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Nov 21, 2022

Ask David: Featuring Matt May, MD

Can hypnosis be used for evil?
Can you fall out of love?
Why does cheerleading fail?

In today’s podcast, we discuss three intriguing questions from listeners like you:

  1. Can hypnosis be used for evil? Matt says no, David mainly agrees, but isn’t entirely convinced.

  2. Is it possible to fall out of love? This can and will happen. What can we do about it?

  3. Empathy vs. Cheerleading: What’s the difference between cheerleading and genuine empathy with someone who’s upset?

Can hypnosis be used for evil?

David and Matt describe their experiences, both as kids and later as shrinks, with hypnosis. David and Matt both used hypnosis early in their careers, especially in David’s one-session treatment for smoking cessation, which Matt also used. But as their TEAM-CBT skills have grown, both of them use it much less frequently.

It can be used for many purposes. In a recent podcast # (link) with Dr. Jeffrey Lazarus, we learned that it can be used for warts as well as a wide range of psychosomatic problems, like Irritable Bowel Syndrome and tics, as well as bedwetting, school phobia, performance anxiety, and more. Matt strongly believes that agenda setting (also called Assessment of Resistance) is just as important in hypnosis as in TEAM-CBT. You have to first bring the patient’s subconscious resistance to conscious awareness and melt it away using paradoxical techniques in order to optimize the chances of success with hypnosis.

Matt pointed out that hypnotic states can be quite powerful, and can even be used for surgery, but emphasizes that people will never td what they genuinely don’t want to do when hypnotized. He says that hypnosis is really a form of willful collaboration between the hypnotist and the hypnotic subject. Although stage hypnotists seem to have some kind of “Svengali” power over the volunteers who come up to the stage to be hypnotized, these people are actually subconsciously volunteering to act silly and have fun in front of the audience. This doesn’t mean they are faking it, but it does put these shows into a slightly different perspective.

David described many goofy things he did as a teenager after he purchased a book called “25 Ways to Hypnotize Your Friends” at a magic store in Phoenix for 25 cents, and found that the techniques actually worked with many of his friends. He sometimes had a lot of fun giving post-hypnotic suggestions, and that he and his friends found hypnosis to be incredibly exciting and fascinating.

Once he hypnotized a friend named Jerry and told Jerry that after he woke up, every time he heard the word, “TV,” he would shout out “Boing” in a loud voice without realizing it. In addition, his subconscious mind would keep track of how many “TVs” he heard, and then he’d should Boing that exact number of times.

David explains:

Then we went to the local Dairy Queen a few blocks away all ordered at the window, one by one. When it was Jerry’s turn to order, and the lady asked him what he wanted, we all started saying “TV, TV, TV” as fast as we could, and Jerry would shout out “boing, boing, boing” in a loud, confident voice!

She said, “I didn’t quite get what you want to order,” and when Jerry tried to order, we did it again.

It seemed incredibly funny, and fun, but in retrospect I WAS using hypnosis to kind of take advantage of someone, so you might say it CAN be used for evil, perhaps. However, Jerry didn’t seem to mind, and we all thought it was a pretty exciting adventure.

When I was a senior in high school, one of my teachers said that hypnosis was dangerous and told me to stop hypnotizing my friends, so I got scared and gave it up until I became a psychiatrist years later.

Like anything, hypnosis is just a tool, and it can be helpful for suggestible individuals, but we have more than 100 techniques in TEAM-CBT, because no one tool has the answer for everybody and every problem.

David and Matt both agree with anxiety, depression, and anger are very much like self-induced trances, since you are giving yourself and believing messages (hypnotic suggestions) that aren’t actually true. For example:

  • The depression trance: “I’m no good. I’ll be depressed forever.”

  • The anxiety trance: “Something awful is about to happen. I’m in incredible danger.”

  • The anger trance: “You’re no good!”

Psychotherapy can be seen as an attempt to get each patient to “wake up” from the trance that has trapped them.

In David’s opinion, politicians sometimes put their followers in trance-like states, getting them to believe repeated suggestions that are blatantly untrue. We saw this in WWII, where Hitler essentially “hypnotized” an entire nation to believe some horrific lies and to spur them to unspeakably horrific actions.

Of course, as Matt has pointed out, you have to WANT to be hypnotized, so possibly the German people wanted to see themselves as superior human beings who had been victimized unfairly by evil forces that needed to be eradicated. So, killing and the abuse of him beings became the focus and purpose of the nation.

Is this possibly also happening today? And is that why narcissistic leaders want to control the media, so they can control the “hypnotic messages” that people get, and why they lash out in such a hostile way at anyone who dares to challenge or contradict them?

Is it possible to fall out of love?

A podcast listener says she often falls out of love with her husband, but after they talk things over, and resolve their differences, she falls in love again. She wants more on this topic, so Matt, Rhonda and David discuss the pitfalls of pursuing perfect, romantic love. David reminds us that some of the most successful marriages are in India, where the parents decide who you will marry. David said that when he was in private practice in Philadelphia, 60% of the patients he saw did not have a loving partner, and most were trying to find someone to love. That’s why this is one of his favorite topics.

Then Matt, Rhonda and David contrast healthy vs unhealthy love, and Matt created the following table that contrasts them.

Perfect Love

By Matt with a little editing from David

Unhealthy Love

Healthy Love

You rush to put the other person on a pedestal without knowing them. You fantasize that they are perfect and wonderful in every way.

