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Ericksonian Hypnosis

Overload the conscious mind to open the subconscious to suggestion.

Leave lots of spaces in language. Trust the subconscious to fill those in.

Engaging stories with layers of hidden meanings bypass the critical layer.

Hypnotherapy Using Storytelling

Milton H. Erickson was an American psychiatrist and psychologist who's lifelong fascination with hypnosis has led him to be called the "father of modern hypnotherapy". Milton Erickson was active and in practice for more than forty years, during which his techniques came to be known as Ericksonian Hypnotherapy. Erickson departed from the views of his predecessor Sigmund Freud, in that he viewed the subconscious as a collection of experiences. Erickson believed that this bank of memories included everything that you have learned or experienced during your lifetime, remembered or unremembered and all of it was stored in the unconscious mind. Unlike Freud, Erickson did not see this accumulation of experience as being primarily made up of negative experiences or complex linkages to authority figures or sexuality. Andre Weitzenhoffer, one of the most prolific researchers in the field of hypnosis in the latter half of the 20th century observed: "The Ericksonian 'unconscious' lacks in particular the hostile and aggressive aspects so characteristic of Freud’s system".

At the age of 17, Erickson contracted polio. At first, he was not expected to live, but Erickson drew upon his observation skills and later told of watching children in the household learning to walk and realizing that he could retrain his mind to work with his body in the same way that he observed those young children learning to walk for the first time. Erickson not only survived, but was able to walk, albeit with a cane, until his final years of life when he required the use of a wheelchair. Erickson credited the observation skills that he developed during his recovery with the inspiration for the techniques that became Ericksonian Hypnosis.

At the root of his methods is "confusion technique". Behind this theory is the idea that if you can occupy virtually ever resource the conscious mind has to infere what is being said, it will open up the unconscious mind to suggestion. This has been alternatively called an "overload" technique and linked to the "fight or flight" instinct in the mind.

Erickson believed that the unconscious mind responded best to indirect suggestion. His technique utilized indirectness, rather than using direct suggestions instructing the person what action they should take or what they should think about. He used a vague "storytelling" style that has been described as "meandering". That allowed the unconscious mind to "fill in the blanks" for itself. Often these stories would seem unrelated to the client's presenting issue, but that caused the conscious mind to redirect and focus on the details of the story, rather than having an awareness of the structure of the story which concealed cues as to how to fill in the blanks.

In addition to indirect suggestion, Erickson employed the frequent use of metaphor. Within his stories, he used language patterns to create confusion in the conscious mind and while the person was trying to consciously figure out what he was talking about, the subconscious was finding meaning in the terms he used and the topics he chose. 

An example:

"I was returning from high school one day and a runaway horse with a bridle on sped past a group of us into a farmer's yard looking for a drink of water. The horse was perspiring heavily. And the farmer didn't recognize it, so we cornered it. I hopped on the horse's back. Since it had a bridle on, I took hold of the tick rein and said, "Giddy-up." Headed for the highway, I knew the horse would turn in the right direction. I didn't know what the right direction was. And the horse trotted and galloped along. Now and then he would forget he was on the highway and start into a field. So I would pull on him a bit and call his attention to the fact the highway was where he was supposed to be. And finally, about four miles from where I had boarded him, he turned into a farmyard and the farmer said, "So that's how that critter came back. Where did you find him?" I said, "About four miles from here." "How did you know you should come here?" I said, "I didn't know. The horse knew. All I did was keep his attention on the road."

- Milton H. Erickson

Practitioners of techniques have spent many thousands of hours deconstruction his techniques, and to this day, the Milton H. Erickson Foundation teaches fundamentals as well as the advanced uses of indirect suggestion, metaphor and confusion technique, in classrooms seminars, online and in published formats.

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