“Each person is a unique individual. Hence, psychotherapy should be formulated to meet the uniqueness of the individual’s needs, rather than tailoring the person to fit the Procrustean bed of a hypothetical theory of human behavior.”

Milton Hyland Erickson was an American psychiatrist who specialized in medical hypnosis and family therapy. He was founding president of the American Society for Clinical Hypnosis and noted for his approach to the unconscious mind as creative and solution-generating. Milton H. Erickson, M.D. – unorthodox psychiatrist, congenial family doctor, ingenious strategic psychotherapist, master hypnotherapist – has achieved the status of legend (Mark Tyrrell 2014).

Dr. Erickson was plagued with enormous physical handicaps for most of his life. At age 17, he contracted polio and was so severely paralyzed that doctors believed he would die. While recovering in bed, almost entirely lame and unable to speak, he became strongly aware of the significance of nonverbal communication – body language, tone of voice, and the way that these nonverbal expressions often directly contradicted the verbal ones. He also began to have “body memories” of the muscular activity of his own body. By concentrating on these memories, he slowly began to regain control of parts of his body to the point where he was eventually able to talk and use his arms again. His doctor recommended exercising his upper body only so Milton Erickson planned a 1,000 miles canoe trip to build up the strength to attend college. His adventure was challenging, and although he still did not have full use of his legs at the end, he was able to walk with a cane (Erickson 1980).

“A goal without a date is just a dream."

His ‘problems’ began early. Born into a poor farming community in Nevada, Erickson didn’t speak until he was four. Later, he was found to have severe dyslexia, profound tone deafness, and color blindness. At the age of seventeen, he was paralyzed for a year by a bout of polio so bad that his doctor was convinced he would die. Despite (or perhaps because of) his handicaps, Milton Erickson went on to qualify as a medical doctor and psychiatrist. In the following years, he became the world’s greatest practitioner of therapeutic hypnosis and one of the most effective psychotherapists ever (Erickson 1948). When Erickson was in his fifties, he was struck by a second bout of polio that caused him a great deal of physical pain. Even this became a learning opportunity, as he became highly effective at treating other people’s pain with hypnosis. He details many of his approaches to sensory alteration and pain control in Hypnotic Alteration of Sensory, Perceptual and Psycho physiological. Despite severe illness in his old age, Milton Erickson continued to teach, demonstrate, and practice his remarkable skills as a therapist, even when eventually confined to a wheelchair. He died at the age of seventy-nine (Mark Tyrrell 2014).

Dr. Erickson’s career spanned more than 50 years. He conducted extensive research on suggestion and hypnosis, first as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, and later throughout his medical training and during his initial professional appointments in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Michigan. By the late 1930s, Dr. Erickson was renowned for his work in hypnosis and was eminent in psychiatric circles (Mark Tyrrell 2014).

In 1948, Dr. Erickson moved from Michigan to Phoenix. In 1949, he entered into private practice in his home office, a move which was prompted in large part by medical necessity. Despite almost constant, intense physical pain and the progressive loss of mobility which led to confinement to a wheelchair in his later years, Dr. Erickson was prodigiously active (Mark Tyrrell 2014).

In 1957, he and a number of colleagues founded the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis and Dr. Erickson served as the Inaugural President. He also established the American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis and served as editor for 10 years. During the 1950s and ’60s, Dr. Erickson published copiously, traveled and lectured extensively, both domestically and abroad, continued to conduct research, and was in high demand as a practicing psychiatrist. In the 1970s, restricted to his home by his physical condition, Dr. Erickson still conducted teaching seminars for professionals on an almost daily basis and continued seeing some patients. When he died on March 25th, 1980, at the age of 78, his seminars were booked through the end of that year and requests exceeded another year’s scheduling. Dr. Erickson left a written legacy of more than 140 scholarly articles and five books on hypnosis which he co-authored (Mark Tyrrell 2014).

The Ericksonian approach departs from traditional hypnosis in a variety of ways. While the process of hypnosis has customarily been conceptualized as a matter of the therapist issuing standardized instructions to a passive patient, Ericksonian hypnosis stresses the importance of the interactive therapeutic relationship and purposeful engagement of the inner resources and experiential life of the subject. Dr. Erickson revolutionized the practice of hypnotherapy by coalescing numerous original concepts and patterns of communication into the field (Erickson 1991).

