Milton H. Erickson

Milton H EriksonJust as it’s possible to talk about hypnosis before and after James Braid, so it’s possible to talk about hypnosis before and after Erickson. His influence is enormous – the vast majority of hypnotists or hypnotherapists practising today will use some form of Ericksonian approach. In a very real sense, he remade hypnosis in his own image.

Milton H. Erickson (1901-1980) graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1928, with an MA in psychology and an MD, and went on to hold senior psychiatric posts in hospitals across the US. His medical career culminated in an appointment as Clinical Director of the Arizona State Hospital in 1948, from which he retired a year later to concentrate on teaching, writing and private practice. He was also an associate editor for the journal Diseases Of The Nervous System, a consultant to the US Olympic Rifle Team, and a consultant to the US government during WWII, studying the psychology of the enemy and the effects of propaganda.

At first glance, Erickson seems an unlikely candidate to have revolutionized the practice of hypnosis. Born into a Wisconsin farming family, Erickson was stricken with polio at the age of 17 (and again at the age of 51), so that by the end of his life he was confined to a wheelchair. He was colour-blind, dyslexic and tone deaf. He was also so mistrusted that the American Medical Association tried to revoke his practitioner’s licence in the 1950s. Yet his life and work represent a classic example of strength through adversity.

Erickson’s relationship with hypnosis was a very personal one. He first encountered it as a way of overcoming his physical limitations. Later, as Director of Psychiatric Research and Training at the Wayne County Hospital in Michigan, he conducted many experiments on hypnotic phenomena, such as hypnotically induced deafness and colour blindness. Above all, his interest was in the therapeutic value of hypnosis, and to this end, he adopted a unique approach. So unique, in fact, that it could be said that true Ericksonian therapy died with Erickson.

Nevertheless, there are certain key elements to his practice that have been identified, studied and refined by the legion of commentators and practitioners who came in his wake. The first is flexibility. Erickson was supremely flexible, adapting his approach to each individual client. Sometimes he would be direct, authoritarian, and even aggressive. At other times he would be permissive, indirect and soothing. Sometimes he would choose not to use hypnosis at all, in any recognisable sense. An often-repeated tale is his treatment of a man who was left paralysed and unable to speak by a severe stroke. Erickson verbally abused this client to such a shocking degree that the man got up and walked out of the room, telling Erickson exactly what he thought of him as he did so – an almost miraculous instant cure.

The second element is working with symptoms to bring about a change. Erickson saw problems as a process, an unhelpful way of going about things that the client had developed, and symptoms were part of that. By changing the symptom – its intensity, frequency or location – it’s possible to change the entire pattern of the problem. Thus somebody with a compulsive urge to wash their hands fifty times a day, for instance, would be instructed to wash them one hundred times. This changes the behaviour from an internal compulsion to an externally imposed chore, which suddenly becomes much less compelling.

The way that Erickson changed symptoms brings us to the third element in his practice, which was to engage the unconscious mind by any means available. He firmly believed that the individual’s unconscious contained all of the resources necessary to bring about a cure for that individual in the present moment. Erickson had no time for the Freudian notion that the roots of problems have to be excavated from the distant past.

Erickson knew that the language of the unconscious is imagination and metaphor, and therapeutic stories, anecdotes, jokes, puns and riddles are a crucial element of his work. These act like coded messages for the unconscious, which is able to make the connection and see the point of the story, even if the conscious mind doesn’t – especially if the conscious mind doesn’t, in fact. By telling a twelve year old bedwetter about the detailed physical actions involved in throwing a baseball, for instance, Erickson was able to deliver instructions about timing and muscle control straight to the boy’s unconscious mind, where they could be acted upon.

This “smuggling in” of messages to the unconscious is hypnosis, of course, and Erickson fully recognised the importance of hypnosis as a therapeutic tool. True to form, he developed his own idiosyncratic style of hypnosis, often referred to as “indirect” or “conversational” hypnosis. This is because it moved away from direct instructions to go into trance, which had been the accepted method up to that point, to a more subtle approach, based on rapport, trust and language patterns.

In Ericksonian hypnosis, language is used to direct the attention inwards on a search for meaning or to verify what is being said. Once that has happened, therapeutic or trance-inducing suggestions can be made. To take just one example, Erickson often tacked suggestions onto the end of a series of undeniable truths, to give the appearance of logical and natural progression – “as you sit there listening to me here, your arms are resting on the arms of the chair and your feet are on the floor and your eyelids are starting to feel pleasantly heavy and drowsy.”

Erickson also believed in allowing the client maximum freedom to interpret what is being said in their own way – for example, “you may begin to find new ways of feeling at ease at parties”, instead of “you are now more confident in talking to complete strangers at parties.” This is another example of his concern for the client above all other considerations. He went to great lengths to see the world from the client’s point of view, helping them reach their own goals and solutions, rather than imposing his own idea of happiness on them.

From this point in time, it is easy to look back and see Erickson as a defining moment in the history of hypnosis, and a definitive break from the past. This is because his brand of hypnosis is the type of hypnosis most often encountered today. At the time, of course, it wasn’t so obvious – Erickson was often regarded as unorthodox, maverick, even an untrustworthy figure. There has also been a tendency to hero-worship him, by slavishly copying his methods. This, of course, does him a great disservice, and misses the point of his work entirely. Erickson’s great achievement was to bring hypnosis back to the service of the individual, by doing whatever is necessary to make it truly client-focused.

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