Once Erickson has fixated and focused a patient’s attention with a question or general context of interest (e.g., ideally, the possibility of dealing with the patient’s problem), he then introduces a number of approaches designed to depotentiate conscious sets. By this we do not mean there is a loss of awareness in the sense of going to sleep; we are not confusing trance with the condition of sleep. In trance there is a reduction of the patient’s foci of attention to a few inner realities; consciousness has been fixated and focused to a relatively narrow frame of attention rather than being diffused over a broad area, as in the more typical general reality orientation (Shor, 1959) of our usual everyday awareness. When fixated and focused in such a narrow frame, consciousness is in a state of unstable equilibrium; it can be “depotentiated” by being shifted, transformed, or bypassed with relative ease. → Read more
My friend Kevin’s 5-year-old granddaughter is known for her dramatic snits, which can be of epic proportions. Once, when he was visiting, she was in the midst of exceptional performance: cringing under a table, clutching her blanket, sobbing with periodic outbursts of saying “NO!” or “GO AWAY!” All efforts by her parents to end the drama were equally futile.
After her parents left for an appointment, Kevin decided to try his hand. He wanted to engage Aurora in a way that did not demand a response. Standing in the doorway to the living room where her older sister was playing, he told a story loud enough for Aurora to hear. → Read more
Milton Erickson was unencumbered by the prevailing orthodoxy of his time. His creativity continues to reverberate profoundly in often unacknowledged ways. Perhaps the most important of Erickson’s principles is utilization. Consider the following vignettes.
Erickson saw Kim, a teacher troubled by nude young men hovering just above her head. She told Erickson not to take her young men away, but rather stop their interference with her everyday life. He suggested that Kim leave the nude young men in a closet in his office where they would be secure and not interfere with her teaching. She checked on the young men at first but gradually stopped. Much later, Kim moved to another city and worried about her “psychotic episodes.” Erickson suggested that she put her psychotic episodes in a manila envelope and mail it to him. Occasionally, she would send Erickson a psychotic episode and meanwhile continued a productive life (Erickson, 1980). → Read more
Judith was a 46-year-old woman who, for the first time in thirty years, was without a job. In the past, when she left a job, it was because someone contacted her with a better offer. Now, for the first time, she had to find a job for herself. She had been sending out resumes by the bushel but received no replies. Judith had been referred to me by someone who said I was practical and knew the ins-and-outs of the business world. The referral source told me that Judith did not want therapy. He identified her as feeling worthless unless she had a job, and that no one would care about her until she was in a position to help others. To match her expectations, I presented myself to Judith more as a coach than as a therapist. However, it was readily apparent that Judith was painfully shy and felt that she had no personal worth. → Read more
A common theme that I remember Erickson discussing during our time together was his fascination with how the unconscious was able to use current events and experiences to conjure past learnings.
I experienced this first hand during my second session with Matt, a ten-year-old boy, and his parents. Matt, an only child was going to have to redo the fourth grade because of poor grades. Matt had felt like an outsider in the fourth grade and had no motivation to do school work. The thought of repeating the fourth grade again after “flunking” made him feel even less motivated. His parents tried “everything.” Unfortunately, each parent felt that his or her strategy-of-choice had been good enough to motivate each of him or her as a child, so it should motivate Matt. Their unyielding assumption was that if their strategy did not work, the problem was in Matt, not the appropriateness of the strategy. → Read more
Ben was referred to me by a local hospital for the treatment of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) behavioral disorder. Due to aging, a part of his brain had degenerated, resulting in loss of muscular control during REM sleep. Both Ben and his wife were fearful that because he had wild body movements while sleeping, he would inadvertently kick or hit her, or that he would injure himself. After nearly 50 years of marriage and sharing a bed, Ben’s wife had resorted to sleeping in the guest room.
Ben was a lively and interesting 70-year old, who had recently retired from his job in a factory where he worked as a master toolmaker. He was looking forward to enjoying his retirement. Ben had a keen sense of history and a strong interest in Native American culture, and he read many books on the subject. We enjoyed talking about this because I share the interest. Ben longed to visit ancient Native American sites and national parks and he purchased a Winnebago for this purpose. He said he was ready to go, but the extremely narrow single bed he would have to bring along, and his symptoms of the REM disorder, made him hesitant about traveling. → Read more
Edgar, a child of five, is the oldest son of a marriage that has lived with great economic and family pressures. The mother began going to therapy two years ago for her distress because of her pregnancy. She left treatment. A short while later, she asked for an emergency appointment. She told me by phone that she had just gotten Edgar out of the hospital, and he did not want to return home because she was afraid of his father who, in an attack of fury and impatience, had hit him against the wall, fracturing his cranium.
I met with the whole family in therapy because that permitted me to understand the family situation, to perceive their emotions and to explore their resources. Once I have an idea of the family structure and the context in which the problem occurred, I can tell a story (or build a story together with the children) that represents the problem and different solutions. In an abusive situation, it is necessary to censure actions, not the persons implicated, trying to see them as parents who make mistakes. In this case I constructed the story because the child was immobile in a chair, not wanting to look at anyone, much less participate. → Read more