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Couéism: “Conscious Autosuggestion”
Copyright (c) Donald Robertson 2006-2009. All rights reserved.
Tous les jours à tous points de vue je vais de mieux en mieux.
“Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.” (Coué)
When the French pharmacist Émile Coué (1857-1926) was aged 28 he met the great Ambroise-Auguste Liébault (1823-1904), himself a country doctor, and assisted him for about two years in his hypnotic clinic at Nancy. By 1901, Coué had started to employ a technique of hypnotic induction by graduated waking suggestions. However, by 1910 Coué had abandoned classical hypnotism in favour of his technique of “conscious autosuggestion”, in which subjects are taught how to use suggestion and imagination for themselves. At this point Coué founded a movement he termed the “New Nancy School”, in reference to the Nancy School of hypnosis founded by Liébault, who had passed away a few years earlier. Coué makes it clear that he abandoned the hypnotic inductions of Liébault, and his eminent student Hippolyte Bernheim, because he found that some people did not “sleep” when instructed to do so and, seeing this as failure, became prematurely disillusioned with the treatment.
[Woman:] “I was under Bernheim [as a patient], he tried to make me sleep but was unable to do so.”
[Coué:] “It is not practical to make people sleep, because if you are not successful, they say that as [sic.] they cannot be cured! Therefore I send no-one to sleep.” (Coué, 1923: 42-43).
Coué attempted through the very name “conscious autosuggestion” to address the two most fundamental misconceptions about hypnotism,
- The client is normally conscious and not asleep, unconscious, or in a “trance”.
- The client is not under the hypnotist’s control or power but responds primarily because he voluntarily accepts suggestions in the form of autosuggestion.
Unusually for the period, Coué’s books were written in a lively, “popular” style and contain transcripts of his seminars where he is shown interacting with patients and answering their questions, giving a very vivid impression of these events and his character. A more formal expression of his work, based upon a series of university lectures, was published his disciple Charles Baudouin in Suggestion & Autosuggestion (1920). Baudouin himself was an educationalist, psychotherapist and professor of philosophy at the Rousseau Institute and University of Geneva. Prior to the publication of Baudouin’s work in 1920, literature on the New Nancy School was scarce,
He [Coué] was written no more than a few articles in the bulletin of the school, and some papers for psychological congresses. Even scantier are the writings of his pupils. The New Nancy School supplied the elements of an entire psychology, but this psychology remains unwritten.
His ideas seem mainly to have spread through his seminars and word of mouth. Coué was undoubtedly a peculiarly charismatic man. Baudouin, in a preface to his book, illustrates his character by saying, “His whole appearance is as far removed as possible from affectation; you feel that he is ready at any moment to remove his coat and give a helping hand.” A photograph shows Coué surrounded by a group of at least sixty patients, suggesting the popularity of his free-of-charge group clinic, which took place at Troyes and subsequently Nancy. Baudouin says he saw him treating over a hundred patients each day, carrying out 40,000 consultations per year (Baudouin, 1920: 14). In the transcripts, he speaks to his audience of patients in ‘pigeon’ English and is prone to well-meaning bossiness and excitable outbursts, so that a sense of his Gallic accent and temperament survives in the text. Some have dubbed him the father of modern “self-help”, though that ignores the fact that many self-help books were written long before his time. Many people have heard of Couéism, a popularity curiously illustrated by the fact that a description of the Coué method, was included in the lyrics of the well-known pop song by John Lennon, Beautiful Boy,
“Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful boy,
“Before you go to sleep,
“Say a little prayer,
“Every day in every way,
“It's getting better and better.”
– John Lennon, Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy), 1980
The Laws of Autosuggestion
The two basic theoretical principles of Couéism are,
- All suggestion is autosuggestion.
- Internal conflict occurs between the will and imagination, but the imagination is always stronger. (q.v., Coué, 1923: 19)
These lead on to the famous laws of autosuggestion,
1. The Law of Concentrated Attention
Ideas upon which attention becomes focused become correspondingly magnified in their effect. Spontaneous autosuggestions may capture the attention automatically. Conscious autosuggestions must be repeated with mental focus, and with certainty and faith in them. This obviously resembles Braid’s definition of hypnotism as focused attention upon a dominant idea (“monoideism”).
