Joyce Mills on StoryPlay®, Metaphor and the Enduring Legacy of Milton Erickson

Joyce Mills on StoryPlay®, Metaphor and the Enduring Legacy of Milton Erickson

by Lawrence Rubin
Nationally and internationally renowned clinician, consultant, trauma specialist, program developer and creator of StoryPlay®,  Joyce Mills shares playful and serious insights on how to help children grow and heal.
Filed Under: Children


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Lawrence Rubin: I've personally experienced you Joyce as an incredibly energetic, playful, creative and imaginative person who also happens to be a therapist. You describe yourself as a clinician who combines metaphors, storytelling and indirect play with the principles of indigenous teachings into your work. So, I'm wondering if we can start by you describing how the person of Joyce Mills has informed the clinician who the world knows as Dr. Mills. 
Joyce Mills: I'm really the same. I think what you see is what you get, and I don't put on different personas for presentations or in my personal life. I see life as a metaphor. I see everything as metaphor and I'm very spiritual. So, I look to see what I am learning from each experience and it doesn't even have to be a big experience. It could be a bird sitting on a window sill or a woodpecker--something small. I really like to see everything that way. It helps me see with the eyes of the eagle instead of the eyes of a mouse. You know, the mouse scrutinizes, what is important and right in front of him because sometimes you have to look closely at a situation. But
to really get our solutions we need to have the eyes of an eagle, to see in all directions
to really get our solutions we need to have the eyes of an eagle, to see in all directions. And I really live in that creative world, like Winnie-the-Pooh or Fred Rogers [Mister Rogers]. I'm very happy I wasn’t born now because I probably would have been labeled and put on some medication.

Ericksonian Roots

LR: An indigo child perhaps.
JM: Definitely. And I love to make things out of nothing.
LR: Can you give me an example?
JM: You know, it's kind of like in the Pooh movie when he said, “I do nothing, and something happens.” When I get bogged down with a client it's usually because I'm too cognitive—I’m getting away from the heart and soul of who I am.
LR: So, when you say for example that you see bird on a window sill, what might that inspire in you and how might that become part of what you do therapeutically?
JM: Well, what I might say to the bird is, “I wonder what you've come to tell me today.” I was working with an adopted biracial boy several years ago who was really shut down. In our session, he was starting to get very angry, which was fine. Not that he was throwing or yelling, but it was difficult for him to talk. So suddenly, right outside my window here in Phoenix, there was a Myna bird that was sitting on a bush. It immediately got my attention because Myna birds talk and the boy was struggling to talk, and I said, “Oh my gosh, look at this! I wonder what he's coming to say.”

