Utilization — the Virtues of Faults
Excerpts from the Erickson Foundation Archives
By Jeffrey K. Zeig, Ph.D.
Case One: The Right “Spell”
My son, Robert, asked me when he was attending grade school, “My two best friends can’t spell; [their papers are] marked 10, 15, or 20, and my spelling [lessons are] marked, 85, 90, or 95. Now, will you teach them how to spell?” I said, “I can’t really do that Robert without consulting their parents…I’ll tell you what to do. You make sure you have your spelling lesson with you and your friends have their spelling lessons with them — a marked copy corrected by the teacher. I’ll come over and pick you up and drive you home, and I’ll [also] offer to drive the boys home. And, as we’re riding along, you tell me what mark you got on your spelling lesson. I’ll pull up to the curb and go over your spelling lesson. [When Erickson did this, he said to Robert,] “You got this word right, and this word right, and this, this, and this.” And I graded [his lesson] and it was 98. I turned to one of the boys and said, “Have you got your spelling lesson with you? I’d like to see it.” He didn’t want to show it to me, but I insisted. I looked at it and said, “My goodness…a ‘ck’ in ‘chicken’ is the hardest part of the word to spell — and you got that right.” I looked at the next word and there were three letters correct and [I] said, “[That’s] the hardest part of that word to spell…” Now the second boy handed me his spelling lesson [and] I pointed out the letters he got [right, too.]
A short time later, I asked Robert, “What happened to those little boys after that day?” He said, “They are spelling correctly.”
I merely showed them how to look at their spelling lesson and see the right part of their spelling. [But,] adults will look at the failures, without realizing that failures are always an opportunity to learn.
Case Two: Appreciable Curves
Hans (a student asking for help with a case): I had a woman client who came in with her husband. She has scoliosis, which means she has a very rounded back and is much smaller than she would be if she didn’t have it. Other than that, she’s a beautiful woman, but the couple has the same difficulty I told you about before: the man is no longer turned on by his [wife]. He says it does not have to do with her back, but I still think it has something to do with it. He simply tries not to think about it, and the woman gets depressed a lot because she thinks her rounded back is the reason why her husband doesn’t like her anymore — that he no longer accepts her as a woman.
Erickson: Now my [question] to the woman would have been, “Madam, aren’t you aware that all men [think] curves are wonderful?” If the woman has an extra curve, I’d [ask] the man, “What do you want — a flattened board? As a man you are supposed to enjoy [all kinds of] curves.” [This puts] him on the defensive, and when he admits liking some curves, [he’ll] admit to a predilection for [all] curves, [there- fore viewing] his wife’s scoliosis through different eyes.
Cases Three and Four: The Body of Knowledge
Erickson speaking to students at a teaching seminar:
I’ll give you two other cases from my [experience working with the WWII] induction board. A handsome young man came through [in] good physical condition, and he had Jayne Mansfield [a buxom actress of the era] beat with his [enormous] breasts. My medical students looked at him in horror, [but were even] more horrified when I wrote a red “A” on the chart, which meant [he was] accepted. I let the medical students wonder for a while, [and] then I said, “The medical students are concerned because I’ve accepted you for the Army. They think that with those great big breasts of yours you’re unfit for the Army. Now, I’ll ask you a question and your answer will reassure [them]: “When you take a shower with the boys and they see your great big breasts, and they start to rib you [and] tease you, what are you going to tell them?” He said, “I’ll tell anybody who stares at my breasts that I brought them along for the homesick boys.” There was no question why [this man would] be accepted. And his composure was excellent.
The next selectee squirmed while I did the psychiatric examination, [but] I didn’t find anything wrong with him. I accepted him and [asked], “Now, why were you so afraid I wouldn’t accept you for the Army?” He said, “Well, I’ve got a problem: I can urinate only when sitting down.” The medical students looked concerned, so I said, “All right. When you’re marching and the sergeant says, ‘At ease, relieve your- selves,’ and you squat down to urinate, what are you going to say to your fellow soldiers?” He said, “If they fault me [for] squatting down, I’ll tell them, ‘Anything good enough for my mother is good enough for me.’”