2. The Law of Auxiliary Emotion
“When, for one reason or another, an idea is enveloped in a powerful emotion, there is more likelihood that this idea will be suggestively realised.” (Baudouin, 1920: 114). The auxiliary role of emotion in capturing attention and transforming an idea into bodily action is a key feature of spontaneous negative autosuggestion. Negative ideas stick in our minds because of the powerful emotions attached to them, especially the emotion of fear. Baudouin stresses that this gives spontaneous autosuggestion a kind of initial advantage, as many people implicitly recognise, because our deliberate attempts at conscious autosuggestion are unlikely to be accompanied by such strong and sincere emotion.
3. The Law of Reversed Effort
The law of reversed effort raises a second obstacle to the use of autosuggestion because the more we try to consciously struggle with a dominant idea the more powerful its effects become. “When an idea imposes itself on the mind to such an extent as to give rise to a suggestion, all the conscious efforts which the subject makes in order to counteract this suggestion are not merely without the desired effect, but they actually run counter to the subject’s conscious wishes and tend to intensify the suggestion.” (Baudouin, 1920: 116). He elaborates by describing the law of reversed effect as exemplified by the self-antagonistic attitude of mind that says, “I would like to… but I cannot.” This notion might be seen as similar to the modern technique of “reverse psychology”, a persuasion technique which aims, paradoxically, to persuade someone to accept an idea by suggesting the opposite to them.
This obstacle is surmounted by the special prescription of the New Nancy School which insists that conscious autosuggestion should be used without the slightest tension caused by too much effort and with an accompanying sense that things are easily accomplished.
When you make conscious autosuggestions, do it naturally, simply, with conviction, and above all without any effort. If unconscious and bad suggestions are so often realised, it is because they are made without effort. (Coué, 1922: 36)
Imagine things are easy and already on the road to being accomplished, and avoid trying to wrestle with them through force of willpower.
4. The Law of Subconscious Teleology
“When the end has been suggested the subconscious finds means for its realisation.” (Baudouin, 1920: 117). Autosuggestion therefore focuses upon the goal and allows the mind to spontaneously find its own means to achieve that goal. It is true that this attitude seems conducive to autosuggestion, though it should be qualified by adding that in terms of complex or long-term goals it is usually advisable to break them down into steps and stages because the mind sometimes has a limited ability to work out solutions spontaneously.
The Method of Conscious Autosuggestion
Probably because of the emphasis placed upon preparation of the subject, Coué only felt it was necessary to instruct his patients in two main autosuggestion practices.
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1. The General Method
His famous general purpose formula, “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.” This was to be repeated at least 20 times every single night, eyes closed, spoken monotonously in a whisper, as one relaxed before drifting off to sleep. Coué even suggests using a rosary to count the repetitions, a practice similar to the mantra yoga of Indian. However, he shrewdly adds the caveat, “Say it as many times as you like; only don’t let it become an obsession.” (My Method: 148)
The words “in every way” were to be given special emphasis, with an awareness that they refer to both physical and mental improvement. It is a “catch all” suggestion and the subject must feel that it refers to every possible goal they might have in mind. However, Baudouin stresses that this generic formula was most effective when the subject had previously reflected on the details of their therapeutic goals, thereby rendering “in every way” a meaningful expression. This kind of concrete analysis of one’s goals is part of the normal process of therapy; consequently, Baudouin advises people who lack this experience to add the following component to the exercise,
In addition he should, during the day, from time to time produce a state of [self-hypnosis], and should then let his mind review the detailed series of desired modifications. Only in obstinate cases will it be necessary to do this every day. But the subject will find the practice extremely useful whenever he has a few minutes to spare. (Baudouin, 1920: 158)