I told this boy that I was a little weird because I talk to things, and so I said, “it seems to me like he might have some kind of a message just for you at this time.” And you know, he kind of smiled, turned and kept watching it. And then he turned back around to me and started talking. I had given him an indirect suggestion because I'm very Ericksonian.
Words have tremendous power.
Words have tremendous power. I had planted a seed for ongoing learning as opposed to a quick solution. In that moment with the boy and the bird, you could hear that my voice changed on purpose. As in Ericksonian hypnosis, it becomes normal to shift my voice because when you're in a relationship with the person and their unconscious as opposed to trying to change them, that communication and that relationship are much deeper than simply conscious words.
LR: I noticed that when you started to tell the story about this particular boy, your voice dropped, your tone softened, almost trance-like, and I felt myself relaxing a little bit and opening to the story.
JM: Well, that's the purpose.
LR: So, you were talking to my unconscious too?
JM: Roxanne Erickson, Dr. Erickson's daughter called it conversational trance. It's very relational, so it's very different than in a child-centered model where you're just reflecting back the client’s words. And I'm certainly not minimizing the importance of that, but it takes it a step further because you're not just listening but you're now utilizing what's happening in the moment.
LR: It's almost like whatever words are coming out of your mouth is one level of communication, but the meaning beneath the words is touching a deeper part of the child or the teen that you're working with.
JM: Yes, absolutely.
LR: Two levels of communication going on.
JM: Oh yes, two levels and sometimes three. Dr. Erickson was known for that—
the conscious mind can listen but it's the unconscious mind that is going to absorb and then utilize what it's given
the conscious mind can listen but it's the unconscious mind that is going to absorb and then utilize what it's given.
LR: You've mentioned several times, and I know from your writings, that you were Ericksonian-trained. Can you say a few words about the influence of Milton Erickson and his work by speaking to the conscious part of our audience?
JM: Dr. Erickson's work is monumental to our field but is very much overlooked and used in a very minimal way. We've talked about solution focus, creativity and entering the world of the of the child through a client-centered approach. That is all Erickson! Did you know that he was paralyzed with polio? He had [an incredible] sense of determination to bypass what looked like limitations even though he was in pain. And it wasn't that he was just going to think positive; he was very action-oriented, and he observed everything. And he was able to digest the observation and let it go into his unconscious to be caught, to let it come out in a way where it could create positive change. And I know different authors or people who have studied with him have all garnered different areas of Dr. Erickson's work—some call it strategic or solution-focused or NLP—neurolinguistic programming. But, if you look at almost all the work, there is an influence of Dr. Erickson.
LR: Even something as seemingly concrete and conscious as cognitive behavior therapy, Joyce, has an Ericksonian influence or foundation?
JM: Well, I believe it does because he did give certain living metaphors or cognitive assignments. But he knew the unconscious would absorb it in a much different way. I worked in Hawaii with angry adjudicated teenage boys who had to go through cognitively-oriented anger management training. The cognitive exercises worked only on the surface. For example, when you give a stick to a person and ask them to sand it down—which is analogous to a cognitive homework exercise, you wonder how they are going to use it. That's very different than saying, “I want you to take this stick and sand it down because that's the way life is—rough on the outside. Then you ask them to make five decisions on how they are going to use it tomorrow in their everyday life.
LR: Okay. Let's say I'm an angry teenager saying that the other boys just don't like me. I think everybody hates me.
JM: I'd be listening, and asking “how would you like things to be?”
LR: [in role of teenager] I'd like people to like me and not be so mean, but I just expect everybody is always going to be mean to me. I would like people to be nice to me.
JM: So, you'd like them to be nice to you?
LR: I would.
JM: Yeah. And I wonder if you ever remember anybody at any time who gave you some ice cream or was nice to you or smiled at you. Maybe not now, but maybe from a while ago.
LR: Sure. I remember I had a friend last year for a little bit. He shared his lunch with me.
JM: So how was that for you when he shared his lunch?
LR: I liked it, but you know, then this thought came in my head. What if he really doesn't like me? What if he sees something that's bad about me?
JM: I wonder where you've ever heard that thought before?
LR: Sometimes my brother. Sometimes my dad.
JM: Let's say I'll call you Peter, okay? I don't know about you Peter, but it's interesting. When I want to go to a restaurant, I look at the menu and I try to choose what I want. And now even as we're talking, I'm remembering going into an ice cream store and how I needed to taste different tastes because I knew that I didn't want certain tastes. There are certain things I really don't like. And then there are other things that taste so good, and it's interesting how I really know, as we all really know, what we like, but sometimes those other tastes get in there because someone tells us it's good for us. But in reality, we really know what tastes good and what doesn’t.
LR: I like when people are nice to me.
JM: Yes, and it sounds like you really know Peter, and what a gift that is to know how you want to be treated.
LR: [out of role] It's very affirming, very positive. You didn't harp or dwell on or change the irrational thought but instead honored the thought and then spoke to a deeper part of me.
JM: And there's another part of that Larry, that has to do with recognizing the sensory systems. Some people are very visual, some people are very auditory, and some people are very kinesthetic. When Peter said, “I hear my brother and father telling me this stuff”, that's like a negative hypnosis. He is not consciously processing it—he just thinks it's happening. It is an irrational thought outside of his consciousness. So, when we recognize that someone has an out-of-conscious auditory processing system, we help them to recognize that. So, if someone has that ongoing negative criticism it's like secondhand smoke—you don't see it, but it can kill you.

