Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The genius of Milton Erickson

“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 H. Erickson

In response to a recent Hey Look Something Shiny post, called Homemade Anti-depression Recipe, a reader took me to task for being too blasé about the potentially life-threatening nature of depression. 

It would be hard for me not to be aware of the lethality of depression. 

My mother was one of eight children. Of those eight, five either killed themselves or were hospitalized for extended periods for mental illness. My mother was one of the five. She attempted to take her own life and was institutionalized, where she died. She was 36 at the time of her death; I was six. Their father, my grandfather, was also institutionalized, and in the generation before him, his uncle, killed himself. I think it's safe to say that I'm familiar with the lethality of depression.

I would never presume to judge what works for anyone. We're all so the same, yet so different. What helps one person might be completely ineffectual for the next.

I've long been a fan of the the late Milton Erickson. He was a brilliantly innovative psychiatrist and psychotherapist renown for his ability to find a remedy for intractable cases of depression and mental illness through his groundbreaking approach of seeing each patient as whole, utterly unique individual.

Below is the story of one of his most famous cases told by Bill O'Hanlon, one of Dr. Erickson's students. I encourage you to take the time to watch it. It's a remarkable narrative. 

Below that is Milton's biography from the Milton H. Erickson Foundation.

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.

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.

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 eminent in psychiatric circles.

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 lead to confinement to a wheelchair in his later years, Dr. Erickson was prodigiously active.

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.

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.

The novel psychotherapeutic strategies which Dr. Erickson employed in his treatment of individuals, couples, and families derived from his hypnotic orientation. Atlhough 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.


  1. What an astute observation. Find the sign of life and build on that. I love it.