Milton Erickson was a psychiatrist and clinical hypnotherapist, who was the founding president of the American Society for Clinical Hypnosis. He is noted for his unorthodox methods of therapy, and his influence in the field of psychiatry, psychology, NLP and hypnotherapy. He deserves special mention here not only for his influence in many fields, but also for the way he fought against his own adversities.
At a young age, Erickson both dyslexic and color blind, started following in his fathers footsteps of becoming a farmer. However at the age of 17 he became very ill when he contracted polio.
“I had polio, and I was totally paralyzed, and the inflammation was so great that I had a sensory paralysis too. I could move my eyes and my hearing was undisturbed. I got very lonesome lying in bed, unable to move anything except my eyeballs. I was quarantined on the farm with seven sisters, one brother, two parents, and a practical nurse. And how could I entertain myself? I started watching people and my environment. I soon learned that my sisters could say “no” when they meant “yes.” And they could say “yes” and mean “no” at the same time. They could offer another sister an apple and hold it back. And I began studying nonverbal language and body language. I had a baby sister who had begun to learn to creep. I would have to learn to stand up and walk. And you can imagine the intensity with which I watched as my baby sister grew from creeping to learning how to stand up.”
Erickson was not beaten. He decided to fight back. One day he was sitting by the window, looking longingly outside. As he sat there imagining being outside he noticed that the chair began to rock slightly. Excited he attempted to make it happen again, willing himself to move, but he could not no matter how hard he tried. Eventually he gave up and sank back into his daydreams, again imagining playing outside. Once more the chair began to rock. He realised that it was his vivid imagination that was producing a response in his body. Inspired by this discovery, he taught himself to walk again He spent a lot of time observing his baby sister growing up and learning to walk. He began to recall “body memories” of the muscular activity of his own body. By concentrating on these memories and using visualisation, Erickson started to regain control of parts of his body. Eventually, although still unable to walk, he decided to train his body even more by embarking on a thousand mile canoe trip. After this grueling trip, he was able to walk with a cane.
Despite this, Erickson realised that he still did not have the strength to become a farmer, so at the age of 21 he began to train as a doctor instead. Whilst at medical school, Erickson was still very interested in the human mind. In fact he was so curious about it that he gained a psychology degree at the same time.
In the years that followed, Erickson used his education and background to become one of the most influential psychotherapists and clinical hypnotherapists ever. He had a very practical approach to his therapy sessions, often telling stories, using metaphors, and whole array of unorthodox therapeutic methods should the situation demand it. He once spent 4 sessions talking to a young boy who was interested in baseball, about such things as how you need to control the muscles in your hand to let go at just the right time in order for you to be able to throw the ball where you want it to go. Despite never specifically talking about his presenting problem, Erickson successfully treated the boy for bed wetting. In another case he treated a married man of his fear of being in moving elevators by persuading a young girl to repeatedly ask him for a kiss whilst they were inside. The man was no longer afraid of traveling in lifts, in fact he wanted the lift to start moving quicker so that he could get to his destination and get away from her!
Later in life Erickson developed post-polio syndrome due to the over use of partially paralyzed muscles. This condition again left him severely paralysed, but because of his previous experience, he knew how to rehabilitate himself. However because he was much older this time, he was still confined to a wheelchair, and suffered from chronic pain. Instead of lying down, he learnt how to manage his pain with self hypnosis, and became an expert at treating others who also suffered from chronic pain.
Erickson eventually died at the ripe old age of 79. When considering all the health problems that he was presented with throughout his life, this was a feat in itself, never mind all the amazing therapy that he gave to others. He was also a prolific writer, and has influenced, and still influences many therapists to this day.
Erickson’s life and work have been a source of inspiration for many therapists and patients in many disciplines. He turned around his disadvantages, learnt from them, and used them to help others. When most people would have given up, Erickson kept going and achieved so much. A true inspiration and a real illustration that almost anything is possible with hard work, determination and a vivid imagination.
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