If a child has witnessed domestic violence, then he or she might unplug the visual channel in their sensory system so that while they are obviously consciously seeing the violence, they are not processing the experience so they may feel safe. 
LR: And that's what you refer to in your writings as sensory synchronicity between the therapist and the client. The therapist must process the client’s experiences with all of his or her senses by attending to the way that the client is communicating—either auditorily, visually or kinesthetically, which is where the different play materials come in. If a child is kinesthetic and likes moving, then you may use a physical or tactile activity or story. You are working with their strength.
JM: I'm always going to go through their strength. Right now what's popular is to become a trauma-informed therapist because trauma sells. Well, I'm not for that. I'm for resiliency-informed therapy to heal trauma.
It's the strength that heals the trauma, not reliving the trauma.
It's the strength that heals the trauma, not reliving the trauma. All the brain research is on trauma and I applaud it, it's wonderful. How could I even say anything else? However, there needs to be equal research on the power of the brain to create resiliency, because we know from case after case after case that, people heal beyond our expectations. And why does that happen? I'm interested in what is it within us that we rise above what's before us?


LR: Resilience! Is this what your model is about? 
JM: I think so. StoryPlay® is a resiliency-focused indirective model of play therapy as opposed to directive and non-directive interventions. There are the six roots of StoryPlay® with the taproot being the teachings and principles of Dr. Milton Erickson.
LR: The main root of the tree.
JM: Yes, that's the main root because of his dedication to enter the world of the client. He always said that there's no such thing as resistance. Resistance is on the part of the therapist unwilling to get into the world of the client. It's not the client's job to get into the world of the therapist. That was a big controversy in his years because people studied resistance from all different disciplines.

The second root of StoryPlay® is trans-cultural wisdom and healing philosophy. I had written in my training manuals about Native American and Hawaiian rituals and stories because I spent a lot of years learning directly from these cultures and from these incredibly wise people. If you sat with them, you would think you were in a training. But it's not. It's all conversational and rooted in ritual ceremonies along with very strong principles of healing and spirituality.

The third root of StoryPlay® is real life, myth stories and metaphors. This is important because
stories are everywhere
stories are everywhere. They're in the wind, they're in the sun, they're in the supermarket. If you know stories, you see through the eyes of stories, you just have to be open. Not to try to take something, but to open yourself to receive. What is it that I need to learn from this? And it may not be something that’s comfortable, but it may be a very big teaching such as from mythology, the make-believe stories, and the stories from cultures that really inspire us.

The fourth root of StoryPlay® is play therapy. The theories and principles of play therapy are rooted in the desire to help children and
you don't have to have a playroom, you are the playroom
you don't have to have a playroom, you are the playroom. So, for example, if you're working in an area of disaster, anything that you can use, can create a world of play. 
LR: Can you give me an example.
JM: I lived in Hawaii through the worst natural disaster to hit that island this century which was Hurricane Iniki. The whole island was wiped out—food, water, electricity. I started a program called “Natural Healing” with the community. Most things were broken down, so we gathered pieces of wood and objects like refrigerator doors and tin roofs that were blown off and created earthcrafts. We would use glue and paint—whatever we had. We took old tin juice cans and inner tube tires and cut them in the shape of a circle. We made drums. Stones become playroom-type miniatures, it was all up to the child's imagination. This incredible creativity and the use of the natural world were the fifth and sixth roots (creativity and the natural world) of StoryPlay®.
LR: My very first interview with was with Eliana Gil who has done a considerable amount of work with traumatized and abused children using art and other expressive media. How would you say that StoryPlay® is different in working with traumatized kids?
JM: I can't really compare because she's got her gifts that are so strong. One of the things Dr. Erickson would do when he was training people was to ask if there was a behaviorist in the room. He would then give a demonstration and the behaviorist would say, “Dr. Erickson, what I saw was this.” And they described it in a behaviorist manner and he would say “that's right.” And then a humanistic psychologist would join in and say, “oh, is this what you did? I think this it was humanistic.” And Dr. Erickson would say “that's right.” So, it didn't really matter to Dr. Erickson what people called themselves and what they did. What mattered was kind of like what Fred Rogers said which is to validate the person's perception. It's just a different way we may approach it, that's all.

