My Voice Will Go With You: The Teaching Tales of Milton Erickson
Sigmund Freud experimented with hypnosis, but could never induce trances easily or get patients to accept his suggestions. Milton Erickson, who was born 45 years after Freud, in many ways fulfilled the potential of hypnosis and made it into a bona fide psychological tool.
Perhaps the answer to why Freud failed and Erickson so brilliantly succeeded can be found in the dynamics of the psychotherapeutic relationship. Conventionally, because the doctor has the knowledge, he or she is the healer. The patient, in their ignorance, is the one to be healed.
As a young doctor in mental institutions, Erickson inherited this understanding, but later began to understand the relationship as simply two people working together to tap their unconscious minds for solutions. By going into trance himself, Erickson's voice would 'become' the patient's voice ('my voice will go with you' he would tell them), so creating a great power of suggestion.
Freud may have shown that we have a vast under-mind that shapes conscious life, but it took Erickson's unique skills to actually access this treasury and make use of it, often bringing about instant changes in people who had labored with complexes and phobias for years.
The Erickson way
Erickson's secret was his 'teaching tales', not old fairytales but anecdotes about his own family life or the cases of previous patients that carried with them special meaning for a person's problem. They usually involved an element of shock or surprise, and were designed to provoke an 'aha' moment that allowed a person to get outside the normal circularity of their thoughts. Instead of saying, 'I see what's wrong, this is what you should do' Erickson would let the person glean the message from the anecdote, as if they had figured it out on their own.
An alcoholic who came to Erickson seemed a hopeless case. His parents were alcoholics, his grandparents on both sides were drinkers, even his wife and brother were alcoholics. Erickson could have sent the man to AA, but given his environment – he worked on newspapers, which he said encouraged a hard drinking lifestyle – he thought he would try something different. Erickson asked the man to go the local botanical gardens and sit and just contemplate the cactus plants, which “could go for three years without water and not die”. Many years later the man's daughter contacted Erickson, and told him that after the 'cactus treatment' both her father and mother had stayed sober. The image of a flourishing cactus needing little 'drink' had obviously been a powerful one.
Erickson admitted that this treatment would never have been found in a textbook, but that was the point of his style of therapy: every person was different, and they would respond to the cure that meant most to them. Sometimes his tales seemed more like Zen koans or riddles, not making perfect sense. When you hear them in a normal state you might think they were corny or think 'so what', but in a trance the loaded language, meaningful pauses and element of surprise could jolt a sudden connection with the unconscious mind which triggered change.
Sidney Rosen was given permission by Erickson to collate many of his tales and put them into a book with commentary. Though over twenty years old now, My Voice Will Go With You is the still a perfect introduction to Erickson, capturing his magic and unique contribution to psychology. Below is a brief look at a handful of tales and an interpretation of their meaning, but it is worth getting the actual book for the rest.
Secrets for powerful change
When working with patients, rather than trying to find out a lot of background history, Erickson's priority was to establish 'rapport'. He would become very aware of how a person responded to a tale in terms of body language, breathing and small facial cues and their responses to the tales.
One summer Erickson was selling books door-to-door to help pay for his college tuition. He visited a farmer, but the farmer wasn't interested in books. He was only concerned with raising his hogs. Having given up trying to sell anything, Erickson began scratching the backs of the hogs which, having grown up on a farm himself, he knew they liked. The farmer noticed this and was pleased, saying 'Anyone who likes hogs, and knows how to scratch their backs, is someone I want to know'. He asked the young Erickson to stay for supper, and told him he would now buy his books.
Erickson told the story to show that everything about us communicates something – we cannot not communicate. When we have to make judgments, just as the farmer did we have to let our subconscious minds have a role; feelings or hunches are usually correct and we must take in the 'whole' situation.
A related technique was 'mirroring'. By 'going along with' what a person was saying, he could make the patient see more objectively how they were acting. In a hospital where he worked there were two men claiming to be Jesus Christ. He made them sit on a bench and talk to each other. Eventually, by seeing the idiocy of each other's claims they were able to see the silliness of their own. When a hospital was building a new wing, Erickson got another 'Jesus' to help out with the carpentry, knowing that the man could not deny that Jesus was famously a carpenter before coming out as the Messiah. This unusual remedy got the man engaged with reality and other people again.
Ruth was a beautiful 12 year old girl with a great personality. People did things for her because they liked her so much. However, she was apt to suddenly kick people in the shins, tear their dress or stamp on their foot and break toes. One day Erickson heard she was on a rampage in a ward. When he got there she was tearing plaster off walls, but he didn't tell her to stop – he began trashing himself, tearing the sheets off beds, breaking windows. 'Let's go somewhere else,’ he said, ‘.this is fun' and went into the corridor. Upon seeing a nurse he ripped her clothes off, revealing only her bra and panties. Ruth said “Dr Erickson, you shouldn't do a thing like that” and brought a sheet to the nurse to cover her up. With her own behavior revealed to her, she became a good girl. (The nurse who 'happened' to be in the corridor had agreed to be part of the scene).
Often, when someone came to Erickson with a control or addiction problem, he would not tell the person to stop doing whatever they were doing - but to go on doing it more intensely. When a man came to him who wanted to lose weight and stop smoking and drinking, he did not tell him to stop any of these things. Instead he ordered him to buy his food, smokes and alcohol not from the local shops but from shops at least a mile away, so that frequent exercise would lead him to reconsider his habits. A woman came to Erickson who weighed 180 pounds and wanted to weigh 130. She was stuck in a pattern of gaining, then losing weight. Erickson said he would help her if she first made a promise. She agreed, and he told her to first gain weight until she reached 200 pounds. She fought against this, but once she had reached 200 was so desperate to be 'allowed' to lose weight that she went down to 130 without difficulty.
