History of Ericksonian Hypnosis

History of Ericksonian Hypnosis


By Douglas O’Brien

[dropcap style=”text” color=”green-2″]W[/dropcap]hen you hear “hypnosis” you might think of the traditional form of Hypnosis where the powerful, authoritative hypnosis implants suggestions in his subject, such as, “you are getting sleeeepy. Your eyelids are growing heavier and heavier. You will quit smoking,” and so on.

But really, hypnotic trance exists in many different forms every day. Sometimes it is recognized and utilized (hypnotherapy, rituals, or dance, for example), but most of the time it goes unnoticed (daydreaming, people’s behavior on elevators, or irrational fears, to name a few). In fact, as a practicing hypnotherapist, I believe that people live most of their lives in one trance or another and my job is generally not to hypnotize them, but to de-hypnotize them. The true hypnotists in life are teachers, religious leaders, and even advertisers. The most powerful hypnosis, in anyone’s life, are that individual’s parents.

I’ll elaborate on that point in a moment. But allow me to say a few words about hypnosis, since there are many forms of hypnosis, and even more misconceptions about hypnosis.

Hypnotherapy is simply the use of trance for therapeutic purposes. Traditional hypnotherapy uses commanding language, as in the above example, called direct suggestion. This method sometimes works, but not for everybody. Some people resist these suggestions, perhaps because they resent authority figures, and they are sometimes labeled as “resistant”, or worse, “unhypnotizable,” by traditional hypnotherapists.

But not all hypnotherapists believe in direct suggestions. In fact, Ericksonian hypnotherapy uses more of what it is called indirect suggestions. Indirect suggestions are much harder to resist because they are often not even recognized as suggestions by the conscious mind, since they usually disguise themselves as stories or metaphors. An example of an indirect suggestion is “ä and perhaps your eyes will grow tried as you listen to this story, and you will want to close them, because people can, you know, experience a pleasant, deepening sense of comfort as they allow their eyes to close, and they relax deeply.” This would all be said in such a way as to mark out key words and phrases (indicated here in italics) by subtle shifts in the tone of voice. The person’s unconscious awareness thus responds to these “embedded commands.”

Think about the following scenario: A child of say four or five years of age is carefully carrying a full glass of milk to the dinner table. The amateur parent of the child warns in a stern voice, “don’t drop that!” The child looks up at the parent, stumbles a bit, drop the glass, and spills milk everywhere. The now angry parent yells, “I told you not to drop that! You’re so clumsy. You’ll never learn!”

As unintentional as it may be, this scenario is an example of hypnosis, complete with induction, suggestion, and post hypnotic suggestion. The powerful authoritative voice (the parent), having created and utilized through indirect suggestion (“don’t drop that!), an altered state (trance), has issued a direct post-hypnotic suggestion (“You’re so clumsy. You’ll never learn”). “Post-hypnotic” because, if the child accepts the suggestion (and children often do), he or she will always see him/herself as clumsy. This post-hypnotic suggestion by the parent may well adhere to the directive in the future, sabotaging the child’s success.

We would do well to realize that in a sense we are all hypnotists, and that if we are parents we have very suggestible subjects in our care on whom our language may have great effects. We must learn to give our children positive suggestions.

Let’s explore how the parent could have handled the situation more scrupulously: First of all there is the confusing directive, “don’t drop that.” Why is that confusing? Because the human brain does not know how to compute negations. Let me illustrate by having you try a little experiment: For the next fifteen seconds do not think about your breathing. Don’t think about whether you are breathing up high in your chest or down low in your abdomen, or whether you are taking deep or shallow breaths. Just don’t think about it at all.

Okay. Be honest. How many of you started thinking about your breathing if only for a moment. What?! But I specifically told you not to! You see, in order to not think about something, your brain first has to represent it in your mind, and then try to somehow erase the image. If you were successful at all in this experiment, it was probably due to the fact that you were able to direct your mind to think about something else instead.

Back to the parent-child scenario. One way the parent could have set the child up for success would have been to say something like, “that’s good honey, stay balanced,” or “that’s right, be careful,” and any combination of words that are stated in the positive. Chances are the child would complete the journey to the table with the glass of milk intact. Let’s say for some reason the child does in fact spill the milk. The savvy parent could say, “hmm, I guess we shouldn’t fill the glass to the full next time, huh? We learned something, didn’t we? You are good at learning.”

Milton Erickson, the innovative psychiatrist after whom Ericksonian hypnotherapy was named, might have even made a game out of trying to get a whole glass of milk to the table, or talk a story about carrying milk buckets in from the barn as a child.

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