The self-help guru and hypnotist discusses finding positivity in a pandemic and tackling his own mental health issues after the loss of his father. By Hannah Stephenson
Self-help legend, friend-to-the-stars, hypnotist and entertainer Paul McKenna has spent years trying to make people sleep/happy/rich/thin, even offering up a weight loss system through a hypnotic gastric band, in his raft of bestselling books.
More than 15 million of his self-help guides have been sold and now he has plugged into the pandemic zeitgeist with his new tome Positivity, which he says offers a ‘psychological vaccine’.
The book features techniques on to how to help people build confidence, become more optimistic and feel motivated, accompanied by an audio download in which he puts readers into a hypnotic trance to help them achieve that mindset.
Personally, he and his wife, Kate, implemented various strategies to help them cope with lockdown. Exercise (he bought some gym equipment for one of their rooms in their London home), gratitude lists every day, refraining from watching the news all day and learning to cook helped him through, he observes.
McKenna, 58, who counts training NHS staff in hypnotherapy as one of his myriad involvements with the technique, has come a long way since his early entertainment career, when he used hypnotism to persuade volunteers from a studio audience to believe – and behave – as if they were doing things like treading on hot coals or riding horses.
That was decades ago and he has long since become much more serious about the trade which has made him a multimillionaire, holding masterclasses and motivational events, researching new techniques and psychological technology.
While he may be able to help the masses with their various psychological problems, McKenna has not always found himself in good mental health, he admits, and has had to do a fair bit of work on himself, most notably when his father Bill, a building contractor, died 10 years ago.
“I got quite depressed when my father died. I was working a lot with people with PTSD, depression, suicidal people, and did a little bit too much of that work and got infected with that mindset. For a while I was really in a bad place and didn’t know how to go on,” he recalls.
“Fortunately, I’ve got a lot of very good friends who rang me up and were there for me. But when you’re depressed, you don’t want anybody to tell you to cheer up. It’s a very dangerous place to be. Eventually I found my way back from the edge of the abyss.”
With the support of his friends, he says he began to see how he was making himself miserable.
“When my father died, I couldn’t understand how the overwhelming grief seemed like it was going to go on forever. I analysed my own thinking. I was thinking continually about the last few months of his life – the hospital, just the awfulness of it. Of course that was going to make me sad.”
Then, realisation struck.
“Hang on! He lived 84 years that were great! I’m going to stop that movie, shrink it down, make it black and white, send it away and bring in happy times, memories of us playing football, watching movies together, him giving me some encouraging advice.”
He recalibrated his brain to think about the good times and didn’t seek therapy during that period, he says, although he called friends who were good listeners.
“I made my journey back from a bad place, but not overnight. Two steps forward, one step back sometimes. Since I’ve done that I’m much better at helping people who are depressed because I’ve seen the world through their eyes. Being broken like that allowed me to fix other people.”
An awkward schoolboy from Enfield, McKenna began DJing in Topshop at Oxford Circus, London, on leaving school and went on to work for Capital Radio, where he interviewed a hypnotist who fuelled his interest in the field. The rest is history.
He married his PA, Kate Davey, five years ago after creating an Excel spreadsheet in which he entered names of all the possibles he might end up with. Kate’s name came at the top. They had known each other for 20 years but had never been romantically involved. At first, he didn’t do anything with the information.
“Then one night, Kate and I had a couple of glasses of red wine and I said to her, ‘Tell me something about you that I don’t know’, and she said, ‘I love you’.”
They moved back to England a few years ago after “10 glorious years” in Los Angeles.
“I loved it. I’m a very social creature. Being in a town of over-achievers was fantastic. It was a time when Brit TV was cool, so you had Simon Cowell, Piers Morgan, Hugh Laurie, a Brit invasion for a few years and we had a terrific time, all living a few streets away.”
He left when he realised that most of his really true friends were in the UK and Europe.
Never one to stay still for long, he is embarking on a Positivity tour in March, which he describes as an “evangelists’ rally without the religion”, like a mass coaching session for 500 people.
He’d like another TV show of his own, but it has to be the right kind of show, he observes.
“I get offered all sorts of stupid shows, the reality, the jungle, the dancing show, which I’ve no interest in doing at all. I moved from entertainment to factual, then to self-help. I do a psychological interview podcast, which I think could work on television.”
Positivity: Confidence, Resilience, Motivation by Paul McKenna, Welbeck, £14.99 is available now