The novel psychotherapeutic strategies which Dr. Erickson employed in his treatment of individuals, couples, and families derived from his hypnotic orientation. Although he was known as the world’s leading hypnotherapist, Dr. Erickson used formal hypnosis in only one-fifth of his cases in clinical practice. Dr. Erickson affected a fundamental shift in modern psychotherapy. Many elements of the Ericksonian perspective which were once considered extreme are now incorporated into the mainstream of contemporary practice (Erickson 1991).

Back in the early 1920's, Erickson (1961, 1967) was critical of the behavioural pioneer Clark L. Hull because he tried to define objective methods of hypnosis, whilst ignoring their meaning for the subject. Erickson thus anticipated critics of the behavioural approach, such as Carl Rogers and George A. Kelly. Erickson was also critical of psychoanalysis in a similar way because it tried to erect universal truths and a standardized therapeutic method. He developed a different concept of the unconscious mind to Freud, more in common with modem cognitive conceptions (see Volume 2 for a further discussion). He was concerned to work with the individual’s unique reality but also frequently worked with families – and he was a major early influence on family and systemic therapy (Haley, 1973, 1993).

The first volume covers hypnosis and research into hypnotic phenomena. The second presents the application of all this to the practice of psychotherapy. However, the reader will soon find a world of richness and complexity which belies these classifications. The work of Milton H. Erickson consists of a comprehensive approach to psychology and psychotherapy of extraordinary originality and depth (Haley, 1973, 1993).

To be as effective as Milton Erickson doesn’t mean just aping him, but working from similar principles and learning to see and observe in ways comparable with his (legendary) human observation.

“Life will bring you pain all by itself. Your responsibility is to create joy."

His Contributions:

  • Hypnosis: It was perhaps Erickson’s farming background that caused him to approach psychotherapy in such a practical way. When reading his words, it is clear you are reading about people, not about ‘psychology’ or ‘science’. Despite his sophisticated and advanced understanding, his life-long fascination with teaching healthier personal attitudes shines through. When Milton Erickson started working as a psychiatrist, the field was limited by certain accepted rigid tenets. Hypnosis was widely seen as ‘the dark art’. Psychiatrists could be removed from their positions for using it, leading to Erickson having to teach it to other psychiatrists in secret (Haley, 1973, 1993).

  • The Ericksonian Handshake: The legendary ‘Ericksonian handshake’, whereby Erickson would send someone into deep trance, works along a basic human principle. It taps into the natural human ‘orientation response’, triggered by shock or surprise. This occurs with ‘the handshake’ as a familiar social pattern is interrupted. It is described in Haley on Erickson, another fantastic book (Haley, 1973, 1993).

  • The Role of the Subconscious: In the early part of the twentieth century, the subconscious (or unconscious) was seen as a ‘seething hotbed’ of suppressed conflicts and complexes. The idea was that it had to be vanquished by the rational conscious part. Erickson stressed the wisdom and intelligence of the unconscious mind and did not view it as a primarily negative force. He would talk of trusting the unconscious with many of life’s activities. He didn’t see ‘insight’ into the cause of a problem as the main focus of therapy.

  • The Use of Brief Therapy: At the beginning of Milton Erickson’s career, therapy was often interminable. Change was expected to happen very slowly and painfully. Erickson would often see a client only once, but still make lasting change happen for these individuals. Now, backed both by research and the demands of insurance companies, brief therapy is the norm.

  • Lifting the Symptom: Driven by the idea that the mind worked exactly like the body, practitioners used to assume that psychological problem behaviours were always symptoms of something much deeper. It was seen as superficial to just treat the symptom. Indeed, many practitioners had no idea how to lift a phobia or relieve the experience of depression. Milton Erickson maintained that if you could “lift the handle, a lot could be done with the pot”. He saw a therapist’s first duty as easing or removing the unpleasant psychological complaint. Like nudging the first domino in a row to fall, a small change has effects that lead into other areas. For example, lifting a phobia can lead to increased confidence in other areas. Erickson was directive and strategic in his therapy in a time when the therapist was supposed to be passive (Haley, 1973, 1993).

