How Milton Erickson Revolutionized Modern Therapy
By: Patricia Oelze
Updated February 08, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Laura Angers
Milton Erickson was a psychiatrist who reimagined traditional theories and models of therapy. He moved therapy away from the theory-driven, lengthy, and often burdensome psychotherapy practices established by pioneers like Freud, Jung, and Adler. Erickson's work made therapy more direct and solution-focused. We also owe a debt to Erickson for removing much of the stigma that has surrounded hypnosis as a legitimate form of therapy.
Erickson's life was remarkable both for his accomplishments and for the challenges he faced. A look at the bare facts of his biography shows how life events may have inspired him.
As a child, Erickson was severely dyslexic, tone-deaf, and color-blind. Because of these obstacles, he did not even begin speaking until the age of four.
To make matters worse, Erickson contracted a life-threatening case of polio when he was 17 years old. The illness was so severe that he was in a coma for three days and when he woke up, he was unable to move or speak. Doctors predicted that he would not survive.
Erickson used this challenge as a powerful learning experience. Paralyzed and unable to feel his limbs, he began to concentrate on any slight sensation in an effort to recover his mobility. This focus eventually helped him recover and also provided practical lessons about the power of the human mind.
While incapacitated, he took the opportunity to observe people around him. He carefully noted their body language and nonverbal communication. He learned from observing a younger sister as she began to walk, talk, and interact with the world around her. During this time of thoughtful observation, Erickson filed away some valuable insights about human behavior that would serve him in his later work.
As he developed the ability to speak again, his voice was deeper and his language slower. His speech had the effect of commanding attention from others. This, too, was an attribute that would prove valuable in his work.
Despite the doctor's predictions, Erickson did survive and even became well enough to graduate from college and go on to earn a master's degree in psychology.
After earning his degree, Erickson researched hypnosis and suggestibility under noted psychiatrist Clark L. Hull. Although he was fascinated by the possibilities of hypnosis, he was critical of Hull's approach to it, which he felt did not sufficiently consider the needs of individual patients.
He was equally disillusioned with the theories of established psychoanalysts like Freud and Jung. Hull felt that these psychologists cared too much about theory and not enough about individual patients. In contrast to Freud, who believed that the unconscious mind was a dark and negative force, Erickson believed that the unconscious held great wisdom and could be tapped to help solve practical problems.
Erickson expounded on his theories in several great works, such as Uncommon Therapy, My Voice Will Go With You, and Hypnotic Alteration of Sensory, Perceptual, and Psychological Processes.
Erickson's treatments were unorthodox, even radical, for the time. Stories of his work reveal strange but effective treatments based on individual situations rather than a body of theory. He used metaphors, stories, and puns to communicate with the unconscious mind of his patients. He treated some with hypnotherapy during a time when the practice was harshly condemned, even forbidden, by the medical community.
Other psychiatrists wrote books and papers specifically criticizing Erickson's treatments, and the American Medical Association even threatened to revoke his license at one time. However, none of his critics could argue with the vast numbers of patients who found an immediate and effective resolution to their psychological conditions under his care.
When he was in his fifties, Erickson experienced another debilitating polio attack, which left him in terrible pain and confined to a wheelchair. Yet again, Erickson used this challenge to his advantage, deriving knowledge about sensory alteration and pain management that would be valuable in his work with patients. Despite chronic pain and loss of mobility, Erickson continued his work until his death at the age of 79.
Erickson was completely different from any other psychologist, before his time or since. He was noted for several unique contributions to the field, which were hallmarks of his theory and practice.
The Utilization Approach
Erickson believed that healing psychological conditions lay within an individual's unconscious mind. His "utilization approach" focused on developing a rapport with the subject so that he could communicate with their unconscious. Once he had developed an understanding of an individual's unconscious mind, he would tailor his language to surprise and challenge it, helping it find solutions and heal. This was a direct contrast to Freud, who believed that the unconscious mind was negative and harmful.
Individual Truth Instead Of Universal Truth
Famed psychologists typically develop and practice one particular theory. They write about it extensively and interpret their subjects' emotional challenges through the lens of a universal theory or a set of theories.
