Perhaps the most useful of Erickson’s remarkable techniques is the concept of utilization. Utilization harnesses the language and experience of the client. It allows clients to use their own knowledge, strengths and skills to explore useful solutions to their own problems. As such it is well suited to working with clients like the adolescent described below, who may not be particularly interested in “therapy” or in “self-examination.”
“John” is a 17-year-old, male high school senior. He is on track to graduate in June and has enlisted in the service, promised that he will be trained as a damage control officer. He already has a year of experience as a volunteer fire fighter.
His mother brings him to the clinic after they have spent an unpleasant night in the emergency room having his stomach pumped after an impulsive suicide attempt. His girlfriend of about a year dumped him for one of his friends. John got furious, got drunk, and overdosed on pills. He is a handsome and athletic young man, but not particularly verbal or very happy to be in my office. He still had not ruled out suicide as a response to the rejection.
After eliciting his history, and a few false starts into being curious about his life, we struck up a conversation about fire fighting. This is something that he knew and cared about, so we conducted the entire rest of the session discussing some principles of Fire Science.”:
First I asked him what he knew about “accelerants.” He named a few of the common ones. I nodded and then offered, “How about alcohol?” He grinned, and we were off to the fire.
I acknowledged his expertise. Then I said that I had some friends who were firefighters and they had shown me that explosions were just very fast fires; were more damaging when they were contained in a small space,; and lost much of their power when they happened in a larger space. I told him that to qualify for the California Department of Forestry’s fire-fighting program, one has to do 50 sit-ups in 60 seconds while holding a 30 pound weight on the chest. I wondered if doing sit-ups, or even taking a run, would be a good way to dissipate potentially explosive energies?
I also asked him to tell me something about the different types of fires he had seen, and the different techniques used to fight them. What would happen if you misdiagnosed and used water on an oil fire? What could he remember about how he felt at the moment he discovered his girlfriend’s cruel betrayal? He remembered a flash of sadness before he became furious. I asked what was the best way to extinguish sadness. I invited him to ask his mom how she dealt with similar situations. They had a nice conversation about expressing sadness in the form of tears, and the likelihood that the sadness once expressed would soon “burn out.”
I then asked him about “search and rescue.” We determined that when in a burning or damaged building, it was advisable to keep one hand on the wall, and one on the person ahead of or behind you. I said it sounded to me like his plans for his future were a kind of solid “wall” that he could lean on, but that when “visibility is low” it was crucial for him to keep to his plan, to “keep a hand on the wall.” I suggested he ask himself whether a particular action would help or hinder his plan.
His other hand needed to be on the person in front or behind him. I asked him who would be his “buddy.” He chose his mother, a few named friends, and me. I agreed that it was important to have several different people to trust, so that it was likely that someone would be available in time of need. His mother expressed her relief and gratitude to her son, who received it with more graciousness than I usually expect from 17-year-old males.
They left saying that they felt a lot better, and that they didn’t think that they needed to come back. I followed-up a week later by phone, and John was back at school and apparently back on course.
Impulsive suicide is a real risk in adolescents. John had the advantage of some previous experience of the importance of calm but decisive action in the face of real danger, and so was able to mobilize resources that he had not realized he had. Most everyone has resources of which they are not aware. Our job as therapists is to help them access and utilize these previously dormant resources in the most natural way possible.
Cathy was a 55–year-old single client of a colleague. Her initial complaint was that, although she was very competent in her work, she repeatedly raged at her boss and at co- workers. It soon emerged that she had a history of sexual abuse from her father, and had a very difficult time separating her own experience from others. Hence, it was hard for her to know her own needs, and defend herself from the expectations and intrusions from others. She showed what is often called “co-dependence,” or “enmeshment.” My colleague had done a lot of work with her intermittently over a period of several years, and she had made a lot of progress, but they had reached a plateau.
Cathy’s sense of herself was still wobbly and unclear, and she often felt numb, as if she were “just going through the motions,” and she wanted to feel “solid in my skin.” My colleague knew that one of my specialties was working with self-concept, so she asked me to do a session with Cathy while she observed.
When we first sat down, Cathy was obviously very anxious about what might happen, and her attention was intently on me, rather than on herself, and what she wanted from our session. When I asked her what she was experiencing right now, she said that she was scared. When I asked her what she was scared of, she said, “You’re so big! You’re towering over me.” (Later she said, “At that moment I felt like a child; there I was, this little person with this big giant man towering over me, and all the bad memories of my father’s abuse just rushed in!”)
I immediately got out of my chair, which was a little higher than the couch she was sitting on, and sat down on the floor, at which time her whole body visibly relaxed. (Later, she told me, “If you hadn’t sat down on the floor, I can’t imagine how that session would have gone.”)
