Erickson wasn't much of a hypnotist - after all he was a practising psychiatrist with a prescription pad - and anyway how could people who never knew him personally possibly have anything to say about his way of doing things?
As it turns out, Erickson's published career was prolific. His students also published numerous examples of his work for him in his later years. Even though film-makers then were in rather short supply, so video footage of him working is relatively scarce, there is still more of it than of many of his contemporaries. This is how we know so much about him, about his methods, his modus operandi, his attitude and his diversion from the therapeutic norms of his time.
That, and of course most importantly, most of his students are still alive. And they're still practising (if not teaching) clinical hypnosis. Most of them do not consider themselves “Ericksonians.” But they still use a variation on his way of doing things, as they found that it worked, usually better than the alternatives.
Last week, we looked a little bit at Erickson but mostly at the folks who came before him. This week I'll attempt to explain properly how Erickson did things differently when it came to therapy.
We finished last week describing how Traditional Hypnosis could be used to fix clients up, basically using the hypnotist's ability to give convincing instructions. Now we'll take a look at what Erickson did instead.
The models I discussed last week are all examples of a type of therapeutic model. I'm calling that type of therapeutic model “prescriptive”. Because the therapist/clinician has the answers and is just prescribing to you what you, the client, need.
Right after the behaviourists were rebelling against the unscientific nature of Freudian and Jungian psycho-dynamics, another group of therapists found they could not hold with the “findings” of behaviourism.
Behaviourism interpreted the human being in essence as a biofeedback machine. This mechanistic interpretation of a human being had many advantages but it did not sit well with large numbers of therapists or clients, with good reason.
So a new group of therapists took, as their defining mark, faith in the “innate goodness” of human beings. The result was a new, client-centred approach to therapy. And suddenly, the Humanistic Therapies were born. Rogerian Therapy, Gestalt Therapy, Communication Therapy, Family Therapy and a host of others followed. Ericksonian hypnosis is best understood within this matrix of therapies.
What if clients were not really broken at all? Certainly, from the middle period of his practice, Milton H. Erickson seems to embrace this new presupposition. His approach relies on that underlying belief.
Furthermore, he appears to have reached this conclusion. That yes, patients found certain behaviours, feelings and beliefs undesirable or unhelpful in their lives. But really the psychiatrist or hypnotist should be, at best, a facilitator rather than a provider of solutions. In fact, for Erickson, the client was the best person to generate their own solutions.
So Erickson had to come up with an alternative to prescribing; an alternative to scripts. And he also had to develop a kind of trance which was qualitatively different.
So, what if the client is not like a car? Not a broken machine?
What if one of a client's main problems is habitually presupposing themselves to be, a broken machine? Most people come to us hypnotherapists because they understand they are in some way broken and in need of mending. They come to medical doctors for the same reason. Of course, no one likes to think of themselves, or be thought of, as a machine. Yet we all still seem to have this underlying assumption when approaching someone for healing.
Erickson's big development was only to think of human beings as individuated organisms. This is really the same way physicians of an earlier era thought; human beings are their own best healers. In this, he shared a common assumption with both James Braid and somewhat paradoxically with Braid's sworn intellectual-nemesis, Franz Anton Mesmer himself.
As a side note but one which will be important later, Mesmer is particularly interesting. Unlike many of the Mesmerists/Magnetists who later followed him, he eschewed suggestion, believing it did more harm than good. Apparently, Mesmer believed talking to a patient in “magnetic trance” sullied the trance. According to him, it prevented the soul from ascending to to right level (so to speak) to achieve healing.
Braid on the other hand, neither believed in magnetic fluid nor the ascent of the soul for healing. For him, the purpose and effect of hypnotism was to become wrapped up in a single idea.
Unlike Braid, and practically all hypnotists between Braid and himself, in his new approach Erickson wasn't attempting to get his patients wrapped up in a single idea. Instead, like Mesmer, his approach was intended to produce generative trance. And despite using words (unlike Mesmer) he succeeded in producing it.
