Milton Erickson was a 20th century psychiatrist who specialized in hypnosis and family therapy. He founded the American Society for Clinical Hypnosis.

Early Life

Milton Erickson was born December 5, 1901 in Aurum, Nevada. He was raised in Wisconsin and suffered a series of illnesses as a child. He referred to many of his childhood experiences as autohypnotic “flashes of light.” Autohypnosis is self-hypnosis. One of Erickson's most vivid autohypnotic moments occurred while he had polio. During his illness, he experienced a hypnotic state and spent many weeks becoming keenly aware of how his physical communication would often contradict his verbal communication. Erickson spent much of his early adulthood in solitude, focusing on learning how to understand his own body language. This interest would prevail throughout his career.

Polio left Erickson partially paralyzed, and he developed post-polio syndrome in the 1950s. This condition further inhibited his mobility and forced him to use a wheelchair. To deal with muscle fatigue and pain, he used self-hypnosis techniques. Erickson married Elizabeth Moore, and the couple had eight children—four sons and four daughters.

Professional Life

Erickson attended medical school and received his degree in psychology as he continued working toward his doctorate. During his career, Erickson had the good fortune of working with many great experts in the field of psychology, including Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead, and Jay Haley. It was Haley who brought Erickson’s work in hypnosis to the attention of the clinical field with the publication of the book Uncommon Therapy. After the release of the book, Erickson became a much sought after expert in the field of hypnosis and hypnotherapy. He influenced the works of many who followed after him and contributed greatly to various realms of medicine, including psychiatry, psychology, and psychotherapy.

Contribution to Psychology

Erickson relied extensively on storytelling and metaphor in his hypnosis techniques and often incorporated hypnosis into more traditional therapeutic sessions. Erickson believed that people often resisted hypnosis because they were hesitant to change their own behaviors, and his approach to hypnosis used language that gave a client complete control over which facts to disclose. The use of metaphor is a non-threatening approach in Ericksonian Therapy that allows people to address their problems without speaking directly about them. 

Erickson argued that even when a patient wasn't under hypnosis, the unconscious mind was listening. He emphasized that psychotherapists could make suggestions to the unconscious mind, often without the patient's awareness. He was widely known for his practical jokes and ideas for these sometimes appeared in his lectures, books, and writings.

Erickson pioneered the use of confusion techniques in hypnotherapy. Confusion functions by occupying the conscious mind with a confusing thought, enabling the therapist to directly access the conscious mind. Erickson's hypnotic handshake is one example of such a technique. The hypnotist begins to shake hands with the client, then alters the handshake in a surprising way by touching the client's wrist or watch. This alteration in expectations can create a trance similar to hypnosis, allowing the hypnotist to make suggestions to the client.

Ericksonian therapy employs several novel techniques, including:

  • Communicating via metaphor; this can help overcome resistance and make clients feel less exposed. 
  • Allowing for, or encouraging, a therapeutic relapse. Erickson believed that by deliberately inducing a failure, he could control the failure, enabling the failure to serve as a therapeutic tool rather than an overwhelming setback. 
  • Presenting a patient with a positive, therapeutic double bind, or dilemma. This approach makes people more suggestible, according to Erickson. 
  • Encouraging behavior by discouraging it. This is similar to reverse psychology. A therapist might, for example, sit in silence with a silent patient until the patient speaks. This gives the client control, and relieves the therapist of the obligation to force obedience or control behavior. 
  • Emphasizing positive traits and building upon strengths. 
  • Avoiding psychoanlaysis, self-exploration, and introspection. This practice enables patients to focus on thoughts and behaviors, and enables the therapist to keep the duration of therapy brief.