Milton Erickson on Fear

I don't think the work of Alexandre Jardin exists in English yet, but give it time and it will be translated. If you are feeling brave enough to read in French, my general rule of thumb is that you will need a dictionary for the first 20-30 pages, after which the author's linguistic idiosyncracies will have been exhausted and you will in all probability be able to read with no further difficulty. And what I'll go on to do in a few other posts is recommend some French novels treating the French nation's favourite subject of love and desire that are readily available in translation.

However, I cannot resist a few more words on Milton Erickson whose work with phobias has always intrigued and entertained me, not to mention providing me with some of my favourite anecdotes. Often Erickson’s methods demonstrated more low-down cunning than recognised psychoanalytic theory. In one case, where an ageing husband was dominating his marriage with his fears of suffering a heart attack, Erickson instructed the depressed and downtrodden wife to take her husband at his word. In practice this meant that on every subsequent occasion when he complained of chest pains, she would carefully decorate the room with brochures from the morticians. No matter how many times the husband would throw them away, she would produce more, or occasionally vary the procedure by totting up his insurance policies. Before long the husband dared not mention his fear and it disappeared. Erickson commented that: ‘Approaching it this way forces the husband to deal with his wife without the symptom. She is also forced to deal with him differently, and then it is a matter of working on the real issues in the marriage’. This is a classic example of fear being used as a weapon, and Erickson’s strategy here is one of disarmament. Yet it is most interesting for the way that it remains within the fantasy realm of the fear, never attempting to understand or rationalise it away.


There is an innate understanding in Erickson's work that fear and reason have never had anything to do with one another; after all, if fears were open to reason, we would never be afraid of spiders or heights or being stuck in rooms with the doors locked. What Erickson does instead, and what makes him so entertaining to read, is that he works on the aesthetic, creative dimension of psychic life using a metaphoric structure of association to shift affect and its representation from one place to another. The suggestions that Erickson puts into his patient's mind are as disguised as the fears he or she has created. In this way the problem posed and the answer given respond to one another on the same psychic level.

Like all symptoms that benefit from psychoanalytic therapy, fears require stories in order to be assuaged. But what fears do not need is rational stories, because the form of causality that dominates ordinary stories – this happened because of this – locks fears into set patterns and concepts from which it cannot escape. Fears repeat because stories repeat. 'I will always be afraid of cows/dogs/elevators/etc because a bad experience in childhood proved incontrovertibly that the object in question is fearful.' Erickson's brilliance was always to come out of left field with his responses, surprising his patient's into a new way of seeing their situations, recognising that fears keep us safe, every bit as much as they restrict us. The key is to find the real problem, the false equation with security that is being maintained by the fear, and bring that into the open. 




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