Foundations: The Ericksonian Legacy and Self-relations Psychotherapy

By Robert D. Rossel, Ph.D.

Do you want to learn the sciences with ease?
Begin by learning your own language.
Etienne Condillac (1947: 216-217)

Although self-relations draws upon key ideas and practices from Carl Jung, Buddhism and various mind/body traditions, the influence of Milton H. Erickson. on the theory and practice of self-relations is undeniable. This article explores the foundation of self-relations in Stephen Gilligan’s long association with Milton Erickson and shows how many of the core concepts of self-relations have built on, systematized, and extended many of Erickson’s seminal ideas and practices. The journey began in the mid-1970s when Steve was a core member of a group of students from the University of California at Santa Cruz studying with Richard Bandler and John Grinder in their early attempts to puzzle out the magic of Erickson’s hypnotic approach. This journey, which in itself became critical in the founding of what was to become NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) and several other key “schools” of psychotherapeutic practice, led Steve eventually to seek his Ph.D. in psychology at Stanford University and into an extended period between (1974-1980) where he and many other of Erickson’s students studied with him directly at his home in Phoenix, Arizona. Over that time Gilligan became known as one of the leading teachers of Ericksonian hypnosis and was a pioneer in expanding its relevance and depth of application to psychotherapy. In the mid 1980’s Steve slowly developed his own unique style of presenting Erickson’s seminal ideas and hypnotic techniques in supervision groups and residential training groups in self-relations. These groups were so experientially rich and impactful that an increasing number of practicing psychotherapists were drawn to them. By the early 1990s twenty–thirty such ongoing groups had been established all over the United Stated and then in England, Europe, South America, Australia and elsewhere. I mention these groups because I cannot emphasize enough their importance in the ultimate shape and depth of what was to become self-relations psychotherapy. It was in these groups that Steve formed the vital ongoing relationships that allowed him to find his voice as an articulate spokesperson in shaping and extending Erickson’s ideas. It was in these groups that the dynamic relational fields containing and deepening the experiential substance and “flow” of self-relations was fleshed out. It was in these groups that communities of practitioners came to learn and share a common orientation and also to use their experience in these groups to find their own voices as psychotherapists so they could increasingly make their own unique interpretations and applications of their experiences with Gilligan.

The Aesthetics of Relating the Universal to the Uniquely Personal

As has been noted by many of his students, Erickson was not known for his tendency to describe what he did in terms of an underlying system or theory. Nor was he known as someone who operated in standardized, predetermined ways in working with specific “kinds” of clients or diagnostic categories. Instead, he liked to start fresh with each case, emptying his mind of conscious preconceptions — kind of like the Buddhist’s “beginners mind” — so he could see the uniquely personal and human in each subject.

One essential contribution that Steve made to those attempting to understand and build on Milton Erickson’s unique genius was the thorough and innovative way he demonstrated the essence of Erickson’s legacy without violating the latter’s highly personal style of work by over-systematization or formalization. This was no small feat. As he himself said at the Fifth Ericksonian Congress in Phoenix: (Cf., Zeig, 1994:80):

I would like to suggest that the essence of Erickson had to do with things like soul and aesthetics, and that this essence is becoming increasingly obscured by the ever-increasing “stories” or models purporting to reveal what Erickson was “really” about. I don’t think this has anything to do with the myth-makers, of whom I have been one. I agree with Jeff Zeig’s insightful observation that one of Erickson’s great gifts was attracting and mentoring bright and dedicated students. Rather, my suggestion is that the way Erickson operated was so non-traditional that attempts to describe him in traditional terms, such as a particular framework or set of techniques, are woefully inadequate and misleading. 1

This is perhaps the first, and most important foundational link between Ericksonian hypnosis and self-relations. In both there is a profound respect for the uniqueness of each individual and an attempt to build approaches that are sensitive to this uniqueness and utilize it as the first principle in constructing the therapeutic relationship. This is a process of exquisite attunement, one that Gilligan often referred to as a “behavioral dance” within which the therapist “tunes in” on multiple levels to the subjects behavior and experience as a basis for constructing generative healing processes. As Gilligan himself has observed (Gilligan, 2002, 15):

. . . induction is a process in which the hypnotist uses his body as a music instrument, tuning it to get into rhythm with the “behavioral dance” of the subject. The hypnotist works to secure and hold the subject’s attentional process, thereby making it possible to access unconscious processes to develop hypnotic experiences. To the extent that the subject’s conscious processes interfere with this development, the hypnotist uses distraction, confusion, and boredom techniques. In short, the most effective induction strategy is one that maximally uses the subject’s ongoing experience as a basis for trance development.