2. The Specific Method.
The specific formula, simply “It is going” (of a pain or acute symptom of distress). Coué actually says,
I advise English-speaking people to stick to the French version: it being much easier to say “ça passe” quickly than the longer and more awkward expression “it is passing” or “it is going.” (Coué, My Method, 1923: 31)
He thought this was best done very rapidly, “at the risk of gabbling”, which he believed helped prevent the intrusion of contrary thoughts which might conflict with the suggestion. Coué advised his students to rub the affected area, “lightly but rapidly”, at the location of pain or tension, or to pass the hand over the forehead if the symptom were purely an abstract thought or feeling. In his seminars, he would rub the area himself and repeat “It is going, it is going…”, while asking the subject to mimic him by repeating the suggestion along with him. The following account is worth quoting in full,
Therefore every time that you have a pain, physical or otherwise, you will go quietly to your room (it is better if you can do this, but you can do it also in the middle of the road if necessary), but if you go to your room, sit down and shut your eyes, pass your hand lightly across your forehead if it is mental distress, or upon the part that hurts if it is a pain in any part of the body, and repeat the words: It is going, it is going, etc. Very rapidly, even at the risk of gabbling, it is of no importance. The essential idea is to say: it is going, it is going, so quickly, that it is impossible for a thought of contrary nature to force itself between the words. We thus actually think it is going, and as all ideas that we fix upon the mind become a reality for us, the pain, physical or mental vanishes. And should the pain return, repeat the process 10, 20, 50, 100, 200 times if necessary, for it is better to pass the entire day saying: It is going! than to suffer pain and complain about it. Be more patient than your pain, drive it back to its last entrenchments. And you will find that the more you use this process, the less you will have to, that is to say, that if today you use it 50 times, tomorrow you will only use it 48, and the next day 46 and so on… so that at the end of a relatively short space of time, you will have no need to use it at all. (Coué, 1923: 82)
According to Baudouin, Coué prescribed that the special suggestion should be “gabbled” rapidly to avoid the intrusion of counter-acting thoughts because it aims at a simple sensory change. By contrast, the general suggestion should be repeated slowly (“piously”) because it is a high-level instruction which requires some spontaneous reflection on the specific changes which it entails (Baudouin, 1920: 162-163).
Paradoxically, Baudouin suggests that more complex methods of autosuggestion are only necessary for less intelligent people who fail to understand the basic underlying mechanism of suggestion in its simplicity. These people, he says, assume that the technique does the work, “whereas the real agent is the imagination itself.”
Above all, avoid falling into a superstition about exercises; and avoid an undue multiplicity of exercises. We know that the practice of autosuggestion is simple and easy; that it need not occasion any loss of time; that everyone can and everyone should acquire the art. The morning and evening concentration is the basis of the whole thing. Exercises are no more than adjuvants, doubtless of great value. But we must be careful not to overestimate their importance. (Baudouin, 1920: 170)
He stresses, however, that “People are inclined to disbelieve in the efficacy of anything simple” (Baudouin, 1920: 167).
The Law of Converted (Reversed) Effort
According to Coué, willpower merely strengthens the imagination when it attempts to oppose it. (q.v., Coué, 1923: 20). He gives the example of stage fright or compulsive giggling which, as everyone knows, tend to be made worse by the struggle to suppress them by willpower alone. As Baudouin puts it, when we are in the grip of a negative idea it dominates the imagination and emotions and insofar as we try to use force against it, in the form of conscious effort or willpower, without substituting a positive counter-idea, we merely aggravate the situation by strengthening the mental image of the problem. He says that Coué used the simile of a man trapped in quicksand, sinking deeper the more he struggles, to illustrate the plight of the neurotic trapped in the mire of his own negative autosuggestions (Baudouin, 1920: 38).
Baudouin clearly believed that the Law of Reversed Effort was the central defining characteristic of whole Coué’s method. Excessive conscious effort presupposes and evokes the idea of failure, thereby risking the evocation of antagonistic ideas. For example, the conscious effort to fall asleep is likely, in many cases, to focus attention also on the risk of staying awake, and thereby to stimulate conflicting ideo-reflex responses.
