A short article about a teaching tale from the legendary therapist Milton Erickson.
Back in the 1950s, Milton Erickson, the godfather of hypnotherapy, talked to one of his clients, a Detroit physician, who asked him for a favour.
His client knew that Erickson had a speaking gig scheduled in Milwaukee, the same city where the client’s beloved but severely depressed aunt lived.
His client was worried, so he asked Erickson if he would look her up and see if he could help her in some way.
Erickson agreed, so one day he knocked at the door of the lady.
The door opened.
There she was an old rich lady withering away.
The aunt was 53 years old and was living alone in a great big house with a great big yard.
She was unmarried, had no children and no friends, and with that, no one to share her immense wealth with.
Erickson found out that she was an active and proud Christian who was active in her local church community in the past. Still, these days, she barely attended any of the services anymore, and when she did, she did not talk to anybody there.
The only people in her life were her housekeeper and her maid who came each morning to do the housework, prepare the meals and wash the dishes.
After the introduction, Erickson demanded that he be given a tour of the house because he wanted to inspect the house to get a clearer picture of her.
She reluctantly agreed.
All of the blinds were closed.
The house was dark and deprived of colour.
It was gloomy, and you could see that the owner of the house was not happy.
The last room the old lady showed Dr Erickson could not be more different; it was full of light and filled with three gorgeous adult African violets, which were in full bloom.
There was even a fourth spot where the old lady had planted a leaf to grow into the fourth flower.
Standing in the flower room, Erickson felt compelled to talk:
“I can see what your problem is”, he began.
“What do you mean?” said the old woman obviously confused.
Erickson turned towards her and looked her deep in her eyes and said:
“You are a bad Christian”.
He hit a nerve, and the depressed woman, visibly insulted by the psychiatrist finally managed to speak up:
“What do you mean?”
“Here you are with all this money, time on your hands, and a green thumb. And, it’s all going to waste” Erickson explained.
“In accordance with your family’s wishes, I’m going to give you some prescriptions. I want those prescriptions carried out so I will give them to your housekeeper tomorrow morning.
- Have your housekeeper buy an adult African violet of every hue that you do not own.
- Buy fifty potting pots
- Buy a supply of soil
- But two hundred gift flowerpots
- Every time a baby is born to a member of the church, send the baby an African violet.
- Every time a baby is christened, give them an African violet.
- Every time a church member gets sick, give them an African violet.
- Every time a girl announces her engagement, give them an African violet.
- Every time a couple gets married, give them an African violet.
- Every time there is a church bazaar, donate twelve to twenty of your African violets.
Each time one of those events happens, have your handyman drive you to the homes of the people who are affected by these happy or sad events.
Bring them a plant and your congratulations or condolences and comfort, whichever is appropriate to the situation”.
After that advice, Erickson left and never spoke to the older woman again.
20 years later, Erickson told this teaching tale to a group of his students; he pulled out an old yellow Milwaukee newspaper article with the headline:
“African Violet Queen of Milwaukee Dies… Mourned by Thousands”.
The formerly depressed and suicidal woman died fulfilled with countless friends of all ages mourning the passing of their special friend.
One of his students raised his hand and asked Erickson, “Why did you have her give out plants instead of treating her depression?”
After pausing for what felt like an eternity for Erickson’s curious students, he finally replied, “I looked around her house, and the only sign of life I saw were those African violets. I thought it would be easier to grow the African violets part of her life than to weed out the depression“.
Moral Of The Story
Erickson’s ability to analyse people and invent instant, intuitive interventions earned him the reputation of being a true master of his craft.
Some even went a step further and thought that he was a psychic.
A lot of his success is based on his discovery that human beings are a story-telling species.
Contrary to his contemporaries, Erickson believed that rather than pointing out the apparent insufficiencies of the client, it is more efficient to express his insights in forms of tales, myths, or anecdotes and send his clients on personal journeys where they would rediscover the strength in themselves.
The story of the African Violet Queen of Milwaukee is so profound because Erickson instantly realised the origins of the nihilistic suffering of the old lady.
What the lady was lacking was meaning, connection, and responsibility.
Rather than going with the norm, Erickson discovered and built a therapeutic intervention around the uniqueness of his client.
Instead of focusing on all of the broken, gloomy, and dead parts of the old lady, he decided to focus on the light and build a new life around that single source of purpose.