How this “behavioral dance” is choreographed, and how with great sensitivity, discipline, and persistence, one learns all the steps in the dance and how to make them one’s own is, of course, a central question open to endless interpretation. Hopefully, this paper will make a small contribution in showing Gilligan’s own attempts to learn the steps of the dance and then gradually teach his students the artistry and aesthetic sensibilities that are essential in making the dance one’s own.

A second major foundational link between self-relations and the Ericksonian legacy is the shift from a technical and hierarchical therapeutic stance to one that is relational and based on co-creative collaboration between client and therapist. In one of my first associations with Gilligan, he told the story of an early encounter he had with Erickson in which he asked, “So Dr. Erickson, what is psychotherapy?” To this Erickson, quite seriously, replied, “I don’t know.” Not willing to be dismissed with such a cryptic answer, a bit later Steve again asked, ” So Dr. Erickson, what is psychotherapy?” Again came the answer, “I don’t know.” Finally, after being asked yet again to define psychotherapy, Erickson replied in his characteristic quasi-cryptic, quasi-hypnotic way, “Psychotherapy… is a process. . . whereby two people… sit down. . . and try to figure out. . . what the hell. . . one of them wants.”

I love this story because it so clearly illustrates the playful and loving way Erickson interacted with Gilligan and his other students. But, even more, I love this story because of the deeply metaphorical and evocative way it lays out this essential link between Erickson and what would later become self-relations psychotherapy.

Take a moment to reflect on what Erickson communicated in this cryptic statement. First, the fact that he could quite seriously claim to “not know” in answering his student was a very important, even essential, foundational link between Erickson the healer, and the core of what Steve Gilligan would later teach his students. “Not knowing,” the ability to empty one’s mind of preconceptions, the ability to relax into a place of “being-with,” the ability to hold a “soft-focus” where one is able to hear and see beyond the cover story into the inner experiential world of a human subject, is at the heart of the practice of self-relations. The cultivation of an ability to comfortably rest in a “not-knowing” space is an essential meta-position or framework in psychotherapy that allows a healing presence to arise and be experienced in the relational field connecting therapist and client.

But beyond his initial refusal to answer, itself so full of information–and the very playful and loving way Erickson encouraged his student to suspend his need to know–was the equally important information found in his cryptic answer. Erickson emphasized that psychotherapy was, above all, a collaborative process of two people focusing on one person’s questions. Here again, in a statement that says so little and yet so much, we see Erickson marking out an essential foundational link between what he did and what would become the core practice of self-relations psychotherapy. First, is Erickson’s emphasis on the word “process”. In this Erickson was emphasizing that the vital core of psychotherapy is found not so much in the ideas or techniques of the therapist, but in what happens between and around them–in the flow of experience connecting therapist and client. Early on, Gilligan demonstrated in multiple ways that the process of psychotherapy, above all, had something to do with releasing oneself into an experience of blessing others and welcoming them into the life of the community. In self-relations this process became more and more a willingness to be with another person’s suffering in such a way that what was experienced as broken, neglected, or silenced could be named and welcomed back into a vital, aware experience of the self as an open, flowing process deeply rooted in a relational “field”.

Second, Erickson also noted that the creation of this relationship — two people sitting down attempting to figure out what the hell one of them wants—is essentially a collaborative process. However simple and cryptic the statement may seem, when placed in the context of Erickson’s life, it represents a radical departure from much of the prevailing thought about psychotherapy and represents another core foundational link between Erickson and self-relations psychotherapy. Erickson was pointing out psychotherapy at its best involves two (or more) people actively joined together in the process of questioning and finding answers. He was also pointing out that one important task of the therapist in this collaborative work is to help the client sharpen his or her questions, indeed to deepen the very process of questioning. Ultimately this process opens up the ability of the client to grasp and name his or her deepest longings, the questions about basic purposes and wants to which the questioning is pointing but can never fully disclose.

Finally, the very form of this cryptic statement identifies yet another foundational link between Erickson and self-relations. Part of what makes it so rich and penetrating is that it is a communication on multiple levels. One of the qualities of communication that was so characteristic of Erickson was his ability to frame his utterances in such a way that they could be reflected on over a long period of time and interpreted in many different ways as the context surrounding the knowing shifted (Cf., O’Hanlon & Wilk, 1987). Many of his utterances and stories had this quality. They were ubiquitous, operating in a way that is similar to a Zen koan or a poem. This quality of Erickson’s communication was an essential aspect of what made it hypnotic—speaking to the conscious and unconscious mind at the same time, bringing past, present, and future together in generative ways, “depotentiating” rigid mental sets, opening possibilities for experiential change and deep insight in the heart of confusion.

All of these qualities that were later shown to be essential dimensions or formal properties of Erickson’s hypnotic communication became more and more flexibly incorporate as essential aspects of the “externally oriented trance” that Steve taught his students to incorporate into the behavioral dance he talked about above.

