The Hypnotic Impact of Milton Erickson

Betty Alice Erickson will lead a workshop on the work of Milton Erickson on January 12. Visit the class page for more.

By Betty Alice Erickson

breath-iStock_000006342965-350pxMilton Erickson was born at the turn of the century in a dirt-floor log cabin in no-longer existing Nevada mining town. Over the next eight decades, he transformed medical hypnosis and redefined much of psychotherapy.

Erickson’s redefined hypnosis was not something being done to someone—it was a relational field. The relationship could be between the physician and the patient, the dentist and the patient, a mother and child, even the self with the self. That alone changed the understanding of what hypnosis was and could do. It was no longer a formal induction with instruction being given; it became a mutual creation for the benefit of the patient.

Believing the normal state of human beings was just that—he viewed most dysfunctions as incorrect or unfinished learning. Although he knew there was pathology in some people, most psychological help was in teaching different definitions, behaviors and actions in ways that the listener, the patient, could understand and be motivated to incorporate and use.

He changed the definition of the “unconscious.” Breaking away from Freud’s concept, Erickson saw the unconscious as a benign but rather childlike part of people, a part of us out of conscious awareness that tried to reach goals, even when that path was not productive for an adult. Erickson knew the unconscious could be accessed and addressed by hypnosis and used the naturalistic or conversation with virtually every patient and even in every teaching conversation.

He pioneered using what the patient brought—he called it “utilization.” With creativity and respect for the patient, virtually every behavior could be used in a productive way and in ways that would help the person change to reach his productive and wholesome goals.

Story-telling was a vehicle for change. Not only respectful to the patient, it was a broader and more independent way of working. The patient would use all, or part, of what he’d learned from the story, then, later or even never. Hearing new information in story form enabled the patient to trust him/herself. It also encouraged independent thinking. As stories are infinite, the patient’s life could be woven into a story of a new life, a different event, a new ending.

Virtually all of Erickson’s work was built on his ability to connect with others. That connection, part of good hypnosis also was felt by others as an energizing permission to learn more, to be more of what each wanted to be.

And all of this was wrapped in a love of life, despite his multiple physical handicaps, and a sense of humor and zestful enjoyment of people.