Milton Erickson Overcame Handicaps and Controversy to Become a Father of Modern Hypnotherapy

Article by Tony Sokol

Milton Erickson overcame two bouts of polio and a debilitating case of dyslexia to become the father of modern hypnotherapy. He broke new ground and changed psychotherapy.  Erickson believed all the necessary resources for healing and transformation could be found in the unconscious. 

“Within his own life, Milton Erickson had many personal disabilities to contend with, which he often stressed helped him become proficient at practical problem solving for his clients,” explained New York City hypnotist Elena Beloff.

Milton Erickson was born on December 5, 1901 in Aurum, Nevada and grew up the poor farming community Lowell, Wisconsin. He didn't speak until he was four years old. It was later learned that he had severe dyslexia and was both tone deaf and color blind. When Erickson was seventeen, he contracted polio that was so bad his doctor was convinced he would die. The sickness left him paralyzed and unable to speak for a year.

During this time, Erickson took notice of nonverbal communication. He noted how people sent messages through their body language.

“Milton spent many years in a wheelchair,” Beloff said. “He had polio. His voice was very slow and deep, and would naturally entrance people. He used stories to hypnotize, various metaphors to help people change limiting patterns.”

He concentrated on the “body memories” of his muscular activity to retrain himself to control parts of his body until he was able to talk and use his arms again. Erickson recovered well enough to go to college and qualify as a medical doctor and psychiatrist. 

Milton H. Erickson graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1928, with an MA in psychology and an MD. He began conducting experiments on hypnotic phenomena while he was Director of Psychiatric Research and Training at the Wayne County Hospital in Michigan.

Dr. Erickson created the Utilization Approach, which uses a client's behavior to induce and deepen a trance. Erickson preferred to establish rapport with the client during conversation, where he could read body language and facial expressions, over relying on the patient's history. He gave his clients freedom to interpret what was being said in sessions in their own way.

Erickson could send a subject into deep trance with his “Ericksonian handshake,” which used surprise to trigger a person out of their consciousness by disrupting a basic and engrained social pattern. He also revolutionized the study of conversational hypnosis.

Erickson’s work inspired Richard Bandler and Roberts Dilts, the developers of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP). Bandler and Grinder modeled Erickson's style in hypnosis, rapport building techniuques, tone of voice and language patterns. Erickson contributed the foreword to their book “Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H. Erickson, M.D.” Motivational coach Tony Robbins took and used many of NLP techniques and processes in his trainings. Richard Bandler sued Robbins in the late 1980s because he was not certifying his motivational hypnotists as NLP Practitioners or Master Practitioners through The Society of NLP. The case was settled out of court in 1990 after Robbins promised certify practitioners through the society. Robbins later stopped training people in NLP and invented the term Neural Associative Conditioning. Bandler dedicated his book "Time for a Change" to three people, including Anthony Robbins.

Erickson is not without his controversies. Researchers have called some of his core ideas into questioning. His friend, the researcher André Weitzenhoffer, took a hardline traditional attitude when he criticized Erickson’s ideas in the hypnosis textbook “The Practice of Hypnotism.” Erickson is noted for his unconventional approach to psychotherapy. He reportedly used formal hypnosis in only one-fifth of his cases in clinical practice. Erickson believed that the unconscious mind was listening whether a patient was in trance or not and made use of metaphors, anecdotes, jokes, puns and riddles. He believed these things acted like coded messages for the unconscious.

Author Jeffrey Masson took exception to a report detailing a woman hypnotized to have spontaneous orgasm in a sub-section of his book “Against Therapy.” Masson also took issue with Erickson's method of shock therapy to free sexual inhibitions before marriage. Masson wrote that Erickson employed "prison-camp therapy" when he was a psychiatrist in the Arizona State Hospital, who advocated of the use of restraints and frequently had patients confined by straitjackets.

In later practice, Erickson was known to be flexible, adapting his approach to the client. Sometimes he would choose not to use the word hypnotism. One reported case details his work with a man who was paralyzed after a severe stroke. Erickson verbally abused the man until he stood up and walked out of the room, angry but cured. Erickson's use of interventions continue to influence strategic therapy and family systems therapy practitioners.

The American Medical Association tried to revoke Erickson’s medical license in 1953. After a “disciplinary hearing” in New York, all charges were dropped. The AMA reversed its position and allowed doctors to use hypnosis that same year.

When Erickson was in his fifties he developed post-polio syndrome, which left him even more severely paralyzed. After two surgeries, he had to rely on a wheelchair and controlled his chronic pain with self-hypnosis.

Dr. Erickson became the Inaugural President of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis, which he began with some colleagues in 1957, the same year he established the American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis. He was the journal's editor for 10 years. Ericksonian hypnosis is considered a more compassionate and permissive form of hypnotherapy than the authoritarian traditional methods.

Erickson continued to teach until his death on March 25th, 1980, at the age of 78.