When I first considered getting some hypnosis years ago, I admit I was frightened by the prospect. My big fear was that I would go in to see some guy with a goatee with deep, mesmerizing eyes and he would “put me under” and then give me a suggestion to come back every week to pay his exorbitant fee.
Then he would give me a suggestion to have no conscious memory of that manipulative suggestion.
I never did work up the nerve to seek out hypnosis at that time, but fate was to lead me to hypnosis another way.
I happened to meet the eminent psychiatrist and father of modern hypnosis, Milton H. Erickson, at the art gallery where I worked to support myself during my university studies in psychology.
I became intrigued by his work and began to read about his different approach to hypnosis and change.
Dr. Erickson had developed a gentler, more permissive approach to hypnosis that didn’t seem so frightening to me.
It was not so much based on giving suggestions and commands or even correcting what was wrong with people, but on evoking what one of his students called “the answer within.” He believed people had strengths, resources and capabilities for healing within them.
Instead of saying things like “You will go into trance,” or “You will become completely and utterly relaxed,” (or “You will come back each week and pay me my exorbitant fee,”), Dr. Erickson would give permission and invite the person to go where they would.
He would say things like: “You can go deeply into trance you know, or if it is better for your healing, perhaps you could go into a light or a medium trance. You know best what level is right for you.”
Or, “Go wherever you need to go inside to find the healing you need.”
Or, “You know a lot of things you don’t know you know. You can trust your unconscious mind and your body to help you heal.”
He also pioneered the use of stories in psychotherapy and healing.
Of course, stories have been used in most cultures for centuries to pass on wisdom and impart lessons. But most of us who learned psychotherapy learned a model in which we were supposed to ask a question and then mostly listen, so stories were verboten.
But as I sat with Dr. Erickson in the late 1970s and heard him tell engaging stories to people, and then witnessed them coming back and changing, I became convinced that this gentle, indirect way of inviting change was something I wanted to incorporate into my healing work as well.
I became a student of storytelling and worked out ways to use stories naturally and seamlessly in my healing work and psychotherapy.
I studied the best storytellers to learn to be a better storyteller and to be more confident in my ability to find, remember and deliver just the right story at the right time to the right person.
Indeed, since Dr. Erickson told me stories as part of his teaching and mentoring, I often found myself, even many years later, making surprising changes that would re-evoke some story or another he had given me during our time together.
I met a fellow student of Dr. Erickson’s some years back who told me a lovely story to illustrate this point.
She had traveled to study with Dr. Erickson a few years before his death in 1980. She saw him daily for a week. During the middle of the week, he suggested they go out to the garden (his office was in his home and he had a passion for gardening).
He told her he wanted to give her some cuttings from various plants in his garden to take home with her. She was flattered with this offer, feeling that to have a physical remembrance of her special time with this famous man was precious and touching.
Because at that time in his life Dr. Erickson was partially paralyzed and in a wheelchair, he handed her the garden shears and instructed her to take several cuttings from this particular plant.
Then he steered her to another plant and instructed her to take several cuttings from that plant. He did this with about four plants and when he thought she had enough samples from one plant, he would intone: “That’s good enough.”
She brought the cuttings home with her and some of them rooted and started new plants. Looking at them always reminded her of the intense and special time she had had with Dr. Erickson, made even more precious by the knowledge that he had died just a few short years after her time with him.
About ten years after her visit with Dr. Erickson, she went through a traumatic time in her life, with the breakdown of her long-term marriage, the loss of a job and an unwanted move.
One day, she was feeling particularly done and was criticizing herself heavily for having been such a failure in her marriage and her life, even though she was a therapist.
All of a sudden, without her conscious intention, she heard Dr. Erickson’s voice as clear as if he were there with her, saying again and again, “That’s good enough. That’s good enough.”
At that moment, all the guilt and self-criticism lifted and she knew with certainty that she was a good person deep inside and that she would get through this time and be happy once again.
That story reminded me of the many times similar things had happened to me years after Dr. Erickson had told me some story or another.
The third gentle, permissive method Dr. Erickson used was implication or presupposition. That is, he would communicate possibilities for healing and change indirectly rather than explicitly.
The value of this indirect approach was that often we have limiting beliefs that can get in the way of our accepting the possibility of change and healing and this approach can bypass those limitations by bypassing our conscious limiting beliefs.
For example, Dr. Erickson might say, “I don’t know when you will heal completely. I am not even sure how you will heal completely.
But I do know the body and mind have untapped potentials and that you know yourself better than anyone else knows you. So you can find a way to align your body and mind to heal in ways I wouldn’t be able to come up with or even guess.
“And I wonder who will be the first to notice that you are changing and healing? Will it be you or perhaps your best friend who notices it first? Either way, I will be delighted to see you after your healing has happened to hear all about how it occurred.”
Notice he didn’t give specific suggestions and explicit directions but simply put in motion the likelihood of healing by presuming it would happen.
No matter what healing approach you use as your primary method, adding this presupposition of capability and healing to your work can add more power to it and help it be more effective.
I found myself resonating to this non-directive, permissive approach to both hypnosis and to general change work. It fit with my values of granting autonomy to people and to honoring their own healing capacities.
I became convinced that this gentle, indirect approach to change is the right one for me to sow with people. And I wanted to write about it to introduce you to this different approach to change and healing.
How to get started in learning about Dr. Erickson’s work? I would suggest starting with two fascinating books about his work: Uncommon Therapy. by Jay Haley and My Voice Will Go With You, by Sydney Rosen, both published by W.W. Norton.
I have also written a short book on his approach t o trance, called A Guide To Trance Land, also published by W.W. Norton. It’s a quick read that will teach you t he major methods Dr. Erickson used to create deep, non- conscious change.
You can also download a free report I wrote on “Why Effective Hypnosis Has Nothing to Do With Suggestion (and What It Is Really All About)” by visiting www.TheNewHypnosis.com.
I do have a warning for you, though. Reading about this work can be addictive and spoil you for the more directive approaches. Once I came across this approach, I couldn’t go back to traditional change and healing methods. I wish that you would likewise be mesmerized and altered by this approach.
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Bill O’Hanlon – Hypnotherapist