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The Man Behind The Curtain

What Is Ericksonian Hypnosis & Who Is Milton Erickson?

Milton Erickson

Milton Erickson

Called “Svengali in Arizona” (TIME, October 22, 1973), his early personal life was a tapestry of tragedy and triumph. Paralyzed by polio at a young age, he went to bed with fever one evening and awoke the next morning to find he could only move his eyeballs.  With only his vision and his determination to survive and heal intact, the young Erickson committed himself to his own destiny. Utilizing his one remaining physical skill, he watched and observed everything. By focusing on his little sister (a toddler then), he committed to memory the exact motions necessary to learn to walk. By watching people’s behavior, he became acquainted with the language of the body. By keeping an even closer eye on his own inner struggle, he became conscious of his own unconscious motives and strivings so that he could heal himself and go on to help heal others.

He was a most amazing man with even more astounding skills of communication and empathy.

There is one famous anecdote of his work with a chronically schizophrenic patient when he was a resident at a psychiatric hospital. The patient spoke gibberish (called “word salad”) and most of the staff had given up on him a long time before Erickson had come on board. He tried every expectable modality of intervention. Needless to say, they didn’t work. So, one day, he decided to write down everything the patient was saying-transcribing it literally, word by word, only to pour over it later, looking for hidden patterns of communication. After extracting some semblance of a syntax from pages and pages of transcript, he took a seat near the patient and waited for him to start speaking. After the patient had said something typically unintelligible, Milton shocked the patient by responding to him in kind.  The long and short of it: the patient regained his function.

Mother Pacing with her baby.

“Pacing and leading is simple and is best explained by an example”

Milton Erickson is best known for his principles of utilization and pacing & leading.

Utilizing refers to the therapist’s task of “utilizing” whatever the patient brings him/her. His belief was that a person gives us the tools we need to help them, if we can watch closely enough for them. He/she carries with them a reservoir of unique, personal strengths. He preferred to focus on those strengths instead of the pathologies. He thought that looking at problems was a sure way to stay in them.

Pacing & Leading is simple  and is best explained by an example: Erickson had been presented with a man who could not stop pacing, literally walking back and forth, back and forth, back and forth in front of Dr. Erickson as he sat in his consultation room. He paced in front of his own chair, he paced in back of it, he paced to the door, he paced to the walls. Once again, Erickson tried a few different approaches, which, as the patient’s history affirmed, failed. Then one day, he paces with the patient.  He walks at the patient’s speed and, over the course of time, starts to slow down, until one day, they’re talking and standing instead of pacing. Finally, the patient sits.

Ericksonian Psychotherapy and Hypnotherapy is a school of thought, an approach to psychotherapy and hypnosis that is based on these and other principles. He used hypnosis as a tool, probably more effectively than anyone before or since, but it was not his only tool. He was first and foremost a psychotherapist, although, as anyone who is familiar with his work will tell you, he was by no means an ordinary one.

Here’s one of the most illuminating case histories.

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A young, very depressed woman went to Erickson for help. She was ashamed and upset about being so ugly and unattractive. She had a small gap in her front teeth that she thought was a disfigurement and she despaired of ever marrying or having children. She was planning to suicide, but decided to give Erickson a crack at it first.

After taking a history, Erickson prescribed the following: She was to go to a certain store and buy some new outfits. Then she was to go to a certain salon for a new hairstyle as well as a facial makeover. Finally, he told her she was to practice squirting water through that gap in her teeth while was in the shower until she could squirt it accurately at a distance of seven or eight feet.

Due to careful questioning, Erickson had deduced that she had an admirer at work that had triggered the onslaught on negative self-statements. She would often see him at the drinking fountain, and when she did, she’d run back to her desk and bury herself in her work. Erickson got her to agree, after several interesting sessions, to dress up in her nicest new clothes, fix her hair and make up and go to work. When the young man would show up at the drinking fountain, she was to get a mouth full of water and squirt it at him right before she’d take one step toward him, then turn around and “run like hell.”

She was not chomping at the bit with that prescription. However, Erickson reminded her that she had come in contemplating suicide and she had come in without one good memory. As long as she was planning to die, she ought to die with at least one good memory.

So, she did it. And to her amazement, the young man ran after her, caught her, spun her around and kissed her. She came out of the depression, formed new relationships, and ultimately got married.

William O’Hanlon delineates some basic principles in Erickson’s work that are very worth repeating here. For greater detail, I recommend you pick up O’Hanlon’s very well-written book, TAPROOTS.

The Naturalistic Orientation

Erickson believed that people have within them the natural abilities to overcome difficulties and resolve problems.

Indirect & Directive Orientations

Erickson gave assignments or suggestions to people that gave just enough loosening of rigidities for the person to discover other ways of thinking and behaving. He could be very direct in dealing with symptoms but very indirect when it came to the way people would live their lives after the symptom was  resolved.


Erickson saw people as flexible and able to respond to different stimuli with different responses.  He never saw an individual’s pattern of behavior as an obstacle.


He had the rare ability to treat a patient with a natural absence of expectation as to what constituted a workable therapeutic situation. Whatever the resistance, Erickson could utilize it to facilitate the therapy.

Present & Future Orientation

Erickson was not the first to talk about the here & now in treatment, but he was in all likelihood the first in bringing the future to the session.