Voluntary effort presupposes the idea of a resistance to be overcome. It comprises both action and reaction. The two notions are simultaneously [resent at the moment of the effort. If, then (and this is a matter of the first importance), I concentrate voluntary attention on an idea, which implies my making an effort, I am simultaneously conscious of an action toward this idea, and of a resistance in consequence of which the idea continually tends to escape me, so that I must unceasingly recall my wandering attention. (Baudouin, 1920: 123)
Hence, spontaneous and reflective autosuggestion come into direct conflict and create an antagonism in the mind which paralyses the ideo-motor response,
In these circumstances, we do not think a single idea, but two conflicting ideas. And if our state of consciousness is sufficiently reinforced by attention for the origination of a suggestion to be possible, it is not a single suggestion that will result, but there will be two conflicting suggestions which will neutralise one another more or less perfectly. The yield, therefore, will be far less copious than in the case of spontaneous suggestion. And if it should unfortunately happen that the sentiment of effort and resistance predominates, we shall probably arrive at a negative result, the reverse of that which we desire, a result whose dimensions will be proportional to the efforts we have made to avoid it. (Baudouin, 1920: 124)
It should be noted that Coué thought it essential to believe that change is easy, this is one of the pre-requisite beliefs of his method.
Always think that what you have to do is easy, if possible. In this state of mind you will not spend more of your strength than just what is necessary; if you consider it difficult, you will spend ten, twenty times more strength than you need; in other words you will waste it. (Coué, 1922: 38)
When he states that effort is not necessary it is because, in this sphere, things are as difficult or as easy as we believe them to be. As Baudouin puts it, “effortlessness is a habit we must acquire if we are to practise autosuggestion.” (Baudouin, 1920: 136). Effort becomes superfluous if we can acquire belief in the ease of change. Nevertheless, effort and willpower are an interference but faith in oneself and confidence are essential,
Make this autosuggestion with confidence, with faith, with the certainty of obtaining what you want. The greater the conviction, the greater and more rapid will be the results. (Coué, 1922: 94).
Baudouin makes it clear that the New Nancy School consistently found this Law of Reversed Effort to explain the initial setbacks encountered by novice students of autosuggestion, who were, as we might put it today, “trying too hard” and making things more difficult as a result,
If we enquire of the new “pupils,” of those that have failed in their first attempts, concerning the manner in which they made their suggestions, we get some such answer as this: “I took a lot of pains; I tried as hard as I could.” But as soon as the pupil is made to realise that herein precisely lies his error, he promptly begins to make headway. (Baudouin, 1920: 125).
Coué therefore frequently insists that his clients exert “no effort” but rather imagination. This raises a minor semantic paradox, because using one’s imagination itself might be seen as an effort of will, albeit channelled in another direction. Coué acknowledges this,
I cannot too strongly insist that in the practice of auto-suggestion the exercise of will must be strictly avoided, except in the initial phase of directing or guiding the imagination along the desired lines. This is absolutely the only manifestation of will necessary, or even desirable. (My Method, 14)
For this reason, Coué recommends practising autosuggestion in the morning or at night, on the verge of sleep, at a time when conscious effort is naturally suspended by feelings of drowsiness. During the daytime, autosuggestions are repeated very rapidly to prevent the mind from straying onto antagonistic ideas.
It seems likely that Coué’s observations about the laws of suggestion are drawn directly from his experiments with suggestion experiments, such as Chevreul’s pendulum. For instance, when subjects are asked to “try to stop the pendulum moving by willing it not to swing”, the opposite often happens, and it swings more rapidly.
Coué’s Classic Examples
Speaking of autosuggestion, Coué writes,
It is a sort of little trick. When one learns the trick he is able to become master of himself. (Coué, 1923: 119)
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To help students get the knack of autosuggestion, he repeatedly makes use of the same set of examples intended to support his argument that the conscious will is weaker than the imagination,
1. The Insomnia Example. Coué points to the common experience that when someone tries to get to sleep they end up achieving the opposite, keeping themselves awake by their efforts. He could have added the corollary that they may, however, fall asleep if they believe they have been given sleeping tablet, which is actually a placebo.
2. The Forgetting Example. When people forget a name they often find that the more they try to remember it the more frustrated they become, but when they stop making the effort it “pops back into” their mind unbidden.
