Tone-deaf, color-blind, polio-stricken and born in Aurum, Nevada, a hometown that no longer exists, Milton H. Erickson makes for an unlikely iconoclast. His beliefs in therapy, his practice and his life-story have been contrarian to the Establishment. His views were as unconventional as his habits: due to color-blindness, he could see a very limited color spectrum. Purple was purportedly the color he saw clearly, and he often dressed himself in purple pants, ties, sport shirts and pajamas. Even his bathroom was purple (Haley, 1967 ). His approach has made him larger than life and is why I think he is such an appealing figure for study.
Erickson was a trained psychiatrist at a time when hypnosis was banned. Yet he insisted on teaching in weekend workshops and applied hypnotherapy on clients on the quiet. At first an outsider in the medical profession, by the time of his death in 1980 he was regarded as the father of a school of therapy that was interpersonal, brief and problem-oriented (Haley, 1993). In his time, therapy tended to be long-term, even interminable (L. Ho, personal communication, April 24, 2013), and focused on rooting out maladaptive impulses in the unconscious, a view that Erickson rejected.
Quite fundamentally, Erickson had challenged the then-orthodox psychoanalytic view of the unconscious as a hotbed of conflicting and harmful forces. According to Heller and Steele (2009), he saw the unconscious as a positive force that contained solutions to clients’ problems. In practical terms, in hypnosis he provided suggestions he believed would help clients, thereby accessing their unconscious for its inherent ability to solve problems. He altered psychoanalytic tradition in another way: rather than providing long-term talk therapy to clients, he focused on brief or even single-session cures that addressed presenting problems directly. If all these sound familiar, it is because a lot of the basic suggestion therapy we practice today draws on the Ericksonian tradition.
Erickson also was instrumental in shaping behavior therapy. For him, presenting symptoms did not present a window to a troubled past. He assumed symptoms have a present purpose and are adaptive – rather than maladaptive – to current situations, according to Haley (1993). Hence he sought to understand clients’ current circumstances in order to comprehend how their symptoms helped them. His treatment would comprise changing their current situations and relationships in order to alter symptomatic behavior.
Erickson did not subscribe to therapeutic neutrality, overturning the kind of impersonal or uninvolved role that Freudian and person-centered therapists would adopt. Because he was focused on changing clients’ circumstances, he considered himself part of their present experiences and often went to great lengths to put himself on their paves to recovery. He might reprimand a client’s family member; phone in reminders to do something; get a wife to wet the bed to help solve a husband’s bed-wetting problem; or have dinner with the client’s family. He was not hung up about the potential for psychic dependence, believing that clients’ need for therapy would recede once the presenting symptoms were removed.
His treatment often was open-ended and permissive. He did not subscribe to psychic resistance, preferring to utilize objections for therapy (eg. if you rejected his suggestion that you were feeling calm, he might proceed to say that your not feeling calm was a good thing for now). It was often difficult to know when induction began and hypnosis ended. Hypnosis, for him, was never formal and ritualistic, as opposed to the formalistic tradition of such early hypnotists as Franz Anton Mesmer (S. Lew, personal communication, May 14, 2013). He believed he could induce hypnosis in everyday conversation. According to Haley (1993), “it is this broader definition of hypnosis which makes it difficult at times to tell whether Erickson hypnotized a patient or not.”
Many of Erickson’s views are as much about challenging received wisdom as they are about how to conduct better therapy. I have studied them as a way of shaping my own therapeutic practice. I find Erickson’s energetic and questioning approach to hypnotherapy fascinating. It’s ultimately a pragmatic stance. Erickson was often more interested in helping clients resolve their problems than sticking to dogma. As people-helpers, this should be our foremost concern too.
Haley, J. (1967). Dr. Erickson’s Personality and Life. In Dr. Mliton H Erickson. Retrieved July 25, 2013, from http://www.meisa.biz/dr-milton-h-erickson.php.
Haley, J. (1993). Jay Haley on MIlton H. Erickson. New York: Brunner/Mazel Publishing.
Heller S. & Steele T. (2009). Monsters and Magical Sticks: There’s No Such Thing As Hypnosis. Tempe, Arizona: The Original Falcon Press