Psychotherapy Blog

 

12 Things You Didn't Know About Milton H. Erickson and His Daughter Betty Alice Erickson

Posted by Howard Rosenthal, EdD on 9/7/17 - 1:17 PM
The impetus for this blog originated many years ago when I stopped at an all-night book store late one evening and walked away with a copy of Jay Haley's book, Uncommon Therapy: The Psychiatric Techniques of Milton H. Erickson, MD. That night I could hardly sleep as I read well into the wee hours of the morning. I knew that Dr. Erickson was doing something new, exciting, and creatively different than the rest of us. I couldn't wait until the next morning to ask one of my graduate professors about this master of psychotherapeutic intervention.

As I shared my reading experience with my professor, he laughed and shook his head from left to right. He then cut me off as I was speaking. "Howard stop, listen, those eight psychosocial stages he talks about are totally useless when performing psychotherapy. Trust me, I've been doing counseling for years. Please don't waste another minute of your time on that useless stuff."

I came away with two important conclusions. One, my professor clearly had no clue who Milton H. Erickson was, and wrongly believed I was talking about Erik Erikson. And two, for the sake of my GPA, I sure as hell wasn't going to point out his ignorance, nor would I share his thoughts with my Human Growth and Development course professor who thought the sun rises and sets around Erik Erikson's stages!

In this brief blog, I am going to do a reality check and attempt to separate fact from fiction regarding this larger-than-life figure in the history of our field. Using 12 key questions I am going to touch base with one of the people who knew Milton H. Erickson best—his daughter, Betty Alice Erickson. And, yes, she's a card-carrying published therapist who has conducted workshops around the world on Ericksonian therapy. She also served as co-editor with Bradford Keeney, Ph.D., for the book, Milton H. Erickson, M.D.: An American Healer, and she co-authored the text Hope and Resiliency: Psychotherapeutic Techniques of Milton H. Erickson, M.D. with Dan Short, Ph.D., and Roxanna Erickson Klein, RN, Ph.D., as well as contributing chapters and forewords for numerous books.

Howard Rosenthal: Think back to when you were ten years old or so. If you had to describe your father in a few sentences what was he like as a parent? Was he strict, permissive, or supportive?

Betty Alice Erickson: He was a typical father. He was too strict and not strict enough. We were allowed quite some freedom if we had demonstrated we could manage it. He stressed and valued hard work greatly. We always knew we were loved and he was interested in us and was proud of us.

HR: So when you were having a problem or down in the dumps how would your father generally respond?

BAE: This sort of goes back to the last question. Daddy was very clear that we were responsible for what was rightfully ours. If we had a problem, for instance, we would go to the home office door and stand. He was always working on something. He would finish his thought, and motion us to come in. Then we would shut the door, if we wanted, and sit down. He would then set his pencil down and from that moment he was totally attentive and helpful. When we had what we had come in for, he would pick up his pencil and say, "Anything else?" And that was it. I think this was a very valuable teaching. If you want something, you must ask or at least seek it. Then you get help or needed information or better understanding. But it is your job to ask for what you want.

HR: Were you aware that he was a master therapist at a very young age and did that influence your decision to become a helper yourself?

BAE: I am not sure any kid is really interested in their parent's work—unless they're participating in it. We used to read whatever he wrote, especially for the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis Journal, but only to see if he mentioned our names. As for me, I was a high-school teacher and gradually shifted into troubled adolescents—I even ran a self-contained school for the Department of Defense overseas, long before there were special programs for this. Later, I got tired of the increasing paperwork schools were requiring, so I figured out what I really liked—teaching and seeing people change and grow. I went back to school and became a licensed therapist and then a licensed supervisor. I have been lucky to have taught countless workshops all over the world—and I have never ceased to be humbled and amazed at how important and influential and truly "genius-y" Dad was.

HR: In our field we always think of Milton H. Erickson as being a larger than life hero, but did he have any heroes growing up or when he entered into the psychotherapy field? Was there anybody who was a role model to him?

BAE: I think Daddy carved his own pathway from the very beginning, and never varied from that. But he always made it clear he admired and respected honest, productive people who were open to learn more.

HR: A lot of the textbooks imply that your father developed his keen sense of perception due to his health challenges in his childhood. Do you buy that position or do you think something else was going on?

BAE: Daddy spent a year bedfast, paralyzed with polio, and had lots of time to think. He used to practice listening to people walk up to the house, trying to figure out—male or female, how old, who it was. Then when conversation began in another room, he would figure out if it were a social visit, if someone wanted a favor, who would be the first to directly address that. He never stopped practicing those type of skills. He began to move by practicing remembering how it felt to move his thumb and fingers together . . . and practicing that memory over and over until he actually saw a movement. He took off from there, with enormous dedication and even greater hard work.

He had always keen visions of where he wanted to go in his life. With therapy, he did the same—what does the patient productively want? He was a farm boy, and would look at the "lay of the land," just as a farmer does to see if he can plant a productive crop. Then he would think about what he, and the patient, had to do to help get the best outcome. People call it speaking the other person's language; but it's more complex than that.

In other words, he figured out where he wanted to be before he tried to get there.

HR: Just like a child growing up wants to become the next Babe Ruth or Serena Williams, as therapists many of us still want to be Milton H. Erickson. Is that even possible or did he have special talents that the average helper could not ever hope to possess? For example, a therapist who saw your Dad performing therapy once told me it blew his mind. He said your father was such an adept helper it was like he possessed psychic powers or telepathy. What was the main thing that separated him from the average, everyday therapist working in a private practice or agency setting?

