In 1957, Harvard professor, Samuel P. Huntington wrestled with the role of a professional military in relationship with their civilian masters. He defined professionalism as an association bound together by a common code of ethics. Even though his views have been occasionally referenced as authoritative by others, the elusiveness of the meaning still ranges from the extremes of elitism to almost humorous banality. At one end it refers to the most educated among us and at the other includes anyone who performs services for remuneration. Yet somewhere between the most skilled surgeon and members of the world’s oldest “profession,” there must be an appropriate place for competent clinical hypnotherapists. My intention here is to explore the definition of the term “professional” and to discuss its relevance to our practices.
Dictionaries tend to be just a tad more specific than common usage. According to one explanation, the word professional could reasonably describe anyone engaged in a similar trade or occupation. Furthermore, while a lack of a formal dues collecting association of pick pockets would eliminate them from Huntington’s criteria, my experience working in the criminal justice system has revealed that even these crooks tend to have minimal ethical standards. Hence, as they are in a common “trade,” they too could claim professional status.
On the other hand, many dictionaries and encyclopedias focus on more than shared skill sets and ethical codes as the minimal requirements for a trade or occupation to be classed as professional. Rather, they mention two basic requirements. The first is a substantial and specialized skill or body of knowledge, and, secondly, extensive academic preparation. The strictest interpretation would therefore limit the use of the label professional only to those who have achieved the highest academic achievement in their respective field.
Some authoritative resources therefore limit the use of the term to only people such as medical doctors, lawyers, and those who have achieved doctoral-level status. While the members of these groups could thus undeniably refer to themselves as professionals, real estate agents, secretaries, and sanitation engineers could only unjustifiably use the term. I know that many readers would not accept this statement as politically correct. However, this highlights the regrettable fact that somehow the noble and honorable practice of a trade or occupation no longer provides sufficient social status lest it is simultaneously called a profession.
Does the loose and imprecise interpretation provide hypnotherapists a working definition that serves any purpose? Unfortunately, this seemingly popular interpretation is too often espoused at hypnotherapy conferences. Regardless, this serves only as a pejorative that hurts our credibility among licensed health care providers. In order to understand why I say this, one only has to look at who makes up our “profession” and to compare our self-image to that of the typical health care professional.
Within the hypnotherapy community, we have three predominant categories of practitioners. One is the person who has undertaken non-academic, skill-producing training that at best may qualify them for the trade of a hypnotist. (If such school possesses any governmental licensure it is almost always at the trade rather than post-secondary level.) While the graduate often displays considerable skills and talents, the dubious public recognition of their credentials is predominantly the result of a lack of acceptable, universally adhered to standards. Indeed, a certification as a clinical hypnotherapist can range from 20 to 300 hours of training depending on the granting organization.
The second group involves practitioners of medical or psychotherapeutic occupations, some of whom meet the strictest definitions of professionalism in their respective fields. Regardless, most of them have extremely limited training in hypnosis and often have less hypnosis-related talent than average members of the first group. Yet, they do bring to their practice the richness of their other qualifications. The third group includes those who have pursued what could be accurately considered the “highest academic standards” within hypnotherapy by receiving some form of doctoral degree that is legally recognized by a governmental authority – although not by a wide range of accreditation bodies. However, a lack of standardization among such degree-awarding institutions continues to be a problem.
So at this point you are probably wondering why I even care to discuss professionalism in regards to hypnotherapy. My reason is simply this. Over the years I have seen the clear value of the practice of hypnotherapy and believe that its true potential requires it to be considered a separate and distinct profession. This is not meant so much as a benefit to practitioners as to provide a valuable service to the general public. Over the past several decades the discoveries and trends involving mind/body integration and the human brain clearly highlight the potential role of suggestion and imagination for healing and happiness.
A well trained, professional clinical hypnotherapist is the best resource for such interventions. However, as long as some people see the clinical use of hypnosis merely a tangential adjunct to medicine and psychology, research and scientific discourse will continued to be hampered by self-styled practitioners with limited training to include those who insist on producing redundant peer-reviewed papers of dubious value. At the same time, the current associations of practitioners – including both those licensed in other fields as well as the unlicensed – are too slow to improve standards, as it may affect their profitability by limiting the size of their membership roles. Overcoming these obstacles represents just a few of the growing pains of our emerging profession.
Competent and highly trained clinical hypnotherapists will have access to those who will benefit from their talents only when their credibility begins approximating that of the occupations and professions that currently have both “cultural authority” and legal mandates. This means that if hypnotherapy is to be only a trade or occupation, the field merely needs to achieve the level of standards of training, education, and certifications comparable to that of practical and registered nurses, physical therapists, and licensed counselors. If we chose for hypnotherapy to hold its own among medical and mental health professionals, as a minimum we must insist that our doctoral-level programs meet recognized standards – such as producing relevant dissertations that closely approximates American Psychological Association guidelines – and become recognized by a rigorous peer review accreditation system.
In many ways hypnotherapy is following in the footsteps of well-regarded professions. I have carefully studied the emergence of the highly reputable US medical profession – incidentally whose educational institutions little over a century ago were producing practitioners who were regarded as little more than charlatans. Likewise, the difficult evolution of the profession of psychology has had its own tribulations as it was birthed from the medical and scientific groups. Also, I am intrigued by the history of the chiropractic medicine field, which successfully grew into a science-based profession that clearly has all the vestiges of cultural acceptance and authority. So, the struggles regarding the development of an independent profession of hypnotherapy should be expected to be no different.
Whether hypnotherapy follows the trade and occupation route – meaning that we need to stop calling ourselves professionals – or we see the higher recognition, the choice will eventually have to be made. I pray that this is the latter and not the former. And, if my hopes are to become true, we must carefully review our qualifications and standards, assure that our recognized associations are a catalyst – rather than an obstacle – for the promotion of the field as a profession, and we must encourage communication and cooperation between reputable degree-producing institutions.
The increased recognition of the power of the mind to affect physiological processes warrants a professional class of practitioners, whose primary focus is on the role of suggestion and imagination as a legitimate intervention for healing and personal development. However, it is only after we meet the standards of the other healing professions that we will have a significant availability to the public. Therefore, we must realize that it is not our common interests, collegial camaraderie, and sense of identity and ethics that defines us as a group of professionals. Rather, it is our ability to approximate the stringent academic requirements of other healing professionals that will gain us an entry into the realm of full recognition and legitimacy.
Tim Brunson, PhD
The International Hypnosis Research Institute is a member supported project involving integrative health care specialists from around the world. We provide information and educational resources to clinicians. Dr. Brunson is the author of over 150 self-help and clinical CD’s and MP3’s.