Home PageBlogPat and the Search for Soul

By George W Burns

Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes, 54 seconds

Milton H. Erickson Institute of Western Australia

In Erickson’s work I learned about treating clients as individuals, listening to their metaphors, and utilizing their resources. I also found permission to be bold, take risks, and venture beyond the restrictions of theory. However, as I have discovered many times over, my clients are my best teachers; Pat was one.

Her physician’s referral letter said she suffered severe insomnia following hospital admission for minor surgery twelve months earlier. Pat, a middle-aged ethnic Chinese, said, “I’ve lost my soul.” Previous therapy failed to bring relief. According to her metaphor, a person’s soul leaves the body when asleep and, if not reunited, can cause both physical and emotional distress, including insomnia.

Following surgery, she said she had been awakened from the anesthetic without being addressed by name. Consequently, her soul and body had not reconnected. The answer, therefore, was clear. She must return to the hospital operating theatre, replicate the anesthesia, and be awakened by name. I listened (or at least I thought I did) and offered what had worked for other insomniacs. Following a behavioral assessment of her sleep patterns, I offered counseling, self-hypnosis, and strategic exercises to improve her sleep pattern. The outcome? A failure!

At the second consultation, she reiterated both her metaphor and the solution: She needed to return to the theatre and be awakened by name.

But, as her solution was complex, embarrassing to organize, and did not fit my Western psychological metaphor, I chose a therapeutic compromise. Using hypnosis I guided her in imagery through the detailed steps of going to the hospital, having the anesthetic, going into theatre, and being awakened by her Chinese name. This time I felt confident I had listened to my client’s story and found—what I believed—would be the solution. Session three and still no improvement.

Patiently, she told me the solution, for the third time. Finally, I arranged for Pat to be readmitted to the ward. Using hypnosis instead of a general anesthetic (with Pat’s agreement), we replicated the previous theatre procedure (save for the surgery, of course!). She was awakened from the hypnosis, spoken to by her Chinese name, and asked if she had gained what she wanted. With a contented smile, she nodded her head. A week later she affirmed that she had reconnected with her soul and, consequently, slept soundly every night since revisiting hospital. She was continuing to sleep well when followed-up by phone six months later.

(This case is a succinct adaptation from one presented in Burns, G. W.  (2001). 101 Healing Stories: Using metaphors in therapy, New York, John Wiley, and Sons).

Terry Argast, Ph.D. Southern California Society for Ericksonian Psychotherapy and Hypnosis



By Robert McNeilly MBBS

Director, The Milton H. Erickson Institute of Victoria, Australia

An Australian professional from a traditional background returned from the USA some years ago and claimed triumphantly that Erickson was dead, as was the Ericksonian movement. He was a little puzzled when I replied, that even though Erickson was dead, his ashes were scattered in Phoenix and George Burns’ case provides evidence of the continuing vitality of Erickson’s heritage.

Those who know George Burns either personally or through his writings, including Nature Guided Therapy, and 101 Healing Stories won’t be surprised by this case, however humble and charming. George continues the spirit of Erickson in his life, his teaching, and in this case history, demonstrating the importance of listening to what the client says, not our own theories (what Bill O’Hanlon describes as theory counter-transference). He reaffirms the importance of responding to the client’s world view, and to own our own limitations in the service of attending to a client’s needs, and so provides what will allow healing.

I was touched by George’s willingness to put aside the failed outcome from his “brilliant” intervention, to have his client imagine returning to the hospital, and go the extra mile of assisting her to actually go there physically. I also was glad to be reminded that there are no resistant clients, just resistant therapists. George has shared his resistance, and his willingness to go beyond this to achieve a therapeutic outcome, and I am happy to have read this case for my own personal learning.

Editor’s Note: A good example of Erickson’s respect for cultural imperatives is exemplified by his treatment of the adolescent son of a Lebanese immigrant for stuttering (Teaching Seminar, pp. 121-132). Another illustration of the idiosyncrasies and “willfulness” of the unconscious is illustrated in Erickson’s work with a dual personality case (Collected Papers of Milton H. Erickson on Hypnosis, Volume III, pp. 231-260).

Terry L. Argast, Ph.D.


This excerpt has been extracted from Volume 22, Issue No. 1 of The Milton H. Erickson Foundation Newsletter

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,