BAE: Daddy definitely did not have psychic powers, and it annoyed him when people asked him that. But more to the point of your question, he believed people were too infinitely varied to be classified in any theory—certainly the kind of clients we usually see. He never forgot to listen to the patient and hear what he was really saying, which is another skill which he constantly honed. The more I practice, the more I recognize clients always tell you what they want, maybe clumsily, maybe hidden, but if you're interested and really listen without thinking about you, or how it fits in the theory you're constructing (or using), you hear it. That's one thing. Another is he truly cared about his patients. He was unafraid to tell them things about him—to share certain things about himself. Today that's often seen as a "violation of boundaries." I was once chastised by a supervisor because my client, a professional astrologer, asked my birth date and I told her. My supervisor said it was inappropriate sharing of personal information. Nonsense! That's merely human beings connecting. That human connection is absolutely vital to good therapy, to a good relationship.

Last but far from least, he genuinely liked his patients. He recognized they had made the best of what they knew how to do, and they wanted to make themselves better—even if they phrased it that they wanted someone else to do something.
You can't convey these kinds of connection unless you, the therapist, can genuinely offer yourself. It's a hard skill to teach because when you connect, you become vulnerable and many people don't like to be vulnerable. They mis-define it as opening yourself to personal rejection. But it's not.

HR: As a therapist who used a lot of hypnosis myself I can't help asking: How does Ericksonian hypnosis differ from the garden variety practiced by nearly everybody else in the field?

BAE: Michael Yapko once told me that Dad re-defined hypnosis. It isn't what someone "does to someone else"—it is a co-created relationship between two people. Most of his students understand and teach that. However, people who don't understand his work are often not real comfortable with a non-rigid pattern of hypnosis. Daddy also relied on a conversational trance, which is so so easy to create and has most of the attributes of a formal trance even though it is far more flexible. A true Ericksonian knows his unconscious and the subject's unconscious are integral parts of all trance states. Even more structured ones, as in pain management, have to be crafted with the subject in mind.

HR: Did the textbook authors like Haley, Bandler, Grinder, Rossi and others get it right? I say that because I've have heard you hint in the past that some of the literature and workshops weren't quite accurate and might have misrepresented what Dr. Erickson was doing.

BAE: Some of the them "get it"—many, many do not. When people try to make Daddy's work a 1,2, and then a 3 and 4 . . .it is not Dad's usual type of work. First, Dad's work expands available options. Word choices are extremely important because most words carry many meanings. It can be very direct, but it is also very indirect. It looks at the whole picture as well as specifics within that bigger landscape. The problem is the client's, the solution has to be the client's.
Our skill as a therapist lies in creating the best, truthful, and most attractive options. With an expanded field of those options, most clients do the right thing for them. Most-- clearly not all. Then you have to do, say, offer things differently.

HR: When you read about Milton H. Erickson you get the feeling he could treat almost anybody of any age, with virtually any problem. Today there seems to be a push for specialization . . . you know, a therapist has to be a specialist in suicide prevention to help suicidal kids, or an expert in eating disorders is required to help an adult who is bulimic etc. What would your father think about this model? Is it limited and would he think it is inaccurate?

BAE: I don't know what Daddy would think. I know he totally believed that AA was an excellent resource for alcoholics, and he referred people there regularly, as do I. But I think he would think that this mini-specialization ignores that we all have experience with some level of most problems. There are some issues which probably do require specially trained people like a protocol for dealing with severe PTSD for recent trauma. But I know he thought problems are problems. We can probably help most people --while remembering to remember our own limitations.

HR: What would your Dad say about the emphasis on big Pharma today? It is nearly impossible to watch a television show or pick up a magazine without seeing an ad for some sort of psychiatric prescription medicine.

BAE: He definitely knew sometimes people need meds for mental health. After all, he worked at the Colorado State Institution for the Criminally Insane for his medical residency—long before psychotropic drugs existed. We older children also grew up living in state mental institutions where he worked early on—even we knew there are people who genuinely need something more than talk-therapy. But Big Pharma for everything?—the only truism about medication is that they have side effects which I think is sometimes forgotten.

With that aside, how are we going to learn to deal with life, which is often not to our liking, if we only know how to medicate our discomfort, our pain away? We forget pain can be a wonderful teacher. Even little kids quickly learn that if you touch a hot stove, you'll have pain.

HR: Okay, tell us something about your Dad we don't know that might surprise us.

BAE: There has been so much written about him that I really don't know except trivial things like he loved limburger cheese which is the most terrible smelling cheese in the world and has to be kept in the refrigerator where it stinks up everything. Or, he contributed anecdotes for years to a "humor/human-interest" column in the Detroit Daily Newspaper under the name of Eric the Badger. He loved puns and, what all we kids considered, stupid jokes and riddles. And kept a little notebook so he wouldn't forget them, which I now have.

HR: Eric the Badger. Wow, I'll need to check that out. Okay, I know you carved out 10 life rules from your Daddy's teachings. 1. Life is hard work. 2. Life is unfair. 3. Life is filled with pain. 4. Everything ends. 5. Every choice costs. 6. The law of averages is usually correct—that's why it's called the law of averages. 7. Change is the only constant. 8. It is what's in our head and heart that really matters. 9. What we receive in life depends on merit—and good or bad luck—or a combination. 10. Life was made for Amateurs. If you had to single out one rule that has been the most important in your own life what would it be and why?

BAE: That is genuinely hard. The one my clients usually hate is #9—but it, like the others, is true. Dot.com millionaires worked genuinely hard, but had they been born five years earlier or later, they wouldn't have had such success. I guess the best for me is #7. Change is the only constant. This is miserable—it'll change. This is wonderful? Savor and love it because it too will change.

HR: Betty Alice, this has been great. Thanks for sharing these gems of wisdom.

BAE: Thank you! You've made me think and organize my thoughts as well as have even more appreciation for my good fortune in life.

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