  • Solution-Focused Therapy: Until relatively recently, therapy was mainly focused on pathology rather than on the individual’s inherent resources. And therapy was usually focused in the past, seeking as it did to uncover the deeper ‘root cause’ of the client’s problem.

  • Family Therapy: Another revolutionary approach that now seems like common sense was Erickson’s consideration of the effect of other family members on therapy. He would view a person as part of a wider system, not just as an isolated individual. If he thought it necessary, he would get other family members involved in the therapy. This was blasphemy for many of his contemporaries. Uncommon Therapy by Jay Haley illustrates Erickson’s unusual approaches with many unusual and fascinating case studies (Haley, 1973, 1993).

Now that Milton Erickson is becoming so well known, it is sometimes forgotten that when he started out as a young psychiatrist back in the 1920s he was really a maverick. Many elements of his work contradicted standard psychological dogma. And it took him a while to become recognized as a leading clinician. It was only because his results were so consistently good that he rose to prominence. Erickson wasn’t interested in constructing an edifice of psychological theory and trying to get people to fit the theory. He looked to see what people were like first, and then he worked with them as unique individuals (Haley, 1973, 1993).

Although Milton Erickson has been dead for over thirty years, when we really absorb the best books written about his working methods, we can extrapolate ways of working that go way beyond mere technique or dry theory.

What I learnt from Milton Erickson

Milton Erickson’s innovative way of working with people is legendary. I had the opportunity to learn about Milton from Dick and it was so very incredible. Dick helped me model Erickson, and I took full opportunity of that day and modeled him twice, in every way he could be modeled. and today I am sharing with you “ten rules.” They seem simple, and they are. But most of life, Most of therapy, is simple–or as I say, when I am sharing what I learnt about Erickson from Dick and Steve: “Erickson was profoundly simple and simply profound.”

1. Life is hard work: We all know this—but we don’t know how deep it really is. We are the only creature on earth who looks for hard work. Nothing and nobody else climbs a mountain “because it’s there” as George Mallory is famously quoted, "Nobody goes for a Scuba or a Sky dive, and sure enough No other living thing trains for a marathon—to run 26 miles faster than someone else merely for fun. People are hard-wired for hard work—we complete one task and look for another.”

2. Life is unfair: Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. Intellectually, we all know that life simply isn’t fair. But we like to forget that. I am sure each of you reading this, has had, and will probably continue to have an extraordinarily rich life when compared to the vast majority of humans on earth. {to all the NLPers reading this, did you get the Language pattern I used in that Line, its one of Erickson's Classic Presupposition} We’re richer, had better opportunities for education, come from better families, better fed, better housed, and have more opportunities than most humans who have ever lived on earth. Now, That’s not fair to the others! If we want to complain how “unfair” something, anything is, we first should compare ourselves to others in the world. But, typical of human beings, we always pick those richer, smarter, younger, better-looking…on and on. “That’s not fair… .” Erickson knew, as we all know, even children know what’s fair and what’s not.

3. Life is filled with pain: If we are alive, we will have suffering. Our heart gets broken, our hand gets broken, our car gets dashed, we lose our job, our parents, our lover and our friends. We hurt and we get hurt too! We forget that pain is natural—parents die, and hopefully before their children. If we fall, we well might hurt ourselves. People’s bodies aren’t perfect—we get a gland but we get operated on. Accidents happen. Some pain is temporary. What hurts today may well be forgotten tomorrow. And some pain is absolutely nothing but pain. May be that is the cost of being alive. and I can be sure today, as sure as you could be with me today, that "pain disappears when we cease to exist. Boris Pasternak said: “How wonderful to be alive…. But why does it always hurt?”

Erickson would say There is going to be pain, emotional, physical, mental, and so on .. and he would further say, Learning which to focus on is always going to be your choice and its that choice, that changes everything for that person.. who else other than the great Erickson would have the authority to say that, because, He felt physical pain in a great deal of his adult life; some of it excruciating. I never read anywhere where he complained. It was what it was; no one could stop or carry it for him.

