My therapeutic toolbox has been greatly enhanced and enriched by the writings of several students of Milton H. Erickson, who was, by general consensus one of the most innovative hypnotherapists the world has known. Sidney Rosen has further enhanced my appreciations and understanding of Erickson’s work.
Rosen was a long-time student and colleague of Erickson, and as such, brings us a wonderful collection of anecdotes, clinical and personal observations of this master of hypnotherapeutic transformations. As with every other book about Erickson, I savored the unusual perspectives, startling interventions, and deep wisdom of this wonderful teacher.
Erickson possessed an extraordinarily sharp gift for what I call pattern recognition. He was able to rapidly grasp, engage and manipulate the conscious and unconscious belief (and disbelief) systems, habit patterns and self-image of a person. He used his own words and behaviors to bring about changes in people that were rapid, deep and enormously therapeutic. Often they involved light hypnotic trance, but many times they were direct suggestions for behaviors that led to changes.
One of his vehicles for these interventions was to tell stories that illustrated his patients’ problems, demonstrated his appreciation of where they were stuck in life, acknowledged their strengths as well as their weaknesses. He then invited them to change some aspect of their perceptions and behaviors that then led to significant improvements in the problems for which they were seeking help.
Some of his interventions were very simple.
A man from Philadelphia, whose headaches I cured, sent his aunt and uncle out to see me. He said, “These two have quarreled every day of their married life. They’ve been married over thirty years.”
They came out to see me. I said, “Haven’t you had enough of quarreling? Why not start enjoying life?” And they had a very pleasant life. And the man’s aunt tried to persuade her sister to come out, because his mother was very unhappy. (p. 55)
So here is a story from Erickson, told to therapists, illustrating his suggestions that brought about rapid and deep changes. Almost certainly there were many more pieces of his interactions with this couple that he did not mention. But the essence of his message about creating change is memorably presented, framed and reinforced by the reports of the observations of various relatives of the patients.
Rosen quotes further notes from Erickson about this intervention:
Too many therapists think that they must direct the change and help the patient to change.
Therapy is like starting a snowball rolling at the top of a mountain. As it rolls down, it grows larger and larger and becomes an avalanche that fits the shape of the mountain.”
Rosen gives the example of Erickson’s prescribing the presenting symptom of a fifteen year-old girl whose parents and school and school bus driver and fellow students were all sick of her loudly slurping as she sucked her thumb. Erickson got her parents to agree they would say nothing more about this behavior. He then prescribed the following behaviors: Her parents agreed to say nothing more about these behaviors. She was to suck her thumb with loud, slurping noises while her father read the newspaper and while her mother did her sewing. She was to suck her thumb selectively at school, particularly in front of other students and teachers whom who disliked. Within a month she had stopped her thumb sucking.
Particularly endearing are stories of how Erickson used these approaches with his own children, and how they learned to use them with others.
For an enjoyable and highly instructive read, this book is highly recommended.