You take your time getting to know each other in a curious, vulnerable and respectful way, recognizing that neither of you is perfect.

You believe that you need the other person and couldn’t be happy without them.

You’re confident and content on your own but also enjoy the company of the other person.

You selfishly focus on getting what you want from the other person.

You focus on what you can give the other person, and what you can do, to improve the relationship.

You imagine you will be in love forever.

You accept that relationships require careful tending and nurturing, and realize that there will be moments of conflict, disappointment, and hurt feelings, which can sometimes be intense.

You tell yourself that you’ll never and should never have any conflicts or disagreements.

You see conflict as opportunities, in disguise, for greater understanding and closeness.


Cheerleading vs. Empathy

Rhonda describes a recent traumatic experience which was profoundly disturbing to her. However, when she tried to tell a friend how upset she was, her friend did “cheerleading,” telling her that she shouldn’t be so upset, that she’d feel better again soon, and so forth. Rhonda said it was very annoying to be on the receiving end, and her friends efforts to cheer her up actually made her feel worse.

Then, when two friends simply used the Five Secrets of Effective Communication to “listen,” it was a great relief.

David recounted a similar experience when his beloved cat, Obie, disappeared in the middle of the night, and was likely killed by a predator animal in the woods behind his house.

When David told his Tuesday group what had happened, one member of the group similarly tried to cheer him up, which triggered an angry rebuke from David, who told her NOT to try to take his grief away. He said,

“My grief is my loving connection to Obie, who was my best friend in the whole world. I will grieve his loss for the rest of my life. And to this very day, I talk to Obie, as well as my good friend Marilyn Coffy who passed away recently, every time I go out slogging. This is not a problem that I need help with, but a gift of love.”

We’ve touched on the codependent urge to cheerlead that so many people, including shrinks, have. For example, our podcast on “How to help, and how NOT to help,” covers this topic pretty thoroughly. However, we decided to focus on cheerleading again today, since it is such an important topic, and is a bit of an addiction that many people have.

The following is a chart we discussed during the podcast, and you might find it helpful.

Cheerleading vs. Empathy
by David , Rhonda, and Matt



You’re trying to cheer someone up to make them feel better.

You are not trying to cheer them up. Instead, you acknowledge how they’re thinking and feeling, and you encourage them to vent and open up.

You don’t acknowledge the validity of the person’s negative thoughts and emotions. In fact, when you try to cheer them up, you’re essentially telling that they’re wrong to feel upset. It’s a subtle put down, or even a micro-aggression.

You find the grain of truth in what the person is saying, even if you think they’re exaggerating the negatives in their life.


Paradoxically, when you agree with them in a respectful way, they will typically feel some relief and support.

The effect is irritating to almost everybody who’s upset, because you aren’t listening or showing any compassion or respect. You’re telling them that you don’t want to hear what they have to say. Cheerleading is condescending.

Listening and acknowledging how they feel is a form of humility and an expression of respect.

You’re trying to control the other person. You’re telling them how they should think and feel. There’s no acceptance.

You’re sitting with open hands and not trying to change or control the other person. You’re just trying to understand and support them in their suffering.

Cheerleading is cheap and easy to learn. You’re like a used car salesman, trying to promote your product.

Empathy is difficult and challenging to learn because you have to let go of the idea that you know what’s best for other people. Listening requires going into the darkness with the other person, this requires courage and vulnerability.

You say generally nice things about someone, like you’re “a good person,” or “a survivor,” thinking those formulaic words will somehow change the way the other person is thinking and feeling. You might also say, “don’t be so hard on yourself,” or “think of all the positive things in your life,” or “you’ll be fine.”

You focus on the other person’s specific thoughts and zero in on exactly what they’re saying and how they might be feeling, rather than throwing vague, general positives at them.

These positives are simply an annoying attempt to distract the person from their genuine feelings.

You encourage the person to share and experience their negative thoughts and feelings.

You believe your role is to “help,” “fix” or “save” the other person, who is broken.

Your role is to be with the other person in a loving way without trying to help or save them.

You are being self-centered because you’re essentially preaching the gospel and exclusively promoting your own ideas.

You are being other-centered, focusing entirely on what the other person is saying.

You’re talking “at” the other person.

You are NOT talking AT them, you are being WITH them.

When you empathize, you give the other person zero, and zero in, instead, on how they’re thinking and feeling. That’s why I (David) call Empathy the “zero technique.” But, paradoxically, when you give them “nothing” you are giving them “everything.”

In case you’re interested in honing your own empathy skills, you can take a look at the Five Secrets of Effective Communication (link). To develop these skills, you might want to read Feeling Good Together (link), but make sure you do the written exercises while reading. Otherwise, you’ll only get intellectual understanding of them, whereas skill is what you actually need, and that can only be developed with practice!

Sadly, most people, including therapists, believe that their empathy skills are already excellent, but that is rarely valid! In fact, there’s a ton of room for improvement in ALL of us!

We thank you for joining us today. Please keep your excellent questions and warm comments coming in. Rhonda and David want to thank Matt for his frequent, brilliant, and heart-warming appearances on the Feeling Good Podcast.

Remember that we’re still trying to grow our show, and recent hit 6 million downloads. We are currently getting around 160,000 downloads per month, which is terrific. It would help us a lot if you give a five star review for our show wherever you get your podcasts, as that might boost our ratings. We love our fans and thank you for listening!