4. Everything ends: Thank God! Who wants to have a childhood crawling forever? or the lactating phase? Who wants or needs to remember mistreatment, abuse, financial loss or betrayal? Conventional wisdom, and probably truth, is that we really can’t forget anything; it’s encoded within for as long as we are fortunate enough to have our minds.

But we can dismiss memories we don’t want–once they are processed and we accept nothing more can be done. We can metaphorically put them in a box on a shelf in the attic or in the garage much as we put a winter clothes away. (that is what we learn in the Dissociation of NLP techniques). The cost for “everything ends” is pure and simple—happiness ends too.

5. Every choice costs: Unfortunately, but also fortunately, we can’t know the future. So we never know the full cost or benefit of any choice. If you follow Erickson’s rules, however, it’s “not fair” to blame yourself for poor consequences of any thoughtful choice You thought, considered, wondered, and then made the best choice you could make.

Some choices turn out as good, as we had planned, thought and hoped. Some choices have unexpected good or bad consequences. Children know this benefit automatically–mistakes teach us. Does anyone brush right the very first time?

6. The law of averages is usually correct—that’s why it’s called the law of averages: If you are into sales, and you call one prospect – there may or may not be a change of closing that deal. But if you call 10 prospects, there could be a higher probability to get them to sign up. If you live in the suburbs of Mumbai you already know the importance of asking as many auto Rikshaw driver to come to your destination. The more you ask, the more probability that you get a driver to drive you to your destination. The Law of average always works, doesn’t matter who you are, it works. A leader understands it and works along side of this law, they don’t fight it or challenge it, they work with it. Successful people understands this.

7. Change is the only constant: You, me, rivers, mountains, the earth—everything. So we might as well figure out how to live with it, to change what we can, and live tolerantly (or happily!) with the rest. Time can’t be frozen or reversed. Acceptance of reality is a real Masterpiece of Erickson’s work. When we accept what is possible, we can then influence more of what we want. Like Dick would say, "What we resist persists, and what we accept transforms” things change, people change, the one we love change, you change too, our likes and dislikes change too.

8. It is what’s in our head and heart that really matters (our Map): Life can be filled with joy, happiness and delight; that same life could be filled with misery, unhappiness and fear. What we focus on, our definitions become our life. Perceptions are very different—David fought the same Goliath, that the villagers found dangerous! Its all in the head – indeed! the villagers said, “he is so big how could we hit” and David said, “ he is so big, how could I miss” Part of Erickson’s legacy is embodied in the phrase, “Stop and smell the roses.” He also taught us to see and enjoy humor in life and have curiosity about it.

9. There is always an unknown component: This could be Luck, or grace.. or it could be bad luck or disgrace.. Or it could be both .. No one “merits” cruel parents—or winning the lottery. Most of the time, preparation and hard work bring reward. But sometimes it helps to be in the right place at the right time.

Every one of us can look back and see a time when we were lucky enough to have had a wonderful opportunity. If we were prepared, and jumped on that opening, we benefitted from merit and good luck. We did the hard work of preparation, had faith in that hard work, and were also in the right place at the right time.

10. Keep it simple: Life is to Live, So Live it – don’t over analyse it, or rationalize it, or explain it too much – keep it simple, yes! Just Live on! —and learn how to play it better. This rule, the last one I am sharing, this truly exemplifies one of the basic gifts of Erickson’s work. It is simply profound and profoundly simple.

We are all born, live and then we die. We begin our journey toward death the moment we are born…some take longer to get to the end than other. There is nothing more simple than that.

Dick said this in one of the sessions of NLP, and I quote him, "Human beings seem compelled to complicate their lives, to make simple issues difficult. None of us have lived this moment before. Of course we make mistakes. And that’s ok. We can always learn. "Keep it simple Mary, he said this to one of the participants, as he worked with her on the chair"


This article is written by Plabita Borah who has been a part of the Global Internship Research Program (GIRP). Plabita belongs from Assam and holds MSc in Clinical Psychology. She is ambitious, driven and thrives on challenge. She constantly sets goals and strives towards them. She also loves meeting people and learning about theirs lives and background.