A Humorous Milton Erickson Therapy Case

Milton Erickson is known as a pioneer in the fields of family therapy, hypnotherapy, and brief therapy, he was an unconventional therapist who adapted his practice in all manner of ways. He is known for his ability to "utilize" anything about a patient to help them change, including their beliefs, favorite words, cultural background, personal history, or even their neurotic habits.

The following is the case of a young woman, severely depressed and with no social life, who threatened suicide unless Erickson was able to help her within three months. She was attracted to a young man at work, and he seemed to show some interest in her, but she was unable to act on her impulses in any way. Her parents were dead, she was alone, and she felt completely isolated:

The young woman was pretty, but she managed to make herself unattractive [with her unkempt hair and unflattering outfits] ... Her main physical defect, according to her, was a gap between her front teeth. [Yet] the gap was only about one-eighth of an inch... Generally, this was a girl going downhill, heading for suicide, ... and resisting any acts that would help her achieve her [stated] goal of getting married and having children.

Erickson approached this problem with two major interventions. He proposed to the girl that she have one last fling [spending her savings on herself, at the clothing store and the beauty salon].... The woman was willing to accept the idea, since it was not a way of improving herself but part of going downhill and merely having a last fling.

Then Erickson gave her a [second] task. She was to go home and in the privacy of her bathroom practice squirting water through the gap between her front teeth until she could achieve a distance of six feet with accuracy. She thought this was silly, but it was partly the absurdity of it that made her go home and practice...

When the girl was dressed properly, looking attractive, and skillful at squirting water through the gap in her teeth, Erickson made a suggestion to her ... [to play] a practical joke. When that young man appeared at the water fountain at the same time she did, she was to take a mouthful of water and squirt it at him. Then she was to turn and run, but not merely run; she was to start to run toward the young man and then turn and "run like hell down the corridor."

The girl rejected this idea as impossible. Then she thought of it as a somewhat amusing but crude fantasy... She was in a mood for a last fling anyhow.

On Monday, ... [meeting the young man at the water fountain,] she filled her mouth with water and squirted it on him. The young man said something like "You damn bitch." This made her laugh as she ran, and the young man took after her and caught her. To her consternation, he grabbed her and kissed her.

The next day the young lady approached the water fountain with some trepidation, and the young man sprang out from behind a telephone booth and sprayed her with a water pistol. The next day they went out to dinner together... Within a few months she sent Erickson a newspaper clipping reporting her marriage to the young man, and a year later a picture of her new baby.

Although the account is somewhat humorous, the young woman's inner condition was quite serious, serious enough that no amount of direct counseling would have worked. While there are major differences between the case of Kisa Gotami and this young woman, in both cases the teacher/therapist meets the supplicant/client at her point of greatest need in the here and now and turns what had seemed to be a great negative into the very thing that becomes the positive force for religious/therapeutic transformation.

From: Buddhism And Psychotherapy Across Cultures: Essays on Theories and Practices by Mark Unno


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