As she told me about her outcomes for the session, she repeatedly said, “Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.” Knowing that what someone says is often literal, rather than metaphoric, I asked her to pause and take a step backward into herself. This was one of those times when I fervently wished that I was recording the session on video, because her transformation was so profound—I wish change was always so easy! We spent some time consolidating this new way of being in her body. But that moment when she stepped back into herself was the key that opened a door. In the absence of video, I offer Cathy’s report a year and a half later:
“When you said to ‘Take a step backward’—WOW, I can still feel it—I literally stepped back into my body, back inside my skin, and I felt so different. At first it kind of scared me – it was unsettling because it was so unfamiliar. I felt ‘connected,’ I felt ‘whole’ in a way I hadn’t known was possible. When I took a walk right after that session, I felt ‘in my body’ so intense-I felt my skin and bones, a tingling sensation all over, even the movement of my blood through my veins, and all my ‘borders,’ my ‘edges’—where my body ends, and everything outside me begins.”
“Before this, the world was kind of a ‘soupy’ place for me. I felt ‘the same as’ others. I thought everyone saw the world the same as I do, and I rarely made distinct choices—I just kind of shuffled along with the crowd. I’ve spent the majority of my life ‘a head of myself,’ in my head and in the future, rather than in my body in the present. I was making life choices based on experiences and beliefs I’d accepted as ‘law’ long ago and far away. I now know in my bones that I can choose, that I make choices every minute, and I no longer live from a place of fear. I know now when it’s appropriate to be afraid, and when it’s not. Since then I have become increasingly aware of who I am, what I want, where I stand in relation to others, and not being swayed by what others around me say or want—and this continues to grow. It’s all still amazing to me. And when I sometimes ‘get ahead of myself’ now, I notice it, and I just take a step backward—back to myself!”
It’s very important to recognize that all of Cathy’s insights were the result (not the cause) of taking the action of stepping back into herself, and her own life.
Dr. Jim, a sweet-faced, middle-aged man, arrived, referred for treatment of anxiety by a previous hypnosis patient. When I ask him what form the anxiety takes, he says he is a good doctor with a healthy practice, confident in his skills and in his marriage relationship. He describes his wife, Beth, in loving terms. He wants to please her.
His wife had convinced him to take dancing lessons with her so they could enjoy learning together, and he consented. She is a very adept, fluid, and comfortable dancer. He had to work hard at the lessons to be a good partner, and his lessons went well. But, like all beginners, he sometimes stumbled.
She was very patient with him, never criticized him, but she looked at him with an expression: a mother’s glance at her beloved but clumsy child. This glance freezes him, irritates him, and makes him very, very nervous
I did trance work with him, beginning with a permissive trance of the form, “Some people really enjoy becoming hypnotized by following the pleasing sensations in their bodies…” He easily went into trance and enjoyed it. Then I invited him into a trance tailored to include images and experiences of confidence and comfort in the areas of his life in which he felt quite at ease. These trances helped him get through times where he stumbled, lost the beat, or lost his balance. He found that he would laugh about stumbling and continue to dance, unaffected by his wife’s loving look.
As his dance life improved in classes, Beth encouraged him to take her to the group dance parties run by the dancing school teachers. There, his anxiety returned full force, because a particularly attractive female teacher, Jennifer, a superb dancer, attended. He thought she noticed him and could easily see all his flaws.
In trance, I had Dr. Jim imagine going to the dance party: I had him imagine what shoes he’d wear, what jacket. I had him imagine arriving in the car, and walking up the long flight of stairs to the studio. He could see the other couples arriving with their dance clothes on. After the trance he said, with evident pleasure, “I was dancing with Jennifer! I knew what to do. It was comfortable and fun.”
In an Ericksonian manner I refrained from prospecting for couples” “issues” to “explain” the problem. Instead, I concentrated on helping Dr Jim to use his resources and feelings, conscious and unconscious, to reach his goal of dancing happily with his wife.
I constructed a trance in which he imagined dancing with Jennifer at the party, with style and ease. When he reached the party he was to imagine walking directly over to Jennifer and asking her to dance. Beth wasn’t a part of that trance.
”What kind of dances will you be doing with Jennifer? Hear the music, and take the steps that you need to take for that dance. Your partner, Jennifer, moves easily with you. I wonder, is it a waltz or a fox trot? Will you be twirling your partner, or will you separate and come back together? What about dancing a jitterbug with all that energy, motion, and fun?” The trances were minimal with long pauses. When Dr Jim was dancing with Jennifer he had a big smile on his face. There wasn’t much I had to say. I just listened to the music in my own mind and watched the smiles of confidence and pleasure bloom on his face.
At the end of these trances he said that he was relaxed and pleased that he was able to dance with Jennifer. In the trance she complimented him on his dancing. I asked him if he would feel comfortable returning to the dance parties with Beth when Jennifer was there too. He asked for a few more trance lessons dancing with Jennifer before he felt ready. After these trances, he came in and told me that he’d been to another dance party, dancing with Beth. He wasn’t intimidated by Jennifer’s presence. And, Beth complimented his dancing. Dr. Jim said, “Dancing with Beth is so easy and wonderful now!” Hypnosis dance class took seven lessons.