3. The Laughter Example. When people have an uncontrollable fit of the giggles they often complain that the more pressure is put upon them to stop laughing the more they find it difficult to stop. Coué does not refer to the theatrical notion of actors’ “corpsing” on stage, but that might be a good example of the problem.
4. The Cycling Example. When someone is learning to ride a bike and they worry about hitting a bump and falling off, the more they struggle to maintain balance the more likely they seem to be to achieve the opposite and crash into things. (He could have used the example of people struggling to swim, who thrash around and go under rather than calmly treading water.)
5. The Stammering Example. The more worried a stammerer becomes about their speech the more errors they tend to make. Yet when alone they may be able to read aloud without flaw.
6. The “Walking the Plank” Example. Taking an illustration from the famous French philosopher Blaise Pascal, Coué asks us to imagine walking across a long plank of wood placed on the floor. He asks whether we would be able to do so with the same ease if the plank were suspended “across a street at the height of one of your American skyscrapers.” The anxious imagination of falling interferes with our conscious intention to perform an act as simple as walking in a straight line.
From these points, Coué would conclude with flourish,
Therefore, I repeat, that every time the WILL and the IMAGINATION come in conflict, not only can we not do that which we wish, but we do precisely the contrary. (Coué, 1923: 63)
These arguments are of interest mainly for their rhetorical value. Coué found from experience that they were simple and universal enough to carry his point in front of a variety of different audiences.
Coué’s Practical Experiments
Coué implicitly acknowledged the role of ideo-motor action, termed “ideo-reflex” by Baudouin, the physiological process by which the imagination exerts a causal effect upon certain physical processes. “Every thought entirely filling our mind becomes true for us and tends to transform itself into action.” (Coué, 1922: 15). He uses a series of standardised “waking suggestion” experiments to demonstrate what he means by the conflict between will and imagination. Similar “suggestion tests” are now widely used in modern stage hypnosis and clinical hypnotherapy. He describes the group explanation and demonstrations he gives, quite colourfully, as cultivating the soil of his audience’s minds to prepare them for planting the seeds of therapeutic autosuggestion (Coué, 1923: 124).
They must understand autosuggestion to benefit from the method, and his performance is crucial in building their confidence in themselves and their ability to influence their mind and body. If people who have merely read about the Coué method fail to make it work, it is perhaps because they have not prepared themselves beforehand in a similar manner. If Coué knows that the subject can respond to suggestion tests, he knows they have probably understood how to make autosuggestion work and they are ready to put it into practice.
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The Hand Clasp Experiment
Subjects are asked to clasp their hands tightly together and straighten their arms. They are asked to tell themselves “I will open my hands, but I CANNOT, I CANNOT!” Sometimes muttering the words rapidly under their breath. To which Coué adds forcefully, “Your hands lock tighter and tighter, always tighter!” He continues to suggest that the hands are clenching tighter and cannot be separated by effort so long as the imagination is fixed on the contrary idea. Sometimes muttering the words rapidly under their breath. After a pause, he then instructs the client to tell themselves, “I CAN!”, to imagine they can, and to separate their hands. Indeed, this particular test has become a mainstay of hypnotic demonstrations over the intervening years. Note that Coué’s emphasis upon repeating “I CANNOT” aloud before turning this into “I CAN” might be taken to resemble the notion of self-efficacy statements in Bandura’s research.
The Postural Sway Experiment
The subject stands tense and rigid like a plank and is instructed to suggest to himself that he is falling forward, or falling back, to be caught by Coué.
The Fist-Clench Experiment
The subject clenches their fist and suggests to themselves that it cannot open, after an initial effort they tell themselves it can open again.
The Pen-Drop Experiment
The subject grasps a pen between their fingers and suggests to themselves, and imagines, that they cannot release it and let it drop. Coué asks them to imagine that the more they try to drop it the more tightly their fingers grasp until they change tack and imagine their fingers releasing instead.
The Hand Stuck Experiment
The subject presses their palm onto a tabletop and suggests that it is stuck in place and cannot be lifted.
The Stiff Leg Experiment
The subject imagines their legs are stiff and stuck in place so they cannot walk.
The Stuck in Chair Experiment
The subject imagines being glued to their chair so that they cannot stand up.
