The Art of Autosuggestion: Some Remarks on Self-Hypnosis

The Art of Autosuggestion

Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2000-2009.  All rights reserved.  www.UKhypnosis.com

Autosuggestion is the basis of most hypnotism.  An “autosuggestion” or “self-suggestion” is a suggestion which you give to yourself.  It can take the form of a verbal affirmation or sometimes a mental image.  Self-hypnosis was invented in the early 1840s by the Scottish physician and surgeon, James Braid, the founder of hypnotherapy.  Braid didn’t use the word “autosuggestion” but he did define hypnotism as a state of focused attention on an “expectant, dominant idea”.  Braid therefore thought that all hypnosis was essentially self-hypnosis.  He later compared “self-hypnotism”, as he actually called it, to the meditation techniques of ancient Indian yoga though insisting that hypnotism worked by means of simple, common sense, psychological principles.

People curious about hypnosis often ask how hypnotic autosuggestions should be worded in order to make them most effective. Here are some basic guidelines to follow. Remember, however, that self-hypnosis is an art form, there are exceptions to every rule when it comes to human communication and you may find that words or phrases which ‘break’ the rules below nevertheless strike a chord with you -if they do, just use them!

Remember you’re Talking to a Real Person!

When I first began teaching people self-hypnosis I would ask them to sit in front of me and repeat their autosuggestions out loud to me, as if they were saying them to themselves. This is sometimes called a “talk aloud” technique.  That let me hear the tone of voice they were using and observe the attitude they were adopting toward themselves, when using suggestions in the privacy of their own mind. I found that people who are unsuccessful at using autosuggestion virtually always sounded like they were “talking to a brick wall”, or at least they don’t sound like they were talking to a real person. Perhaps we’re more likely to talk to other people in a considerate manner, than to talk to ourselves in that way.

I noticed that there were two extremes: people would either repeat autosuggestions in a boring, detached, meaningless tone (in a sort of “depressed” mode), or in a tense, aggressive manner (in a sort of “anxious” mode). I therefore felt either bored or tense listening to them! I would point out that if that is how their internal voice sounded, then they were perhaps boring themselves, or putting themselves “on the defensive”. Strive instead for a kind of rapport with your inner mind, with yourself. Speak to yourself with consideration and respect, in a gentle but meaningful manner. In this regard your relationship with yourself is just like your relationship with anyone else, you can have a good relationship or a bad relationship. Indeed, in the long term, doing self-hypnosis is about more than autosuggestion. It is about developing a good working relationship with your own mind, a sense of internal rapport and self-trust, of being integrated and at one with other levels of your own mind. Each suggestion which you deliver is another small step in the overall process of building that good relationship toward yourself. The recommendations which follow are designed to help you “find your voice” doing autosuggestion and develop a healthy relationship with your own self.

Phrase Suggestions Positively

Avoid phrases which employ verbal negation, like “less anxious”, “won’t bite my nails”, “not angry”, etc. Even Sigmund Freud once wrote ‘There are in this system no negation, no doubt, no degrees of certainty […] In the unconscious there are only contents, invested with greater or lesser strength.” (Freud, The Unconscious).

The clichéd example is: “Don’t think of elephants. You can think of any animal you want but NOT elephants…”  In order to understand the meaning of those words most people will tend to think precisely of elephants! Put simply, in order to understand a word you usually have to evoke some image or sensation from your own experience that gives it meaning, this happens spontaneously at the threshold of your awareness. You will imagine the content of the words, regardless of the meaning of the sentence. Hence, “I feel less anxious”, is a bad suggestion more likely to conjure up anxious feelings than remove them. “I feel more confident”, is much better because it encourages you to think about what confidence means.  Phrase your autosuggestions positively and say what you do want, not what you don’t want.

