patterns are negative and self limiting.
Whilst in hypnosis, you are more receptive to the hypnotherapist’s suggestions to access these self-limiting and negative automated “patterns”. You are then encouraged to re-imagine them in alignment with your positive therapeutic goals.
Many conditions like smoking cessation, phobias, weight control, anxiety, stress, panic attacks and depression can be treated with hypnotherapy. The treatment process requires your active participation in which you can recall some of the therapeutic suggestions used during hypnosis. Contrary to popular belief, you cannot be made to do anything against your will with hypnosis.
Having distinguished some aspects of fact or faction, is it still possible to erase bad memories or forget someone with hypnotherapy?
Erase bad memories or forget someone with hypnotherapy: reality check
As much as you may wish to forget the existence of a person or a painful memory, there is no modern therapy that will enable you to do so. Memory erasing or brainwashing techniques do not exist; nor would it be an ethical practise if it did exist. So when asking whether you can erase bad memories or forget someone with hypnotherapy, it stems from the fictional depiction of what people want to believe about hypnosis at a desperate time of need.
The irony of trying harder to forget a recent painful memory
A memory of someone or of something is not a tangible object; memories are complex and contain far more than just the subject-matter. One memory may lead to countless other memories and associations such as other people, places, thoughts and feelings. If you were able to simply erase a memory from your mind, your mind would be missing lots of gaps and connected pockets of information.
Furthermore, whilst studies have shown that you can forget an isolated “emotionally-weak” object that has recently been shown to you in a test; you cannot forget a recent emotionally-charged memory connected to lots of experiences that are typical say, in a long term relationship.
Bad emotionally-charged memories, in particular, are pushed into your subconscious mind to protect you from re-experiencing pain and trauma. This is termed as repression. Whilst you may not be dwelling on those issues, the emotions from those memories can resurface with an appropriate connected trigger causing you to feel distressed.
Often, when someone wants to forget a person it’s because you associate negative feelings and behaviour towards them. These negative associations make it almost impossible to forget this person, as they are marked as “significant” in your subconscious (or unconscious) mind.
When you forcefully try to forget (suppress) a recent painful memory, the memory is recalled. You are then adding more importance to the memory as you re-trigger the painful emotions. By also adding additional emotions like frustration into this effort, you are effectively keeping the bad memory active.
To summarise then, vigorously trying to forget recent (or distant) bad memories backfires, keeping the memory active and causing you more upset. But dealing with bad memories can be managed in different, more productive way.
Remoulding the context of memories with hypnotherapy
Memories are not static constant structures that are fixed in your mind. Memories (and their associated thoughts and emotions) are adaptable and flexible. They are open to suggestion and can accept small deletions or “add-ons” to change some of their original meaning.
Each time that your mind replays memories, minor details of those memories are being remoulded, sometimes without even realising it.
By creating new associations and narratives to that memory, you can effectively change what that memory means to you and how you feel and respond towards it. What will surprise some people is that when you apply these changes, these changes don’t need to have happened in reality, but they still need to be “reasonably acceptable”.
Hypnotherapy is an effective tool to help you “re-edit” the negative emotional associations of a memory. These associations can be reinterpreted into ones that are aligned towards your therapeutic goals. And as you then change the way you feel about the memory, it alters your “template” of mental discomfort and the negative physical reactions.
So whilst you can’t erase bad memories or forget someone with hypnotherapy, hypnotherapy can help you change the specific thought, emotion, and behavioural associations that are connected to the memory. In other words, hypnotherapy can change “how you remember” the memory, not the “raw” memory itself.
But some people may be worried about the ethics of such a process that “meddles” with someone’s personal painful memories. Is it right to change something in your negative past that could help you develop a higher sense of morality? It’s a valid concern, but you can take into account the following:
- As mentioned earlier, nothing is done against your will and nothing can be changed without your cooperation.
- The decision to seek therapy is a tentative and personal step. It’s important to seek a therapist that you can trust and whom you believe will guide you towards emotional positivity. The change is for your emotional benefit.
- You will have assessed the need for this change, weighing up the quality of your life that you currently have by maintaining the status quo and the benefits of being free of these painful memories.
- The re-evaluation of one’s past is happening naturally and informally without even trying to change it. When you look at photographs, engage in conversations, watch the television, read newspapers etc. memories are being altered in some way. If your self-help methods are not helping you break free of these painful memories, professional therapy becomes a viable option.
- All therapies, not just hypnotherapy, seek to remould your memories in some way. The approach may actively look back at those memories or deal with them incidentally when looking ahead at what you want to achieve.
When you actively want treatment for a bad memory, hypnotherapy regression techniques and/or rewind techniques may be used in this process. They can be combined with or without solution focused hypnotherapy, which tends to “leave the past behind”. Even the most basic hypnotherapy relaxation inductions that involve a “glance” at a bad memory can help you reduce the intensity of your distress connected to the bad memory.
The hypnotherapist who uses numerous hypnotherapeutic strategies will use regression to treat your bad memory, but will still ask confirmatory questions about the achievement of your (future) goals e.g. “when you have “forgotten” this memory how will you lead your life? How will you then react or feel when you think about this memory or see this person again?”
Which conditions can benefit from a reinterpretation of your memories?
Having discussed whether it’s possible to erase bad memories or forget someone with hypnotherapy, there are certain treatment-areas that particularly benefit from a reinterpretation of your bad memories. Your specific issue does not have to fall into the categories below to be treatable.
With some treatment areas, you may not actively dwell on those bad memories, but the beliefs connected to those memories are inhibiting you from moving forwards and accessing positive change.
Fears and Phobias
There are various causes of phobias. Most phobias are learnt during childhood when these traumatic experiences shape your beliefs about your phobic object or situation. Combined with progressive desensitisation, the reinterpretation of the “causal” traumatising event can help you to release the emotions connected your phobia.
Traumas from your parent’s relationship and from your own previous relationships can compound unresolved emotions. They continue to contaminate your current and future relationships. The effect of past abuse, infidelity and parental divorce can cause deep insecurities and jealousy towards to your partner.
Lack of self confidence
Avoiding new challenges because you fear failure can be connected to events in your past. These past “failings” now shape your belief that things will go wrong again in the future, but without taking risks your confidence suffers. Releasing the emotion from these past memories can change the pathway of this negative self-fulfilling prophecy.
Low self esteem
Past criticism, abuse, bullying and neglect can be internalised as a definitions of your worth. Without realising that you are holding onto these memories, you can continue to believe that there is something wrong with you. Reappraising those bad memories can help you challenge your beliefs and rebuild your self esteem.
PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder)
With post traumatic stress disorder, the traumatic experience is considered to be fragmented and “misfiled” when your mind originally presented it for memory storage. The traumatic memories of the experience are now being reactivated by triggers causing symptoms like distressing flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks and sudden fits of rage. Hypnotherapy can enable the traumatic memory to be safely reprocessed reducing your distressing PTSD symptoms.
Summary: the “memory erasing” potential of hypnotherapy
When a memory continues to haunt you, accessing a “silver bullet” that will remove the struggle remains a fantasy. But that doesn’t mean that the memory should continue to haunt you.
With the right expectations, what surrounds the memory can be altered. And it’s important to have the right expectations when starting a therapeutic process of change. This hypnosis test and the article that follows it can help demystify many of the common misconceptions about hypnosis.
Ultimately, you cannot erase bad memories or forget someone with hypnotherapy, but you can change what you associate with that memory. Hypnotherapy is a useful tool to facilitate this change with a variety of conditions. When actively focusing on the memory and its associations, you can then remould what that memory means to you.