To summarize, here we are marking out three key closely interrelated foundational concepts in the origins of self-relations psychotherapy. The first is that the quality of what happens in psychotherapy has something to do with the quality of the relationship between therapist and client. The second is that the vitality and openness of this relationship is critical in opening up the scope and depth of the questions therapy is able to address. And finally, what is essential in healing is the ability of the therapist to have an “aesthetic” that allows him or her open up the relational field by using language, presence, and one’s body/mind as an instrument to awaken soul in the heart of suffering. As Gilligan himself has noted (2002:17), “I firmly believe that the most powerful aspect of Erickson’s communication was his integrity. Before training with him, I would read about all these wild things he did with his patients and I could never quite figure out how he could get these people to cooperate with him. After watching him in action, it became crystal clear that he had an unwavering intention to fully respect and support his patients and students. He wasn’t out to manipulate or control for his own personal gains. Consequently, people would really let go and cooperate with him.” As we will see, this intention, coupled with finely tuned sensibilities that allow one to stay flexible and open in one’s ability to flow with what is present in the relational field is at the foundation of Erickson’s influence on self-relations psychotherapy.


Another key foundational concept found in the Erickson legacy is the idea of “utilization” (Cf. Erickson, Rossi, & Rossi, 1976: 20). Specifically utilization, as a key description of Erickson’s hypnotic approach, is the art of simply being curious about what happens in trance and using what happens as a foundation to suggest other possibilities. As Rossi says:

The utilization approach to trance induction (Erickson, 1958, 1959) and the utilization of the patient’s presenting behavior and symptoms as an integral part of therapy (Erickson, 1955, 1965) are among Erickson’s original contributions to the field of clinical hypnosis. This utilization approach, wherein each patient’s individuality is carefully studied, facilitated, and utilized, is one of the ways “clinical” hypnosis is different from the standardized approaches of experimental and research hypnosis as it is usually conducted in the laboratory. It is in the clinician’s ability to evaluate and utilize patients’ uniqueness together with the exigencies of their ever-changing real-life situation that the most striking hypnotic and therapeutic results are often achieved. The utilization approaches achieve their results precisely because they activate and further develop what is already within the patient rather than attempting to impose something from the outside that might be unsuitable for the patient’s individuality.

In self-relations “utilization” becomes the art of joining naturalistic or “symptomatic” trances and, through pacing and leading, transforming the latter into pathways toward solution. Staying within Gilligan’s “dance” metaphor, utilization is essentially the art of learning to “dance with the symptom.” Self-relations has extended the flow and artistry of the basic concept of utilization by exploring a variety of practices for reading and sensing the body/mind, by learning to speak the language of the symptom on multiple levels, by using the relationship between therapist and client as an instrument in opening up transformational possibilities. This highly cultivated process of attunement allows a more elegant, multi-level reading of the problem and the utilization of the symptom as the foundation of generative change processes.

Self-relations thus broadened the context for understanding the power and aesthetics of utilization. It also explored and deepened the fundamental departure Erickson made from earlier more formal forms of hypnosis. First, the very notion of utilization radicalized the underlying assumption of formal hypnosis that trance is essentially unconscious control and manipulation through suggestion. Early on many of Erickson’s students such as Jay Haley (1973), members of the Mental Research Institute (Watslawick, Weakland, & Fisch, 1974) communications group, and Ernest Rossi (Rossi, Ryan, & Sharp, 1983) explored the paradox behind the notion of indirect suggestion and the communicational “strategies” involved in utilization. In various ways they pointed out and explored the paradox inherent in the idea that you cannot not communicate, you cannot not affect another person. Self-relations begins with this paradox and follows it to its natural conclusion, namely, if all behavior is manipulation, it becomes increasingly important to be ever mindful of the intent behind all communications. What is important is to become increasingly cognizant of the variety of ways in which we constantly influence others and are influenced by others both consciously and unconsciously. As a therapist becomes aware of such patterns, he or she can begin to use them systematically, and become more mindful of the need to align their behavior on more and more levels with their unfolding intent. Like all essentially artistic endeavors, this must be learned through hours and hours of practice.

Another essential contribution of self-relations to the foundational concept of utilization, is the notion that the heart of the practice of attunement is a growing sensitivity to the therapist’s own somatic and non-rational experiencing as it relates to and influences one’s client’s unfolding experience. This practice of opening to a more field-based awareness was honed in the laboratory of the self-relations residential workshops and, I believe, has become one of the hallmarks that distinguishes self-relations from its Ericksonian foundations. “Open to one’s center, extend to the field” became one of the mantras of all practitioners in self-relations workshops. When fully understood and artfully employed, this mantra came to embody what was essentially relational about self-relations. By working beyond the boxes of specific presupposition and techniques and cultivating a field-based consciousness, self-relations practitioners had the potential of becoming more fluid, more adaptive to the myriad conditions and question posed by clients, and ultimately more effective in helping clients change and find new possibilities in experience. This expanded awareness enabled them to move flexibly and responsibly to the unfolding needs of clients in the relational field therapist and clients co-create.


