Creating an Intense Response: The Theraputic Trauma

by Steve Andreas, MA


      A woman told Erickson about her eight-year old daughter, Ruth, who hated EVERYBODY:

      A very MISERABLE kind of girl. I (Erickson) asked the mother what she thought made the girl hate herself and everybody else.

      The mother said, “Her face is a solid freckle. And the kids call her Freckles.”

      And I said, “All right, bring the girl in, even if you have to do so forcibly.” So little Ruth came in just so defiant, ready for a fight, . . . stalking in defiantly and scowled.

      I said, “You’re a thief!” She knew she wasn’t.

      I said, “Oh, yes, I know you steal. . . I have PROOF of it.” And she denied that emphatically.

      “I have PROOF. I even know where you WERE when you stole. You listen, I’ll tell you, and you’ll know you are guilty.” You can’t imagine her contempt for my statements.

      I said, “You are in the kitchen, standing on a kitchen table, reaching up to the cookie jar for cinnamon cookies, and some cinnamon fell on your face, Cinnamon Face.

      First time Ruth knew freckles were cinnamon face. It completely reoriented her. . . . All I did was reORIENT the situation, I didn’t change it, I just reoriented it. And very few people know the importance of reorientation.*

      Erickson often went to great lengths to create a dramatic, and therefore impactful and memorable context for delivering an intervention. A good drama requires a script, preparation, and practice in advance, so that its delivery is powerful,creating an impactful experience that will actually make a difference in someone’s life. Let’s take another look.

      Erickson got Ruth’s complete attention by eliciting a full response of her hating (not by matching “rapport” moves, but by offering himself as a target for her hate, utilizing and amplifying her response of hatred).

      He did this by attacking not just her behavior, but her identity. “You’re a thief.” (in contrast to “You stole something once.”)

      Then he says, “I have PROOF,” making the accusation even stronger.

         Then Erickson moves from past tense, “I even know where you WERE when you stole,” into the future “You listen, I’ll tell you, and you’ll know you are guilty,” orienting her to anticipating his future statements.     

      “You are in the kitchen, standing on a kitchen table, reaching up to the cookie jar for cinnamon cookies. . .” This present verb tense puts her mentally into the situation he is describing, as a fully associated present experience.

         All this preparation insures that when he delivers the “punch line” that resolves the drama and changes the meaning of everything that he has said, she will respond fully, as if cinnamon really had fallen on her face.

      Imagine how different (and ineffectual) it would have been if Erickson had flatly said, “Look, you think of your freckle face as ugly, but actually it looks like cinnamon.” Her hatred of everyone–including Erickson–would have prevented her from even considering the reframe.

      A 14-year-old girl was becoming withdrawn and unsocial because she thought her feet were too large. Erickson arranged to do a physical examination of her mother at home, asking the girl to be present and assist him. “. . . I sent the girl for a teaspoon so I could look at mother’s throat, and then I had the girl hold a flashlight as I was looking at mother’s eyes and mother’s throat. In getting the girl to do things, I asked her to wait so that she could stand right there in case I needed her again.” After completing a very thorough examination, and while Erickson was talking to the mother, he “accidentally” stepped back hard on the girl’s bare toes and she cried out in pain. “I turned on her and in a tone of absolute fury, I said to her, ‘If you would grow those things large enough for a man to see, I wouldn’t be in this sort of situation!’ ” (Implication/presupposition: her feet are small.) There is so much packed into that moment–the daughter’s anxiety about her mother’s health, her role in assisting the doctor, the pain in her toes, a respected older man shouting angrily at her, and the puzzling comment that presupposed that she could grow her feet larger! Before Erickson left the house the daughter asked the mother if she could go out to a show, and there was no further reclusive behavior.

      Erickson commented on this example as follows:

      “You see, the girl thought her feet were too large, and in the most beautifully convincing way, I had forced upon her a compliment. If she would grow her feet large enough for a man to see. There was no way of rejecting that compliment. There was no way of disputing. I certainly hadn’t been trying to make her feel better. There was nothing for the girl to do but accept the absolute proof that her feet were small. There’s no other way.

      “. . . when you consider a lot of neurotic manifestations, some little traumatic thing will precipitate progressively larger and larger neurosis. Why can’t you take the same attitude toward the correction of neurosis? Take something that is in essence a traumatic thing, correctly orient it, and just thrust it upon the person in such a fashion that they have to accept it, and deal with it and incorporate it. . . . The therapeutic trauma.” **

      We know a lot now about how the brain learns very quickly in states of intense traumatic arousal that create a limited focus of attention in the same way that hypnosis does. Drama can create this intense arousal for positive learning as well.

      *Phoenix, by David Gordon and Meyers-Anderson, p. 80.    

      **Conversations with Milton H. Erickson, Vol. III by Jay Haley, pp. 12-18)

***Originally published in Milton H. Erickson Foundation Newsletter, Vol. 24, No. 2, Summer 2004, p. 6.