You did it your way

Betty Alice Erickson, mother and co-author of ‘An American Healer’ (p. 55-56), in a talk with her dad, Milton Erickson:

‘Finally he told me, ‘All right, I will teach you. In just one day, you will never be afraid of the dentist again.’ I could hardly wait. ‘I will call the dentist’s office’, he continued, ‘and get permission for you to sit there all day wearing a homemade sign that says: ‘I faint at the dentist’s office.’ If you faint, I will instruct the receptionist to tell the other patients to leave you alone. When you come back to consciousness, get up and sit back down with your sign around your neck. At the end of the day, you will no longer be afraid of the dentist.’

I was horrified: ‘I won’t do it.’

He responded: ‘All right.’

I pleaded with him. ‘Daddy, I want you to help me learn not be afraid of the dentist for my children’s sake.’

He looked directly at me and said firmly: ‘I have given you a way to help your children and you turned it down.’ Then he turned his back and walked away.

On a superficial level, it looks as though he was not helping me. But if you examine it more closely, he was quite masterful.

First, he got a serious commitment from me by delaying his answer. He made certain my motives – setting a good example for my children – were strong. He absolutely knew I wouldn’t do what he suggested. So there I was: I could do something I wouldn’t do – wearing a sign – or I could be stuck with something I really didn’t want – being a poor role model for my children. Or there was a third option – fix the problem myself.

Later, I asked him why he had done what he did.

He offered, ‘You’re not my patient. You don’t need psychotherapy. And I knew you would figure out a way.’

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