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If you want to be a supershrink it's going to hurt. A lot.

A shy, gap-toothed young woman arrives at the simple home of a doctor in Phoenix, Ariz. She says she is embarrassed about her teeth and bashful with men. Then, with sudden force and apparent malice, the doctor commands her to practice spurting water through her teeth until she is sure she can hit the young man who often meets her at the office watercooler. Soon after, the woman carries out her mission. The next day, the young man lies in wait for her with a water pistol. Eventually they marry. Her problem seems to have vanished magically.

This and many other oddly simple cures are credited to the foxy grandpa of American hypnotism, Milton H. Erickson. At 71, Erickson stands in the forefront of a revival of hypnotherapy—in eclipse since Freud rejected it as too superficial and impermanent. "Erickson is the most innovative practitioner of hypnosis since Mesmer," says Dr. Thomas Hackett, chief of the psychiatric consultation service at Massachusetts General Hospital

When it comes to therapeutic mastery no one holds a candle to Milton Erickson. He's the Michael Jordan of our field.

From 2012 until 2021 I was hellbent on becoming the next Milton Erickson. I wanted to be the Lebron James to Erickson's Michael Jordan.

I read all the books, went to trainings, and even got a Ph.D hoping to become the world's greatest therapist.

Ultimately I failed.

It was one of the most painful experiences of my life.


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1/4 The pain that drives the Supershrink.

We've talked a lot about the path to mastery.

Today, instead of how to obtain mastery, I want to talk about the mentality of mastery. I think it's a unique one, mostly because it is mired in pain.

There's this theory called the Triple Package which states that successful people and groups have three traits in common.

  1. A superiority complex which allows them to go after big things.

  2. Impulse control and self discipline which allows them to obsessively work on the tasks.

  3. Deep insecurity which drives them to succeed in order to prove the insecurity wrong.

While the theory has come under some criticism, I really like it. Especially the part about deep insecurity. There's a long list of hyper successful people who fit really nicely into this mold.

The most obvious example of this is Michael Jordan.

"...I think there's a misconception out there that successful people have faced fewer obstacles than most. It's quite the opposite.

I think what makes successful people or successful athletes..., is they have failed, in many cases, more than most people.

They've had the audacity to try things that are out of their wheelhouse more regularly. They take [more risks].

You know we'll continue with Michael Jordan 'famously cut' from the varsity team. He was a sophomore, but that's not not the part of the story they told, in a time where no sophomores made varsity!

But the story is 'oh he's cut from the basketball team.' Well he played JV and he was the best player on JV, but he had the audacity to try out for the varsity team, then get cut, take it personally, and come back way better than had he made the varsity team his sophomore year.

So in hindsight it's actually...the high volume of... risk-taking met by the resilience and the ability to get up and and be better because of that failure."

How insecure was Michael that he took getting cut soooooooo personally? What was that high schooler going through? What was he running from?

In grad school I got the message that most therapists could be like Erickson if they tried. But most therapists didn't try because his approach felt manipulative. You could say this was my superiority complex.

No one else was doing this sort of therapy = That means I'm special if I do it.

One of my professors had a library full of books on Erickson. I probably read half his library. And remember this is in addition to the assigned readings. I think you'd call that impulse control.

The deep insecurity came from another professor. He claimed that being a good therapist was about working through your own trauma. So if you weren't doing well, it was because you were avoidant of your own issues and an unhealthy person.

At the time, while I was excelling in my coursework, I was failing with clients. I had so many drop outs I was in danger of not graduating. So every time I had a client drop out, I felt it was because I was an unhealthy person.

Which means I had to work harder to disprove this message.

2/4 The painful path of the Supershrink.

Not only is the desire for mastery often born from a need to disprove deep insecurity, the journey to mastery is full of failure, which only reinforces the pain.

Paul Rabil, who I quoted above, speaks eloquently about this. He's the Michael Jordan of lacrosse. For convenience here is the quote again:

"...I think there's a misconception out there that successful people have faced fewer obstacles than most. It's quite the opposite.

I think what makes successful people or successful athletes..., is they have failed, in many cases, more than most people. Because they've had the audacity to try things that are out of their wheelhouse more regularly..."

Michael Jordan took risks he didn't have to. He tried out for the varsity team when it was normal to get cut as a sophomore. And that pain, self inflicted as it was, is what drove him.

I can not tell you the number of interventions that I tried and failed. Partly because I'm embarrassed that I did so many stupid things. I also can't tell you how many beliefs I held about therapy that were ripped from my hands.