For example, let's say you have a phobia about air travel. Freud would say that this is a dark primal fear from the id, requiring years of talk therapy to understand and eradicate. Albert Bandura would have believed that this phobia comes from observing parents or adults who are afraid of air travel, or perhaps from watching frightening TV shows about it as a child. B.F. Skinner would say that you must become conditioned to air travel by gradually exposing yourself to the object of your fear and rewarding yourself for conquering it.
But Erickson would not apply any such theory to your phobia of air travel. Instead, he would talk with you, get to know you, and, based on his understanding of you as an individual, would employ specific techniques to communicate with your subconscious mind about the fear you are experiencing.
If you experience this or any other kind of phobia, trained therapists are available at Better Help. They will get to know you and find out what treatment may work best in overcoming your phobia.
Erickson drew on various theories (cognitive, behavioral, etc.) as the situation warranted. But he believed that each individual required a different treatment and did not apply a specific belief or protocol to every situation.
The Ericksonian Handshake
Erickson's legendary handshake was used to put subjects into a deep trance. The power of the handshake was the interruption of an expected social behavior. The sensation of surprise disrupts the unconscious mind, leaving it open to suggestion and to change.
Variations of the Ericksonian handshake are still used in hypnotherapy today.
Including Family Members In The Therapy Process
This idea may seem obvious to us now, but in Erickson's time, it was considered revolutionary to invite spouses or parents to participate in the therapy process.
Although his approach was highly individualistic, he did not hesitate to include family members when it seemed clear that they needed to be part of the solution.
He was even known to make house calls on occasion.
Erickson's radical ideas about family involvement in therapy have carried over into family therapy practices today.
Hypnosis As A Valid Form Of Treatment
Before Erickson, hypnosis was universally condemned as at best a cheap parlor trick and at worst a destructive and controlling form of treatment.
But Erickson's work liberated hypnosis from the dark shroud of superstition and revealed it as a compassionate and highly effective form of therapy.
Although he reportedly used hypnotherapy in only about one-fifth of his cases, those in which he did use it experienced a speedy and almost miraculous resolution of their symptoms.
Today we understand that hypnotherapy is not simply some subversive magic trick but a valid option for treatment in some cases.
As you can probably discern from some of the examples above, Erickson's influence is alive and well in modern psychology practices.
Here are some areas in which we continue to draw on his work.
NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Processing)
A hallmark of Erickson's work was his ability to channel the power of language. He used particular word patterns and tones of voice to elicit specific responses in his subjects, based on his knowledge of them from rapport-building.
Later, researchers Richard Bandler and John Grindler used Erickson's theories about language as part of their basis for Neuro-Linguistic Processing, a kind of therapy in which language patterns can dramatically affect behavior and cognition.
Before Erickson's time, psychotherapy was commonly accepted to be a process that could take years. It was based on the belief that you had to get to the root of all the inner conflicts and traumas in the subconscious mind that may be causing your symptoms.
In contrast, Erickson's approach was practical and solution-based. He believed in addressing the symptom directly. This approach was so efficient that his work often appeared miraculous.
Today, where time limits often bind therapy due to insurance industry demands, we see a shift to more solution-based, "brief" therapy, similar to that practiced by Erickson.
Today, family therapy is commonplace, but it was radical in Erickson's time and earned him sharp criticism from his peers. We now understand that addressing family dynamics can be an important part of finding solutions.
Many people struggling to quit smoking, lose weight, or cure insomnia have found relief by seeking the help of a trained hypnotherapist. But it wasn't always that way. Hypnotism was seen as nothing more than a showy carnival trick that no self-respecting mental health practitioner would even mention. But Erickson changed all that. He demonstrated that hypnotherapy could be a compassionate, respectful, and highly effective treatment in some cases.
Milton Erickson broke the mold in the psychotherapy world, and we owe him a huge debt of gratitude for his revolutionary contributions. Although Erickson could have predicted the future of psychotherapy, chances are he would have embraced the medical community’s introduction of internet-based therapy.
Online counseling is growing in popularity and research shows it is effective. For example, one study found that online therapy was even more effective than traditional in-person sessions, with 100 percent of participants in the online group showing continued symptom reduction three months after treatment. On the other hand, individuals in the face-to-face group showed “significantly worsened depressive symptoms” over the same period.
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