By Jeffrey K. Zeig, Ph.D.
I have been blessed with the opportunity to meet many psychotherapy masters, and their wisdom and influence has been indelible. Among the most notable were Milton Erickson, Viktor Frankl, Salvador Minuchin, Carl Whitaker, Carl Rogers, Jay Haley, and Virginia Satir. By their mere presence, these passionate, inspirational therapists made this earth a better place. And, each could turn a phrase in such a way as to make it into a permanently inspirational lesson.
I have had many transformative experiences with these masters, and therefore I feel compelled to share them with others—to recycle the wisdom that I gleaned. As such, when teaching workshops or offering therapy, I often recount exemplary moments I have had with these therapists.
To further my lifelong mission of honoring forebearers, I am initiating this column in the Erickson Foundation Newsletter, so I can memorialize some of the experiences that have changed my life. I am beginning with Viktor Frankl, and the following essay is Part I in a series of encounters with him.
I met Viktor Frankl for the first time in the summer of 1990. I had invited him to be a keynote speaker at the December 1990 Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference. In the summer of that year I was scheduled to teach in Vienna, and I asked if him if we could meet. He wrote to me and explained that he was not accepting visitors due to medical problems, but I that should call him when I arrived.
When I exited customs in Vienna, there was a pay phone on the wall, and I called Professor Frankl. To my surprise, he said “Come now.” So, I stored my bags and took a taxi to his home. He greeted me enthusiastically, and we sat at his desk. I inscribed one of my books for him, and he inscribed one of his that I had brought with me. He wrote: To Dr. Zeig, with thanks for visiting me in my home in Vienna.” Then he gave me a tour.
In one room there was a wall decorated with 27 honorary doctoral degrees from prestigious universities around the world. Among all his academic distinctions was a quite ordinary certificate for flying solo in a Cessna plane when he was in his 70s, at which time he was in residence as a professor in San Diego.
I explained that I was a glider pilot and I asked, “Why is this undistinguished certificate among all of these honorary degrees?” He told me that when he was younger he was a mountain climber and did not fear of heights. In fact, there were mountain trails outside of Vienna named after him because he was the first to explore them. But later in life he developed an aversion to flying. So, he decided that he and Mrs. Frankl would take flying lessons, and eventually both piloted a plane. When he told me this, I must have had a quizzical look on my face, because he then poetically said in German, “Ich lasse mich nicht alles von mir gefallen,” which roughly translates to: There are some things about myself I don’t have to tolerate.
That moment crystalized into a reference experience that transformed me. Something that I previously understood cognitively, suddenly became a conceptual realization. It was like when I learned how to ride a bicycle, and abruptly experienced balance. When Viktor Frankl said those words in German, I knew I no longer had to be the victim of all my foibles. And there was a continued effect. I cannot say how many times that phrase resonated and guided me over the years.
A reference experience often creates a state that can be adaptive, and it can also create a new identity. A reference experience can be life-changing, both professionally and personally.
A hypnotic induction can be a reference experience for patient who has limited perspectives. With a reference experience, the patient can suddenly realize a potential for altering his or her previously maladaptive state. Milton Erickson was a master at inducing constructive reference experiences; so was Viktor Frankl.
I will never forget Viktor Frankl, not only because he was brilliant and one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, but because of the way he communicated to me that one could author one’s own fate, rather than being a victim.
So, in the next issue of this newsletter, remember to look for Viktor Frankl Part II. And for those who have not already done so, please read Frankl’s seminal masterpiece, Man’s Search for Meaning.