For instance, Erickson was known for doing brief therapy. So when I had a case go well, say we did an empathy chair technique and the client made a major gain, I would quickly terminate treatment, assuming we were done.

And then when I'd see the same client in the lobby a few weeks later, waiting for another therapist I'd be shocked and my world would collapse. Because of experiences like this, I generally don't believe in brief therapy (5-10 sessions), and I'm very careful around initiating termination.

There is a privilege in being able to pursue these sorts of things. There is a privilege to being Michael Jordan that other players didn't have. I had the privilege and time to read books and go to graduate school, and eventually earn a doctorate. I don't want to downplay that privilege.

But let's not pretend that having privilege is some sort of buffer against the pain. I hurt all the same.

3/4 The cost of the Supershrink.

Mastery requires a relentless focus on your weaknesses. You have to constantly be evaluating what the next step is. Part of what this means is you're constantly being pulled out of the moment. Oftentimes this turns you into the kind of person who can't enjoy the fruits of your success.

Take this scene with Phil Ivey [2], the Michael Jordan of poker, after winning a major tournament:

"In 2004, my brother provided televised final-table commentary for a tournament in which Phil Ivey smoked a star-studded final table.

After his win, the two of them went to a restaurant for dinner, during which Ivey deconstructed every potential playing error he thought he might have made on the way to victory, asking my brother's opinion about each strategic decision.

A more run of-the-mill player might have spent the time talking about how great they played, relishing the victory. Not Ivey. For him, the opportunity to learn from his mistakes was much more important than treating that dinner as a self-satisfying celebration.

He earned half-million dollars and won a lengthy poker tournament overworld-class competition, but all he wanted to do was discuss with a fellow pro where he might have made better decisions."

Annie Duke "Thinking in Bets," emphasis mine.

I admire this level of dedication. And I also think this is really sad. The guy just won a world class tournament and he can't enjoy the win.

I've seen this again and again. You win the big game and on the bus ride home, you're planning next season. The whole thing becomes increasingly empty. Winning feels less like victory and more like relief [3].

For myself I felt a constant pressure to perform. I felt like a fraud when things didn't go well. And, honestly, I was afraid of my clients. I was always worried that they wouldn't come back in or ghost me. It left me with a lot of anxiety about my job.

4/4 Are you willing to pay the price to become a Supershrink?

If you go for mastery I want you to go with your eyes open. It's hard work fraught with failure and pain. This doesn't mean you shouldn't go for it. Just be willing to pay the cost.

For me, it got to a point where the cost was no longer worth it for two reasons. First, I couldn't pay the price in pain. I had failure after failure with client after client, and it just hurt too much.

Second, it was taking time away from my family. Right around the time my wife and I had a second kid I had a particularly hard failure with a client and I realized I couldn't do both. I couldn't be the father I wanted to be while also working on becoming a supershrink.

So I hung it up.

Don't get me wrong. I'm good enough as a therapist and the entire journey taught me a lot.

I'm just not the Michael Jordan of therapy.

Part of why I blog is to share everything that I've learned about becoming a better therapist, so that maybe the pain I went through will help someone else.

Maybe you'll get there faster.

Maybe you'll have more success.

Maybe you'll make some innovation that moves the field forward.

I want to talk about the beautiful side of mastery in the coming weeks. But this week I want to talk about the negative side. If you go for greatness, let me be the first to acknowledge it's a lot of self inflicted pain.


Jordan (the Counselor)

*This blog was first posted on Jimmy Murphy's Deliberate Practice blog. Feel free to check out his blog.*

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[1] Lightly edited for clarity.

[2] One of my favorite Phil Ivey stories is a few years ago he had to pay back a casino like 10 million dollars for cheating. Apparently he'd being doing this technique called "edge sorting" where you can tell which card has been played based on small imperfections on the back of cards.

[3] And then, after that, something disturbing happens. You don't actually enjoy winning. Take Naomi Osaka, she's been ranked number 1 in the world for tennis and has won 4 grand slams. In an interview a while back she said:

“I feel like for me recently, when I win I don’t feel happy,” Naomi Osaka said after her third-round loss to Leylah Fernandez on Friday at the US Open. “I feel more like a relief. And then when I lose, I feel very sad. I don’t think that’s normal.”

Naomi Osaka, Tennis star, winner of 4 grand slams and ranked # 1 at one time


If you liked this post, consider reading this next. I think you'll like it ;) It's about the 3 most important metrics for evaluating your effectiveness.

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