From our birth to our death we are all the slaves of suggestion. Our destinies are decided by suggestion. It is an all-powerful tyrant of which, unless we take heed, we are the blind instruments. Now, it is in our power to turn the tables and to discipline suggestion, and direct it in the way we ourselves wish; then it becomes auto-suggestion: we have taken the reigns into our own hands, and we have become masters of the most marvellous instrument conceivable. (Emile Coué, My Method, 1923)
We all give ourselves suggestions (autosuggestions) all of the time, often of a negative or unhelpful nature. Sometimes people who are very sceptical about autosuggestion complain: “I don’t see how just saying stuff to yourself can make any difference!” On reflection, it should be common sense that both what we say to ourselves and how we say it, make an absolutely huge difference! We are all familiar with the effect that our words can have upon the thoughts and feelings of others. Our internal dialogue works upon our own mind in the same way, only its influence is more pervasive, more insidious, and more continuous. If you have the chance to observe people who suffer from severe anxiety or depression you will soon notice the repetitive patterns of self-talk which feed their negative feelings. Things like “Nobody likes me, I’m useless at everything, I don’t have the strength to change things.” Cognitive therapists refer to this as ‘negative self-talk’ or ‘Automatic Negative Thoughts’ (ANTs).
When hypnotherapy was first introduced, in the middle of the 19th century, its founders assumed that many problems were caused by negative autosuggestions. James Braid, the founder of hypnotherapy, claimed that many cases of “hysteria”, a Victorian term for neurosis and psychosomatic illness, were due to “morbid”, i.e., unhealthy, “fixed ideas” resembling a kind of negative self-hypnosis. This idea was taken for granted in most Victorian hypnotherapy but became particularly central to the early twentieth century theories of Emile Coue and his school of “conscious autosuggestion”. The same idea later became fundamental to modern cognitive therapy.
EXERCISE: Raising Self-Awareness of ANTs
When we become more aware of our negative thoughts and we recognise their harmful effects we can begin to stop them. An extremely useful exercise for raising awareness is simply to externalise the internal dialogue and talk out loud. Imagine that you are talking to someone else using the same words and tone of voice that you use in your internal dialogue. (Change any use of “I” into the word “You.”) Imagine talking to someone you honestly care about, perhaps a small child. Imagine how the words and tonality would affect them. Would you really choose to speak to another person in that way? Go one stage further: How would you expect them to respond? (Sometimes this is called the “double-standards strategy” in modern therapy.)
Take the exercise one stage further again by stepping back and looking at yourself talking in that way to the other person. Ask yourself honestly: “What can you learn about your internal dialogue by doing this?” Focus on the “what” and “how” of things rather than the “why.” How are you expressing yourself and what is the effect? Surprisingly, this exercise very often leads to the recognition of hostility is in our self-talk. Think for a moment how paradoxical this is: many times I have heard people snap at themselves angrily “For God’s sake, why can’t you get things right!” , or words to that effect. This internal dialogue is trying to make them stronger, but creating the opposite effect: it’s counter-productive!
Be aware that negative autosuggestions are often disguised as questions. For example, “Why do I always screw things up?” This questions merely conceals the statement and negative suggestion “I always screw things up!” Questions like “Why me?” often imply answers like “Because I am a bad person and deserve to be punished!” That’s the suggestion! Also be aware that self-talk which, if taken literally, would be positive often becomes negative because of the tone of voice used inside the mind. “I am supremely confident!” looks OK on paper, but becomes a negative suggestion if it is said in an incongruent tone of voice, e.g., with a dreary, despondent voice, or in a sarcastic tone.
EXERCISE: Exterminating ANTs
Raising self-awareness is the most important first step and often leads to a sense of letting go powerful enough to undermine the ANTs, either partially or completely removing their negative effects. However, there are several other practical measures which can be used to fight back powerfully against negative thoughts or transform them into something positive.
It is helpful to realise that much of the power of communication lies in the way things are said. Behavioural researchers tell us that as much as 97% of communication is non-verbal. A positive remark said with a sarcastic voice can be more damaging than a fundamental criticism made with tact and sensitivity –it’s not what you say it’s the way that you say it!
Knowing this, it makes sense to weaken negative internal dialogue by giving it a ludicrous, squeaky ‘Mickey Mouse’ voice and/or imagining it being said by a man with a clown’s nose on his face! Do whatever you find makes the whole thing seem ridiculous. In the cold light of day, these kind of negative criticisms are crazy and irrational, and stem from a part of the mind which is blinkered and presumptuous of a moral authority which it simply does not possess. The internal critic is an idiot posing as a ruler.
The basic principle is as follows, by making negative thoughts sound ridiculous you are making them appear as they truly are. If you neglect to do this you are allowing them to claim a position of authority to which they have no right.
Disputing Negative Autosuggestions
Most negative thoughts are unquestioningly assumed to be valid, and repeated automatically without reflection. They are used to hammer home an idea without any rational justification, and as such they depend on an assumption of complete authority. When we pause to really analyse them we usually find that they are partially false, or at least uncertain.
The most common trend of irrational thinking is generalisation, which can take many subtle shapes and forms. For example, “I never get things right,” is an absurd generalisation. It is usually said with an air of complete conviction even though a moment’s reflection tells us it cannot be literally true –in the real world there’s no such thing as “never.” Imagine snapping: “You never get anything right!” to a small child. Would that help them to improve? No, it would probably do the opposite; shattering their self-esteem so that they struggle even more. Even saying “You have made a lot of mistakes,” would be a better and more truthful way of putting things, although focusing on the positive by saying something like “I think you could improve next time by…” is usually more helpful.
Generalisations are depressing. If I believe that “nobody likes me” or “I never get anything right” then… well, I’m just stuffed! I haven’t even got a foothold to start fixing things. If I pretend that everything is bleak then I trap myself and cut myself off from the possibility of constructive action. That leads to feelings of helplessness, and consequently depression.
Test out the validity of negative thoughts by asking if another statement would be more truthful or accurate. Search out any exaggeration or generalisations, look for any possible counter-examples and exceptions. Negative internal dialogue is often frighteningly aggressive or depressingly despondent. Tact and sensitivity are essential elements in any communication whether external or internal: be fair to yourself and criticise constructively!
Often the simplest approach is the best. An old behaviour therapy technique is to imagine a big red sign saying “STOP!” and a voice yelling “STOP!” if you so much as notice the negative patterns beginning. This sounds too easy but it works well for many people and can even make you laugh. The key to making it work is that it has to be done as powerfully and dramatically as possible… WHAM!
Autosuggestion works better when negative automatic thoughts, negative autosuggestions, have already been weakened. Use autosuggestions which directly counter-act the negative thoughts in question and focus on the idea of replacing them with positive and realistic substitute thoughts.