Fear and Faith

LR: Talking about different models and methods, I think of Narrative Therapy. Practitioners of that model say that the person is not the problem, the problem is the problem. But it sounds like StoryPlay® is based on the notion that the problem is the clinician’s inability to see beyond the problem to see the solution that it presents.
JM: I have this saying that fear is the messenger, but faith is the message.
LR: What's the message?
JM: Fear gets our attention, right? It grabs us. But
faith is the message that I will find a way out of this
faith is the message that I will find a way out of this. It's an action. I teach about the butterfly. Inside the chrysalis is where the magic happens. The caterpillar has a complete breakdown, becomes gooey and soupy, but it's only at the point of the breakdown that these special cells called imaginal discs release, which is what catalyzes the metamorphosis from caterpillar to the gooey soup to the beautiful butterfly. And I think we all have that time when we feel like we are in a chrysalis stage and don't know what's going to happen. And it is faith that something good can happen that leads to our metamorphosis.
LR: What's interesting is that you talk about the difference between fear and faith which seems to parallel the relationship between trauma and resiliency. Trauma is a constant fearful reliving—an open wound, while faith is the belief that the wound will heal, the fear will diminish and something healthier will emerge. It makes me a little sad for therapists out there who are not in touch with their own imaginativeness, playfulness and indigenous stories and mythology. A whole generation of therapists seems to be lost to technique-driven, evidence-based pursuits.
JM: Yeah. They want to fill their dance card with techniques.
LR: Fill their dance card with techniques?
JM: Technique is not substance, it's not process. Certainly, StoryPlay® has techniques that I call story crafts because they connect to the story which indirectly evokes something within the person. If we open that channel for other people, they're going to find what they need. The program we created in Hawaii following hurricane Iniki was very successful. It was funded by the Office of Prevention Child and Family Services. From that program, I was invited to be on a team after 9/11 to work with the community of firefighters, frontline workers, and police, to develop a program for the children and families hardest hit of 9/11 which was through Rutgers and SAMHSA. It was about using creativity, community relationships, whatever materials we could find to build stories of healing and resiliency and of course faith that healing would happen, like the butterfly.

A Place for Spirituality

LR: In StoryPlay®, it's not just about you and a child in a playroom using techniques, it's about looking for resilience wherever it needs to be found. You're almost like a resilience archeologist trusting that the treasures are there, and then supporting your client to take you by the hand and walk through the painful moments in search of strength and healing. But you're really searching within them. 
JM: Can I quote that?
LR: You quote me, I'll quote you.
JM: I don't just do this for work. I live this, and the exciting thing is that StoryPlay® is like a pebble—you throw it in a lake, it ripples. It's the process that helps people find what they need. The other thing is that StoryPlay® is like a circle with four quadrants—mental, emotional, physical and spiritual. And those quadrants resemble a clinical intake in which you are asking the client how they are taking care of themselves in each of these four areas. Spirituality is an intricate part of the program.
I do not believe that any healing can take place without some recognition of a person's connection to their own spirituality
I do not believe that any healing can take place without some recognition of a person's connection to their own spirituality.
LR: Spirituality seems to be the final frontier with evidence-based clinicians. Can you give me an example of a clinical encounter you had with a traumatized child in which spirituality became a part of the work?
JM: Sure! I was working with a 13-year-old boy who others thought was on the spectrum. He was very distant from others, not connected to very much and was very withdrawn. I mentioned to him how interesting it was that seasons changed and how people didn’t really notice those changes. I said, “It's a special place to be out into nature, isn't it? You can hear so many things. We think, oh, it's always green or it's always cold.” Then I asked him, “what's your favorite season?” Suddenly he said, “you know, nobody knows but I play the guitar.” I said, “You do? You play the guitar? Wow. So, did you always know how to play the guitar?” And he said, “Well, I didn't take lessons. I taught myself.” I said, “Oh. you know, some people believe that when a baby is born, they come into this world with all these special gifts, and sometimes they don't find them until they're a little bit older. So maybe this is a gift that you came into this world with.” And then he said, could I bring my guitar next time?” So, he brought his guitar played John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
LR: Your encounter with this boy was deeply spiritual. You started with a simple observation of the seasons, of change and the importance of being open to seeing beauty and possibility and this boy opened himself to you.
JM: Yes, it doesn't have to be religion. It's what we came in with.