All hypnosis practitioners talk about focused attention. But what they mean by these words is different depending on the practitioner. Erickson talked about focus as much as anyone else. Yet Erickson's development of trance tended to “open up” attention. In this kind of trance the whole sea of unconscious processes becomes available for use. It makes those processes a source of multiple new connections or “reframes” or “learnings” which can coalesce within the person unconsciously. New inborn solutions and strategies are the result.
This brings me to the other big part of the puzzle Erickson brought to the table: really thorough understanding of his clients' motivations. This wasn't just about him getting leverage on his clients' undesirable tendencies. It was also about getting his clients to generate solutions which would last.
Thus, Erickson was able to succeed therapeutically where others failed, using a generative trance, framed by a profound responsiveness to the client's motivations. With knowledge and responsiveness to the client's own motivations and abilities, Erickson could facilitate the client entering their own internal landscape more fully. There, his clients were able to generate effective new behaviours and cognitions spontaneously with no need for conscious “understanding.”
In this type of trance-work, Erickson's wickedly confusing and endlessly winding story-weaving became the engendering principle and map-sketcher for the territory of a new life.
And yet the map was still largely left for the client to fill in themselves, unconsciously. Often they filled it in without them ever being consciously aware of it. Unlike Mesmer, Erickson showed it could be done through language. Indeed, he showed language itself was a very potent kind of trance. No invisible fluid-aether was required.
Like Braid, Erickson believed hypnosis was a kind of absorption that the client conducted on themselves, facilitated by the hypnotist. Somewhat like Mesmer, Erickson believed in his clients' “inner wisdom” which could be found in the repository of the unconscious mind. And Erickson actively sought out this inner wisdom in order for his clients to generate their own solutions, only facilitating generation with an appropriate framing.
From the outside there are many similar elements between traditional and Ericksonian hypnosis – like they both have arm levitation, for example – so they can often look confusingly similar, but they are not the same.
Traditional hypnosis has at its core a mono-ideodynamic – approach to trance. That is it is an “of-one-idea-power” – approach to trance. Because I like borrowing terms from other disciplines, I call this kind of trance “Small Frame.” Small Frame Trance is extremely powerful, not to mention very useful in certain situations. Ending pain or teaching someone a very specific strategy for doing something can be done extremely effectively and lastingly using the “Small Frame.” But it requires an awful lot of ecological knowledge. You may not have and you may never be able to have that breadth and depth of knowledge about the inner workings of the client. So it has some severe limitations.
Ericksonian hypnosis by contrast, uses a generative approach to trance – which I call “Large Frame.” This kind of trance work produces lasting, very stable results, requires no depth testing and can be used with a far greater variety of clients.
Large Frame Trance is no less attentive to detail and no less focused in its own way. But the client arrives in the state of profound attentiveness by being inclusive rather than exclusive. When the client achieves that inclusivity, nothing of themselves is left out. Leaving nothing out, the client can access all of their own internal resources. Then the hypnotist has the job of framing the trance. All clinicians want to ensure unfettered and helpful access to the appropriate resources for their clients. Large Frame Trance puts the choices and power –what we would call the locus of control – back in the client's hands.
I use both approaches in my practice. But I lean very much closer to the Ericksonian than the Traditional in most of my work. If I'm using NLP techniques with a client I'm really using a form of “Small Frame” trance. That is, I'm doing a form of Traditional Hypnosis – admittedly in a very non-traditional way so perhaps it's a kind of hybrid.
Those of us who consider that we do “Ericksonian” hypnosis are doing this generative kind of hypnosis. Ericksonian hypnosis requires enormous trust on the part of the clinician, and enormous faith, that clients already have all the resources they need within themselves. But it is the surest path. When taken, it ensures the client is able to recreate a new and better life.
And they don't require my own (often really good) ideas about what they should do.
So for really lasting changes, especially in areas where true creativity is required, the Ericksonian generative or “Large Frame” trance is the only way to go. And it's as good for the hypnotist as for the client. So I usually “go first.”
Traditional hypnosis wraps a client into a single idea. That means a client can more easily integrate either a prescription (script) or a new heuristic. This is great when the client needs to learn a new strategy - like say, a speed-reading or a spelling strategy.
The other kind of trance, “Large Frame,” Ericksonian hypnosis, has only endless space within it. And every conceivable kind of resource waiting to be opened up to provide even more space.
The space to create.