These examples of Erickson's 'indirect' logic reveal his larger philosophy: that you could only really get a person to change when they felt they 'owned' the change. Compared to coercion or instruction, change would always be more powerful and lasting this way.
A woman came to see Erickson who hated living in Phoenix, Arizona. Her husband wanted to go on holiday to Flagstaff (another city in Arizona) but she said she felt better staying in Phoenix and hating it that she did going elsewhere for relief. Erickson made her curious about why she hated Phoenix so much and why she punished herself with her thoughts. During a hypnosis session he told her to go to Flagstaff and watch for a 'flash of color'. He secretly had nothing in mind he wanted her to see, but it made the woman curious, and when she found her 'flash of colour' (a red bird against a green background) she was elated.
Erickson wanted to change her mindset so that she would begin to see things she didn't normally see – in a deeper sense as well as the faculty of vision. She ended up spending a month in Flagstaff, and thereafter went on vacations in different parts of America, looking for the 'flash of color' that provided meaning. From a position of hate, she became a person entranced with the world, empowered simply by seeing differently. In one or two sessions, Erickson had facilitated a change from strong negative feeling to life-affirming curiosity.
The wisdom withinIf there is one thing that can be drawn from Erickson's work it is that inside each of us there is 'something which knows'. He believed that every person had a healthy, powerful core, and that hypnosis was a useful tool in allowing this self to guide us again.
He illustrated this in an anecdote from his boyhood. One day a horse wandered onto the family property and they didn't know whose it was; it had no marks. Milton decided to mount the horse and take it back to the road, but instead of riding it different places to find the owner, he let the horse guide him. When the horse walked back to the owner's property, they asked how he knew it was theirs. He replied: “I didn't know – but the horse knew. All I did was keep him on the road.”
The 'horse' is of course the unconscious mind, which if accessed in a trance state can solve any problem and return us to our true, powerful selves. Erickson believed that most of our limitations are self-imposed, but the barriers are mostly put up by the conscious mind. By accessing and reshaping the contents of the unconscious, we can reshape our lives. It is up to us to reprogram ourselves with better information that is a better approximation of reality – not be stuck with negative or twisted thought patterns. For Erickson, hypnosis was really just a shortcut to this end.
Erickson's ability to pick up on tiny cues in a person's facial movements and body language often caused people to believe he was psychic. When he contracted polio at 17 he could hardly move, and with nothing else to do, he began watching and analyzing the behaviours of his numerous siblings. He noticed that sometimes when they said one thing they meant another thing, and that communication involved a lot more than just speech. His famous ability to 'read people' had begun.
What is Erickson's legacy? If you have ever gone to a hypnotist to stop smoking, lose weight or be cured of a phobia you are evidence that hypnosis is now respectable. Also, his idea of 'brief therapy' – that change can happen in an instant, instead of spending years in psychoanalysis – is now part of the psychotherapeutic landscape.
But Erickson's impact may ultimately be greater outside the consulting room. His followers Richard Bandler and John Grinder went on to create neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), a more codified version of Ericksonian techniques which has been taken up by business and personal coaches to provide an edge at work. The NLP way of seeing the workings of the mind is quite technological, a sort of 'souping up' of the brain, which is a long way from Erickson's folksy teaching tales.
Yet Erickson's intuitive understanding of how we shape experience and make personal breakthroughs was cutting edge in its own way. Brain science will make huge advances this century, but Erickson recognized that humans are a story-telling species, whose brains developed prior to the invention of writing. As well as being more interesting, the tale, myth or anecdote is actually the most effective way to express insights about life and personal transformation.
“If one reads these stories in the so-called waking state, one might dismiss them as being 'clichéd,' 'corny,' or 'of interest, but not enlightening.' Yet, in the hypnotic state, where everything that is said by the therapist is heightened in meaning, a story, or a single word in a story, may trigger a mini satori – the Zen term for enlightenment.”
“It is really amazing what people can do. Only they don't know what they can do.”
Milton Hyland Erickson
Born in Aurum, Nevada in 1901, Erickson was color-blind, tone deaf and dyslexic. When young his family traveled in a covered wagon to Wisconsin where they established a farm. He studied psychology at the University of Wisconsin, where he learned how to hypnotize people. He gained his medical degree through the Colorado General Hospital, and worked as a junior psychiatrist at Rhode Island State Hospital.
From 1930-34 he was at Worcester State Hospital, becoming chief psychiatrist, followed by clinical and teaching appointments in Eloise, Michigan. There he married Elizabeth Erickson; they had five children, in addition to three he brought from a previous marriage. In 1948 Erickson moved to Phoenix for health reasons, where his 'miracle' cures led people to come to him from across America. He hypnotized Aldous Huxley, and counted among his friends anthropologist Margaret Mead and philosopher Gregory Bateson.
He was a founding editor of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis, and a fellow of the American Psychological and Psychiatric Associations.
Erickson died in 1980. His ashes were scattered on Squaw Peak in Phoenix, which he had often ordered patients to climb as treatment.
Sidney Rosen is assistant clinical professor in the psychiatric department of the New York University Medical Center. He has presented workshops on Ericksonian techniques, and wrote the foreword to Erickson and Rossi's Hypnotherapy: An Exploratory Casebook (1979).
Source: 50 Psychology Classics: Your shortcut to the most important ideas on the mind, personality, and human nature by Tom Butler-Bowdon (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey)