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Milton Erickson and the rules of life

Updated: May 22, 2020

The doctor who learned how to heal by healing himself

For those unfamiliar with Milton Erickson, he was one of the greatest psychiatrists and psychotherapists. A man who has suffered from serious health problems since he was a child, including polio that led to his coma. Years spent observing her sister's movements, remembering her movements to learn how to go back to living a full life. A man worth knowing for all he can teach us. Here we present his rules of life as told by his daughter Betty Alice Erickson. Milton Erickson loved people and life and did it simply. Perhaps this simplicity is what transpires between the lines of this testimony. Ten rules that we could learn and always carry with us

Rule 1. Life is hard work

We all know it, but we don't know how deep this rule is. We are the only creature on earth who seeks hard work. Nothing else climbs a mountain "because it's there", as the climber once said George Mallory.

No other living thing trains for a marathon: running 26 miles faster than someone else just for fun. People are programmed for hard work: we complete one activity and look for another. "


Rule 2. Life is unfair

Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. It's easy to forget the injustice we like - we're happy to win the lottery even if it's not fair for others who have also bought tickets - even more tickets than we do. Rationally, we all know that life is simply not fair.

But we like to forget it and above all to forget to confront all humans, the only "fair" confrontation. Whoever is reading, has had, and will likely continue to have an extraordinarily rich life compared to the vast majority of humans on earth. We are richer, better educated, better fed, better accommodated and have more opportunities than most humans who have ever lived on earth. It's not right. If we want to complain about how "unfair" something is, anything, we should first compare ourselves with others in the world. But, typical of human beings, we always choose the richest, smartest, youngest, most beautiful ones ... over and over again. "It's not right… ." Even easier: I was once stuck in traffic, seriously, for more than an hour on the highway, while I was going to the airport. All of us on the shuttle could clearly see the flaming wreck a little further on. Our stress was eliminated with a sentence from another person who commented thoughtfully: "Even if we all lost our planes, I bet anyone in those cars would trade places with us." Erickson knew, as we all know, even children know what's right and what's not. Our unconscious never forgets that information fixed in the mind. But sometimes we forget consciously.


Rule 3. Life is filled with pain

If we are alive, we will suffer. Our heart is broken, our leg is broken, our machine is destroyed, we lose our jobs, our parents and our friends. We hurt ourselves. We forget that pain is natural.

Parents die, and hopefully sooner than their children.

If we fall, we could also break a leg. People's bodies are not perfect: we have appendicitis but we operate on it. Accidents happen. Some pain is transient. What hurts today could be forgotten tomorrow. Many of us still remember that we weren't chosen for a team, that we didn't win a prize at school, the bully who stole our favorite jacket, our money for lunch. But most of us go ahead and even learn to have fun with ourselves… tears for not being elected president of third grade? If only I understood that this was not the worst thing in life! A little pain is nothing but pain. But we all know it's a cost to be alive. What we know as pain disappears when we cease to exist. Boris Pasternak said: "How wonderful to be alive… But why does it always hurt? " My father told me that any amount of emotional pain we feel indicates how much joy we can feel. Don't you feel a lot of pain in your heart? —You will not experience much joy. Learning what to focus on is your choice. He felt a lot of physical pain in his adult life; partly excruciating. I have never heard him complain. It was what it was; nobody could stop the pain or pick it up for him.


Rule 4. Everything ends

Thank God! Who wants to have a knee with a child's skin forever? Who wants or needs to repeatedly remember mistreatment, meanness, betrayal or abuse?

Common wisdom, and probably the truth, is that we can't really forget anything; it's coded inside as long as we're lucky enough to have our minds. But we can discard the memories that we do not want, once processed and accept the fact that nothing else can be done. We can metaphorically put them in a box on a shelf in the attic or in the garage as much as we put away a winter sweater. And sometimes, when we go back and open that box to take out the sweater, we find that there are only a few threads left and we watch the moths fly away. We also know that memories are often inaccurate: we recreate them every time we remember or tell them. Most of us are convinced that a certain event has taken place in a certain way. Then we see a photograph of that event a long time ago and the grandmother is there and we are actually sitting on her lap! The research was done showing the changeability of the malleability of memories. Of course, some memories are totally accurate - and we all know that we passionately defend our memories - memories make us who we are. The cost for "everything ends" is pure and simple, happiness ends too. The saving grace for humanity, however, is that we can have memories that we choose to remember. Just because we cried saying goodbye to our parents, to a close friend, even to our wonderful dog - we can still bring desired memories into loved ones, pets, times, inside. We can remember to remember the memories that we like, that we want. We can practice remembering that double rainbow we saw once, that Christmas morning, a long time ago, when we were lying in bed and thinking that life was completely perfect. Those are the memories we should practice.

Rule 5. Every choice costs
Unfortunately, but also fortunately, we cannot know the future. So we never know the full cost or benefit of any choice. If you follow Erickson's rules, however, "it's not fair" to blame yourself for the poor consequences of a thoughtful choice. It is not possible to know all future costs. You thought, considered, asked and then made the best choice you could make. Some choices are good, as we planned, thought and hoped. Some choices have unexpected good or bad consequences. The adults have been alive long enough to know; this is one of the reasons why children need strong parents. Learning can always come from any choice, if we decide to learn. If we don't, we can't even gain that advantage from a wrong choice. Children automatically know this advantage: mistakes teach us. Does anyone tie their shoes properly the first time?

Rule 6. The law of averages is usually correct—that’s why it’s called the law of averages. The expected and the usual occur more often. Insurance companies make a lot of money knowing this. We already know: most lottery tickets don't win; most baggage on a plane also arrives safely.

Once we take precautions against unexpected events, once we fasten our seat belts, it is foolish to spend time worrying about events that are unlikely to occur.


Rule 7. Change is the only constant

You, me, rivers, mountains, earth - everything. So we could also understand how to live with it, change what we can and live tolerant (or happy!) With the rest.

Time cannot be frozen or reversed. The law of entropy originated in thermodynamics, but it is relevant for our lives and professions. More noise, more chaos, and less energy is available for more productive goals. Acceptance of reality is a real core of Erickson's work. When we accept what is possible or even appropriate for our limited energy, we can further influence what we want. And the hard part is determining what can be changed, influenced, even changed. We cannot "make" young people more responsible, but we can establish consequences; we can't stop a spouse from drinking, but we can decide if we want to be affected; we can't stop getting old, but we can influence some of the results: appearance, cholesterol, general health.


Rule 8. It is what’s in our head and heart that really matters. Life can be full of joy, happiness and joy; that same life could be full of misery, unhappiness and fear. What we focus on, our affirmations become our life.

The perceptions are very different: some people think that fried giant beetles are an epicurean pleasure. Not for me! But it's true for them. Views of the past, ourselves, our abilities? Everything changeable. Above all, when humor and curiosity, the most powerful of feelings, are added, the whole mix changes and usually for the better. Part of Erickson's legacy is embodied in the phrase "Stop and smell the roses". It also taught us to see and appreciate humor in life and to be curious about it. At twenty, I quit my job and sold everything I owned to emigrate to Australia. Dad didn't even try to comfort or calm my fears. He just looked at me and said he had no idea how quickly I would find a job, where I would live, how I would find friends or anything. But he absolutely knew that the experience would change me forever! He was really curious about how I would change. —- What an intriguing thought! How would I change? Curiosity has practically replaced my fear of this gigantic step in my life.


Rule 9. What we receive in life depends on merit—and good or bad luck—or a combination

Nobody "deserves" cruel parents or winning the lottery. The law of middle school says: more often than not, preparation and hard work bring reward. But sometimes it helps to be in the right place at the right time. This is one of the "rules" that Dad pointed out a lot. It is certainly the one that my customers like least, even if they recognize its basic truth. Dot-com millionaires are an indisputable image. Yes, they worked very, very hard - initially for days on end - while trying to perfect what they believed was an improvement, an invention or something wonderful. But they were also in the right place at the right time ... five years earlier, five years later; all their hard work would not have paid off. Each of us can look back and see a time when we have been lucky enough to have had a wonderful opportunity. If we were prepared and jumped on that opening, we would have benefited from merit and good luck. We did the hard preparation work, we trusted that hard work and we were also in the right place at the right time.


Regola 10. Life was made for Amateurs

Life was made for amateurs. We are all amateurs at it. So enjoy it—and learn how to play it better. This rule, the last one my mother and I listed, truly exemplifies one of the basic gifts of Erickson’s work. It is simply profound and profoundly simple.

We are all born, live and then we die. We begin our journey toward death the moment we are born…some take longer to get to the end than other. There is nothing more simple than that.

Human beings seem compelled to complicate their lives, to make simple issues difficult. For example–we all know the three most powerful words in the English language—I love you. Not much is simpler than that. We also know the four most powerful words in the English language—You’re right, I’m wrong. But people rarely say those—the most simple, and usually most effective way to handle a problem. We defend, we rationalize, justify, blur the message, and the listeners respond in kind.

Everything becomes blurred, complicated and unsatisfying to both. This is also a joy-filled—we’re amateurs. None of us have lived this moment before. Of course we make mistakes. Amateurs do. And that’s ok. We can always learn. Amateurs do.

Download here the originale article with an introduction by Doug O'Brien, of

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Betty Alice Erickson, MS, LPC is a certified consultant, marriage and family therapist for over 25 years in her studio in Dallas, Texas and an international teacher of Ericksonian psychotherapy and hypnosis and is currently an LPC supervisor. She is co-author with Bradford Keeney, PhD, of the fantastic book "Milton H. Erickson, MD, An American Healer", published by the Ringing Rocks Foundation.
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