For those that think therapy is confined to practices where people have to talk about their problems and “get in touch with their feelings (meaning emotions)” to solve their problems, then read below.
Following is a description of a single session by Ernst Rossi, a psychologist trained by Dr Milton Erickson, both of whom utilized hypnosis and unconscious processes in their work. Rossi would use hypnosis to describe what he is doing in the session below, but I think most readers would be puzzled – there is no effort to develop a trance – they begin talking and he follows where this leads. As you will learn, he is not seeking content to work with; he works with the “responses” the body gives, to his precisely crafted questions. He expects he will get responses and this feedback (from the unconscious) will lead to a resolution of the person’s problem. This is illustrated below.
A woman graduate in her middle twenties complains that for the past few years she has had “a series of mysterious gynecological problems.” She has seen many physicians, taken many medical tests, and even had an exploratory operation “down there.” Several excellent internists she greatly respects have now told her that there is nothing medically wrong with her. “One wonderful woman doctor,” she says, “finally told me that I do not need another exploratory operation with a surgical knife, I just need to be nicer to myself, so here I am.”
On the very first therapy session she enters the consulting room announcing that she has given herself a “migraine headache today.” With a sympathetic manner I ask her, “Tell me what you are actually experiencing with that headache at the moment.” She responds with a wrinkled face of pained distress and speaks of “A terrible, tight band all around my head that won’t leave me alone—it has been pounding all day since I have been worried about my boyfriend. I couldn’t sleep at all last night since I can’t get it out of my mind. I just don’t know what to do to get rid of this migraine! I can’t even think straight right now; my mind is all fuzzy-like. How am I supposed to study?”
With continuing sympathetic interest I again ask her, “What are you actually experiencing right now?” The supportive tone of my voice and my optimistically eager, exploratory manner imply that her symptoms are of great interest and may already be changing. She responds with a moment of puzzlement as she apparently tunes into herself, she then wrinkles her brow with even greater distress and loudly says, “The migraine is coming on even worse! Oh, gosh, it’s flashing on and off in the worst way! And now it even seems to be spreading down the back of my head and I’m starting to get a stiff neck! Oh, I just hate this; it is like a burning sensation is spreading from my head and neck to my right shoulder. My whole body is just a mess!”
I respond to this worsening crisis with, “Well it really seems as if your whole mind and body are trying to tell us something, especially about your relationship with your boyfriend, so let yourself receive whatever comes all by itself right now.” She tentatively talks about her difficulties with him for a few moments and then seems to breakdown with loud sobs, shaking, and crying that momentarily threaten to get out of control so I respond with a therapeutic dissociation: “That’s fine, you can continue to let yourself feel that as strongly as you need to because here is another part of you that can watch wisely and keep you safe so you can understand what these feelings are telling you.” She then lapses into quieter sobs and finally a silence for two or three minutes, apparently deeply engrossed within herself. I remain absolutely still not daring to move a muscle least I disturb her excellent self-absorption. She then softly notes, “Oh, my cheeks are hot, so hot now, why is that? It’s almost as if I’m embarrassed about something. Why am I so embarrassed?”
She looks at me with wide open eyes in apparent expectation and puzzlement looking to me for an answer. I note that the pupils of her eyes seem dilated and I wistfully respond, “Yes, I wonder what it is? I don’t know if you need to keep some of that private. Just continue to receive whatever comes to you all by itself now—only telling me what I really need to know to help you further.” She remains silent for a few minutes and then with rapidly fluttering eyelids says with some surprise, “Oh, my whole body is hot and full of energy—it’s like my whole body is shaking and vibrating. Why am I so nervous? What is happening to me, what is this vibrating all over my skin, I don’t know if I itch or what? What is this burning energy I feel all over?”
With quiet eagerness I whisper, “Yes, I wonder what it is. What is coming to you? Let’s see just what it is?” (Of course, this was a technical error; I made an error by mentioning the word “see” and thereby unwittingly suggested the visual modality to her.) She remains silent for a few moments and then with a slow tear rolling down her cheeks she whispers, “I see myself writing him a ‘Dear John’ letter. I’m not blaming him or myself. I’ve always known this, I’ve always known it could not really work between us, but it was such fun for the both of us in the beginning that I wanted it to go on. I realize now that we really are such different people. I so much enjoyed his parties and social friends at first, but I now know I am different than they are, I need my solitude—that’s when my poems come, like little children tugging at my skirt, and then I write. The poems have all vanished from my head since we have been going out together, but I cannot live without my poems, they are me. It’s just the dynamics, you know, it’s just the dynamics that don’t work between my boyfriend and me. I just hate these dynamics but it’s true, you know? I hate it, but it’s good to know what I have to do.”
She closes her eyes, rolls her head about slowly and takes a few deep breaths. With a wry smile she says, “See, I told you I just gave myself that migraine- it’s completely gone now! I feel so much better, oh, I feel so good now, thank you. Oh, the whole world suddenly seems brighter, like I can actually see this room more clearly.” She remains rapt in silence for a few minutes and then her eyes and lips move slowly as if she is in communion with herself. She finally says, “Umm, just the wisp of a phrase, it is the beginning of a poem coming on, I can really feel it. Oh, thank heavens; it’s like an epiphany of clear crystal ice at the moment of melting with spring in the North Sea.”
She seems to have found her own solution but I tentatively test it by humorously playing the devil’s advocate, “Oh, you’re really going to write him a ‘Dear John’ and tell him all the dynamics!?” She playfully responds, “Oh, no, you silly! I’m just going to write him a nice letter….who knows, maybe even a poem! He knows, he knows the truth already and I’m going to deliver the letter to him myself tonight and get this thing done with so I can really sleep tonight. Oh, what time is it? Oh, I’m sorry, I have to go! I’m committed to going to my women’s group this afternoon; they will really understand. Then I will write the letter and deliver it personally. Thank you so much, you really have been a help, even though you don’t seem to say much!”
In this book and Rossi’s later book, “The Symptom Path to Enlightenment,” he gives many examples of using a specific pattern and style of questions which can remedy physical and psychological issues. Little conversation and content is the norm. No trance induction is required, although sometimes the client will spontaneously develop what is commonly thought of as a trance.
Rather than wish away symptoms or take medication to quell them, Rossi regards symptoms as ‘information’ the body is making available to the individual and therapist. This information can be utilized therapeutically to lead to a solution. Precise language is , even down to particular words – for example above he analyzed his phrase, “Let’s just what it is?” Rossi said it was a technical error, leading the client into the visual sensory field; instead he should have remained neutral so she would choose.
Those who train and use these and similar ideas, believe symptoms are better used as a starting point for therapy, than to be ‘treated,’ resulting in opportunities lost.
When symptoms become defined as an ‘illness’ we can limit our view of how to be helpful.
1. “The Psychobiology of Mind-Body Healing: New Concepts in Therapeutic Hypnosis,” Ernest Lawrence Rossi
(Revised Edition, Norton, NY. 1993)
2. “The Symptom Path to Enlightenment: The New Dynamics of Self-Organization in Hypnotherapy: An Advanced Manual for Beginners,” Ernest Lawrence Rossi
(Edited by Kathryn Lane Rossi, PhD. Palisades Gateway Publishing, California, 1996)