Closing Thoughts

LR: Joyce, I need a little help here. I struggle with my counseling graduate students, trying constantly to infuse creativity and imaginativeness into their work. How do you teach counseling students, counselors and therapists to be creative, imaginative and playful if they've arrived at the doorstep of adulthood and it's not something that they've ever valued or felt they needed, and they are now entering a to a field that doesn't openly embrace it?
My own work is playful but it's deep
My own work is playful but it's deep. Let's say you're my client or let's say I'm with the students and say, “We have two hours today and as we're together in these two hours, what is it that you hope for?” Now there are multiple levels in there. One of them of course is to awaken intention. Why are you here? And the other is the implied message of what they are hoping for. If I encourage them towards creativity, I might ask, “what does creativity mean to you?” I might do a talking circle or pass around a talking stick or some sweet grass. I might then say, “we're sitting in this circle and I hope that we can talk about what you are hoping for in our time together.” I am modeling creativity, teaching it indirectly.
LR: Currently, the east coast of the United States is being battered by Hurricane Florence. I know that you survived and thrived through hurricane Iniki. What advice would you give to clinicians working with children, teens, families, adults and communities in the wake of Hurricane Florence?
JM: After Iniki, we met in the broken-down neighborhood center with whatever materials we had or could find in the rubble, but not to talk! It wasn't directly a debriefing team. We didn’t ask people to draw a picture of where they were during the worst time of the storm. I would always start by talking about comfort helpers, like a favorite teddy bear or a blanket or something they really liked that helped them feel good. In a circle, we would share what made our hearts feel happy. We really wanted to stabilize them, so they could be fortified to go into the storm because you don't want people to battered again. That's how you create more PTSD. The focus was always on PTSH, posttraumatic stress healing. Transforming posttraumatic disorder to posttraumatic stress healing.

We had food and music playing. We created community programs with some of the elders and clergy. They were invited to share what they knew and even the way they cooked. It was right before Christmas, so we gathered all the debris that we could find and the artwork that these kids created out of these broken pieces were incredible. It was about transforming, and they all talked about it so naturally. We created an environment that was a sanctuary, a place to go but not to continue working on the trauma. A place just to just be and to be stronger.
LR: You were feeding them in many ways.
JM: Yes. Feeding them.
LR: Without answering my question about advice to those who will be helping in the aftermath of hurricane Florence, I think you answered my question—indirectly! How fitting.

Joyce, your license is on inactive status and while you are no longer doing therapy, you are now dedicated to training. You are in a state of wonderful metamorphosis. 
JM: Yes, training and writing. I'm very excited.

© 2018 LLC
Joyce Mills Joyce Mills, PhD, known for her warm, playfully dynamic, and inspirational style, is a nationally and internationally recognized storyteller, keynote presenter, workshop leader, consultant, trauma specialist, and program developer for health-care, psychological, educational, and community organizations. Founder of The StoryPlay® Center, Dr. Mills is the recipient of the 1997 Play Therapy International Award for outstanding career contributions to the field of Play Therapy and Child Psychology. A Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and Registered Play Therapy Supervisor, Dr. Mills is an Ericksonian-trained clinician who specializes in indirect therapy, and is the author and co-author of several books including the award-winning Therapeutic Metaphors for Children and the Child Within, Reconnecting to the Magic of Life, Sammy the Elephant and Mr. Camel, Gentle Willow, and Little Tree.
Lawrence Rubin Lawrence ‘Larry’ Rubin, PhD, ABPP, is a Florida licensed psychologist, and registered play therapist. He currently teaches in the doctoral program in Psychology at Nova Southeastern University and retired Professor of Counselor Education at St. Thomas University. A board-certified diplomate in clinical child and adolescent psychology, he has published numerous book chapters and edited volumes in psychotherapy and popular culture including the Handbook of Medical Play Therapy and Child Life: Interventions in Clinical and Medical Settings and Diagnosis and Treatment Planning Skills: A Popular Culture Casebook Approach. Larry is the editor at