Taking care of African violets is a lot of work, the watering has to be on point, the light has to be perfect, and she even needed to talk to her plants to make them flourish.
She was busy with that task from early morning till late at night.
And, with this newfound source of eustress, there was no time to be depressed anymore.
My closing message for you:
You, me, and everybody else on this planet are a once in a lifetime happening.
There was never a copy of you, and there never will be one.
Since the totality of your being is as unique as a fingerprint, it is time to start treating and caring for yourself as if you matter, because obviously, you do.
This is your life.
Act like it.
Milton H. Erickson
Milton Hyland Erickson was an American psychiatrist who specialized in medical hypnosis and family therapy. He was the founding president of the American Society for Clinical Hypnosis and noted for his approach to the unconscious mind as creative and solution-generating.
Dr. Erickson was plagued with enormous physical handicaps for most of his life. At age 17, he contracted polio and was so severely paralyzed that doctors believed he would die. While recovering in bed, almost entirely lame and unable to speak, he became strongly aware of the significance of nonverbal communication – body language, tone of voice, and the way that these nonverbal expressions often directly contradicted the verbal ones. He also began to have “body memories” of the muscular activity of his own body. By concentrating on these memories, he slowly began to regain control of parts of his body to the point where he was eventually able to talk and use his arms again. His doctor recommended exercising his upper body only so Milton Erickson planned a 1,000 miles canoe trip to build up the strength to attend college. His adventure was challenging, and although he still did not have full use of his legs at the end, he was able to walk with a cane.
Dr. Erickson’s career spanned more than 50 years. He conducted extensive research on suggestion and hypnosis, first as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, and later throughout his medical training and during his initial professional appointments in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Michigan. By the late 1930s, Dr. Erickson was renowned for his work in hypnosis and eminent in psychiatric circles.
In 1948, Dr. Erickson moved from Michigan to Phoenix. In 1949, he entered into private practice in his home office, a move which was prompted in large part by medical necessity. Despite almost constant, intense physical pain and the progressive loss of mobility which led to confinement to a wheelchair in his later years, Dr. Erickson was prodigiously active.
In 1957, he and a number of colleagues founded the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis and Dr. Erickson served as the Inaugural President. He also established the American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis and served as editor for 10 years. During the 1950s and ’60s, Dr. Erickson published copiously, traveled and lectured extensively, both domestically and abroad, continued to conduct research, and was in high demand as a practicing psychiatrist. In the 1970s, restricted to his home by his physical condition, Dr. Erickson still conducted teaching seminars for professionals on an almost daily basis and continued seeing some patients. When he died on March 25th, 1980, at the age of 78, his seminars were booked through the end of that year and requests exceeded another year’s scheduling. Dr. Erickson left a written legacy of more than 140 scholarly articles and five books on hypnosis which he co-authored.
The Ericksonian approach departs from traditional hypnosis in a variety of ways. While the process of hypnosis has customarily been conceptualized as a matter of the therapist issuing standardized instructions to a passive patient, Ericksonian hypnosis stresses the importance of the interactive therapeutic relationship and purposeful engagement of the inner resources and experiential life of the subject. Dr. Erickson revolutionized the practice of hypnotherapy by coalescing numerous original concepts and patterns of communication into the field.
The novel psychotherapeutic strategies which Dr. Erickson employed in his treatment of individuals, couples, and families derived from his hypnotic orientation. Although he was known as the world’s leading hypnotherapist, Dr. Erickson used formal hypnosis in only one-fifth of his cases in clinical practice.
Dr. Erickson effected a fundamental shift in modern psychotherapy. Many elements of the Ericksonian perspective which were once considered extreme are now incorporated into the mainstream of contemporary practice.
Psychology exercises for you
Call to Action
Write A Prescription To Yourself
Grab a piece of paper and go somewhere where you will not be disturbed.
Let us have a little mind game, imagine that Milton Erickson was to pay you a visit.
Imagine the therapist would talk to you, observe how you live, interview your friends and family members, and he would articulate a creative challenge for you to make things better.
What would your custom-designed therapeutic intervention look like?
What do you think would he identify as the source of your suffering?
Which of your personal strengths and virtues would he build his intervention around?
Which flaws and insufficiencies would he ignore?
How would he integrate your uniqueness into your tailor-made journey of betterment?
Think and write for at least ten minutes.
That is it from me guys.