Coué also refers to the well-known “sucking a lemon” experiment (My Method) in which subjects are asked to visualise in detail that they are sucking a lemon and notice the tendency for the mouth to salivate, an elementary example of the ideo-reflex response, or the effect of autosuggestion and imagination upon the autonomic processes of the body.
These techniques take the form either of autosuggestions of one simple muscular movement (e.g., postural sway) or of two antagonistic muscular responses (e.g., hand clasp) which cause a kind of catalepsy in response to challenges to resist the original dominant idea. Baudouin favoured the use of Chevreul’s famous “exploratory pendulum” experiment, and used this as a precursor to other suggestion tests. He felt this experiment worked best of all, probably because it inherently amplifies the ideo-motor response and involves a simple movement rather than a challenge entailing antagonistic responses.
The Conclusion to his Seminar
Coué (1923: 73) ends his seminars by asking his subjects to close their eyes. Despite rejecting the label “self-hypnosis”, he accepts that closing the eyes and relaxing helps to focus the mind on the imagination. He then delivers a long series of positive suggestions for the whole group, which each person is to repeat internally. He begins by gracefully reassuring the audience that with their consent, his suggestions will remain fixed permanently in their mind and have an effect upon “the whole organism”, and they can be accepted easily because they are seen to be helpful and for the audience’s good. What follows is a fairly traditional hypnosis script, focused on general physical well-being and healthy functioning. He concludes with a powerful statement of self-efficacy or “ego-strengthening”,
Finally and above all, and this is most essential for everyone, if up to the present you have felt a certain distrust of yourself, this distrust from now onwards, will gradually disappear, and will give place to a feeling of confidence in yourself. YOU WILL HAVE CONFIDENCE IN YOURSELF, you hear me, YOU WILL HAVE CONFIDENCE IN YOURSELF. I repeat it, and this confidence will enable you to do whatever you want to do well, even very well, whatever it may be, on condition, naturally, that it is reasonable […].
Believing that the thing which you wish to do is easy, it becomes so for you, although it may appear difficult to others. And you will do this thing quickly and well, with pleasure, without fatigue, without effort; while, on the other hand, had you considered it difficult or impossible, it would have become so for you, simply because you would have thought it so! (Coué, 1923: 77-78)
Modern hypnotists believe it is better to focus mainly on the solution, or where it is necessary to mention a problem or mistake, to speak of it briefly first and then follow by referring in more depth to a more positive outcome. (Indeed, this seems to follow from Coué’s own theory.) Nevertheless, the overall effect of these seminars must have given participants an impressive sense of the potential of autosuggestion.
The best summary of the New Nancy School approach is Charles Baudouin’s popular Suggestion & Autosuggestion (1920). I have referred to the following books by Coué, which may be of interest to the reader. They are available in a wide variety of editions, some available free of charge on internet websites,
Self-Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion (1922)
How to Practice Suggestion & Autosuggestion (1923)
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My Method (1923)
Appendix: How to Practise Conscious Autosuggestion
Excerpt from Émile Coué’s Self-Mastery through Conscious Autosuggestion (1922)
Every morning before getting up and every evening as soon as you are in bed, shut your eyes, and repeat twenty times in succession, moving your lips (this is indispensible) and counting mechanically on a long string with twenty knots, the following phrase: “Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better.” Do not think of anything particular, as the words “in every way” apply to everything. Make this autosuggestion with confidence, with faith, with the certainty of obtaining what you want. The greater the conviction, the greater and the more rapid will be the results obtained.
Further, every time in the course of the day or night that you feel any distress physical or mental, immediately affirm to yourself that you will not consciously contribute to it, and that you are going to make it disappear; then isolate yourself as much as possible, shut your eyes, and passing your hand over your forehead, if it is something mental, or over the part which is painful, if it is something physical, repeat extremely quickly, moving your lips, the words: “It is going, it is going”, etc., etc., as long as it may be necessary. With a little practice the physical or mental distress will have vanished in 20 to 25 seconds. Begin again whenever it is necessary. Avoid carefully any effort in practising autosuggestion.
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