Milton Erickson – the Father of Modern Hypnotherapy?

The foundations of hypnotherapy were laid in the nineteenth century by medical researchers such as John Elliotson, James Esdaille and James Braid. The latter, who coined the term “hypnosis”, was largely responsible for the acceptance of hypnosis by the British medical community (although its current status among them is somewhat equivocal). But it was Milton Erickson’s observed and published work that made hypnosis a respectable approach within the American medical profession and worthy of study in medical schools. It has been suggested that Erickson was to the practice of psychotherapy what Freud was to the theory of human behaviour.

Erickson never did “Ericksonian Hypnotherapy”. He took a pragmatic approach, utilising whatever techniques were need to facilitate change in each individual client. Although he is remembered for pioneering the indirect (or permissive) approach to hypnosis, he was also prepared to use more traditional direct (or authoritarian) methods where appropriate. Many modern hypnotherapists follow Erickson’s lead in utilising both types of therapy, but for the purposes of the explanations that follow we will treat them as two distinct approaches.

Practitioners of direct hypnotherapy are often authoritarian in style – similar to the persona of the stage hypnotist – telling the client what to do. This is the classical approach to hypnosis represented in countless novels and films; the therapist adopts the role of the expert, and the client is simply a passive receiver for his suggestions. The principal problem with this approach is that the therapy will be ineffective if the client is unwilling to accept the therapist’s suggestions. The client may be the sort of person who resents being given orders, or perhaps is nervous about hypnosis and being under hypnotist’s control. Also, direct therapy is one-sided and does not use the client’s personal resources.

In indirect hypnotherapy the relationship between therapist and client is emphasised. Rather than giving the client orders, the indirect therapist offers new ways of looking at a situation or choices of behaviour, and, as far as possible, the client is encouraged to find these himself from the resources in his own unconscious mind.

The importance of Erickson, and his methods as practised in Ericksonian hypnotherapy, is to take hypnotherapy away from the classical approach involving an authoritative therapist and a passive subject. His indirect approach allows a greater freedom of response from clients, both consciously and unconsciously, allowing them to access their own resources to deal with the real problems from which their symptoms have arisen.