Use the Present Tense

It is normally better to use present tense rather than past or future. “I am growing calmer”, or “I am calm and confident”, are better than “I will be calm.” Suggestions about the future can be used but are best linked to specific situations and phrased in the present tense. For example, “I am calm and confident as I stand to make my speech at the wedding.” is better than “I will be calm at the wedding.” Phrasing something in the present tense encourages identification with the experience, which is more likely to evoke a physical or emotional response than use of the past or future tense, which encourage a sense of distance and dissociation.

Suggestions phrased in the ‘progressive’ form of the present tense (“I am becoming…”) are more ‘permissive’ than those in the ‘simple’ form (“I am…”), meaning they are often easier to accept and don’t provoke a sense of resistance. Some people have told me that suggestions like “I am calm and confident” can jar because the mind retaliates by thinking “No I’m not!”  Hence, “every day I am growing more calm and confident” is less objectionable even to the most sceptical part of the mind. In most cases the mind will respond in roughly the same way because the different grammatical forms of this suggestion still contain the same basic concepts. As a rule, however, use the most direct form of suggestion that you feel comfortable with, i.e., the simple form of the present tense is best.

Suggest Realistic Action

Where possible suggest action that is within your sphere of control. For example, “I am now writing better and better fiction” is usually stronger than “I have the ability to write great fiction” or “I can write great fiction.” Everyone has the potential to do things that they never actually do, the real step forward comes by turning your potential into action. Some people who have exceptional self-doubt or low self-esteem, however, may begin by using suggestions that help them to recognise their potential.

Also, suggestions like “I am now prospering financially and rapidly expanding my wealth” are better than “I win the lottery and people are giving me lots of money!” Suggest things which are realistic and , at least in principle, within your sphere of control. Autosuggestion is not magic, it is not a way of controlling other people or external events, except insofar as they are influenced by changes in your own patterns of behaviour. “I am now winning the world heavy-weight boxing championship of the world” is not realistic unless you are willing to put in the necessary time training and have the physical potential to achieve such a high ideal. That said, if you were an aspiring boxer, “I love training, and I box faster and stronger every day” would be a good suggestion as it refers to directly achievable changes.

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition…

People often ask: “How many times do I have to repeat a suggestion.” Each time you repeat a suggestion imagine that you are looking for ways to make it more compelling, more powerful, and more meaningful. I would like to say that if you hit it just right you need only repeat a suggestion once but that is a high ideal. As a rough guide, in practice most people will repeat a suggestion as many times as is comfortable or convenient, in at least one sitting or session per day, for a total programme lasting a few weeks. Repetition is the mother of learning. However, repetition should be meaningful and not mindless, autosuggestion is not like chanting a mantra. (See the section on ‘meaning’)

It’s unrealistic, of course, to expect to sit down for five minutes, give yourself a few half-hearted and badly-worded autosuggestions, and expect a miracle cure.  There’s a “practice effect” which can take time to develop, but not usually more than a week or so.  You need time to get into the habit of thinking positively, get the knack of using your imagination, and learn from trial-and-error how to make best use of autosuggestion, perhaps changing the wording slightly until you find out what works best.

Mean Everything you Say

Speak with faith and conviction in your voice, and continually contemplate the meaning of your words. Oriental “mantras” are sometimes repeated rapidly with the focus on the sound or breathing.  However, this is not the case in self-hypnosis, it is the meaning of the words that matters. Braid said it was focused attention on an “expectant” and “dominant” idea that formed the basis of hypnotism and that suggestion was accompanied by confidence and “lively faith” when successful.  You have to believe in yourself and mean what you’re saying.

Do not analyse your suggestions or comment upon them internally; it is natural and desirable for you to picture, sense, and feel the things which you are describing, so think about their meaning in that way. For example, if you choose to repeat a suggestion like “I am growing confident…” then be curious and wonder about the good associations which the word “confidence” inevitable conjures up for you. This should be a casual and natural exploration of the meaning.  Combine mental imagery where possible, without straining too much to concentrate in a way that makes you tense.  Relax, think positively, and picture your goals meaningfully in a way that excites the imagination. 

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