Ideodynamic processes, (Erickson’s notion that one can transform “ideas” into “dynamics” without conscious mediation) is also a core foundational concept coming out of the Ericksonian legacy. Erickson was the ultimate master in reading the “language” of the unconscious and learning to work with the body’s own autonomous utterances arising in the breath, subtle variations in posture and somatic presentation, and in the spaces and rhythms between specific words that are used. This part of the legacy became core in NLP explorations of ideomotor signals and eye accessing cues (Bandler & Grinder 1975a; 1975b; Grinder & Bandler, 1976), was deeply influential in the development of notions of “reframing” in paradoxical and strategic therapy (Grinder & Bandler, 1981; 1982; Haley, 1963; 1973; 1976) and also in the “solution” language of deShazer and his associates (deShazer, 1982, 1985, 1988, 1991). What these more “mechanical” applications of Erickson’s legacy missed was the elegant way he worked with ideodynamic processes on multiple levels and with much greater “flow” and sensitivity to the inherent energy and dynamism of the unconscious. In self-relations there is curiosity about the special character of such processes and their relationship to the breath, the spaces between words, and the physical rhythms of the body. Self relations has refined the art of touching something that is unconsciously present in the relational field – touching it not only by describing it in words, but welcoming it into a relational connection of blessing so the essence of the thing named can be revealed. Thus idiodynamicism is about more than ideas. It becomes a primary feature in “reading” the language of the body and working with symptoms. It becomes less about specific techniques to work with such processes, although it certainly employs them, and more about dancing with multiple textures of ideo-motor, ideo-sensory, ideo-cognitive, ideo-affective, ideo-perceptual, and/or ideo-imaginal expressions unfolding in the relational field. Any or all of these distinct processes may be involved. As Gilligan has observed (2002:30:

As we have seen, symptom phenomena and hypnotic phenomena share numerous characteristics. Both are developed from paradoxical injunctions and involve paradoxical (both/and) experience; both feature the principle if ideo-dynamicism, where by expressions (thoughts, behaviors, feelings etc.) develop outside of conscious control; and both involve intensified experiential absorption, sustained attention, temporal alterations, somatic changes, and other phenomenological shifts. In short, a person expressing a symptom is a person in trance.

Seeing symptoms in the context of the flow of experience rather than negative states that must be extinguished at all costs is the central skill that must be cultivated and utilized in self-relations psychotherapy. In a sense then, self-relations has attempted to return to its roots in Milton Erickson’s enormous gifts in accessing and utilizing such processes for the sake of therapeutic change.

Both/and Logic

Both/and logic is integral to both Ericksonian hypnotherapy and self-relations. It was shown to be the hallmark of trance in M.T. Orne’s (1959) classic study of “trance-logic,” discussed at length by Beahrs (1982 )– a study in which he demonstrated convincingly that in trance subjects can see and not-see something that is experientially present and comfortably hold these apparently contradictory states at the same time. Orne showed that trance states in their most essential form collapse boundaries and open consciousness to possibilities where opposing states, values, or experiences can be held at the same time. Rather than assuming that they are simply illogical or contradictory, exploring and working with these paradoxical experiential realities becomes the gateway to opening avenues for meaningful change and transformation. “Trance-formation” is literally a process of fundamentally altering the “form” of experience. “Trance” in transformation is the process of collapsing, altering or playing with fundamental distinctions in such a way that we radically change the way the phenomenal world is held in experience. The first step in such alterations is made as one experiences and notes that boundaries typically used to mark distinctions in one’s phenomenal world no longer operate in the way one assumes they should operate. The second step is to then utilize the confusion, uncertainty or curiosity — and resultant openness to change that typically accompanies such states – so that the process opens new possibilities for affirmative, self-valuing experiences in a subject’s phenomenal world. This is what makes therapy an experiential bridge in bringing the resource of trance into contact with the frozen logic and needless suffering of symptom states. In self-relations, the therapeutic utility of such “liminal” or “between” states is explored and exploited extensively. The core function of therapeutic trance– to break open, alter, invert, subvert, or in other ways scramble frozen experience in the service of radical change–became increasingly something self-relations practitioners learned to value and dance with on multiple levels. Again, in so doing, self-relations has in a very real sense attempted to rediscover and utilize something that Milton Erickson seemed to do intuitively, with great artistry and integrity.

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