Émile Coué: Autosuggestion and Self-Improvement
On the 2nd of July 1926, French self-help guru Émile Coué de la Châtaigneraie died in Nancy, France. Working as an apothecary at Troyes at the turn of the century, Coué came to know the placebo effect and used encouraging words to recommend medicines to patients, pinning small notes with positive messages to various remedies when handing them over to his customers. He went on to develop a self-healing theory based on the use of a technique he called conscious autosuggestion. The latter was based on the mantra-like sentence: “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better”. This came to be called Couéism or the Coué method and consisted of the routine repetition of this particular expression according to a specified ritual, as much as twenty times a day, especially at the start and end of each day.
All the while Coué presented his method to groups of willing patients; he maintained that , “I have never cured anyone in my life. All I do is show people how they can cure themselves.” He believed that the best way to influence conscious action was by changing the way our unconscious thought system worked, by means of imagination. Organic or physiological transformations could in fact be achieved by this method called autosuggestion. In Self Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion (1922), Coué wrote: “we can control and lead our imagination, just as a tor-rent or an unbroken horse can be controlled… To do so, it is enough in the first place to know that this is possible (of which fact almost everyone is ignorant) and secondly, to know by what means it can be done. Well, the means is very simple; it is that which we have used every day since we came into the world, without wishing or knowing it and absolutely unconsciously, but which unfortunately for us, we often use wrongly and to our own detriment. This means is autosuggestion. Whereas we constantly give ourselves unconscious autosuggestion, all we have to do is to give ourselves conscious ones, and the process consists in this: first, to weigh carefully in one’s mind the things which are to be the object of the autosuggestion, and according as they require the answer “yes” or “no”, to repeat several times without thinking of anything else: “This thing is coming”, or “this thing is going away”; “this thing will, or will not happen, etc. etc.” If the unconscious accepts this suggestion and transforms it into an autosuggestion, the thing or things are realized in every way. Thus understood, autosuggestion is nothing but hypnotism as I see it, and I would define it in these simple words: The influence of the imagination upon the moral and physical being of mankind. (…) If you persuade yourself that you can do a certain thing, provided this thing be posssible, you will do it however difficult it may be. If on the contrary you imagine that you cannot do the simplest thing in the world, it is impossible for you to do it, and molehills become for you unscalable mountains.”
Today this may sound puerile and Coué attracted his fair share of criticism, mainly from psychoanalysts, who accused him of encouraging people to ignore deeply ingrained emotional issues by superficially masking them with the use of his positive mantra. Otto Fenichel, for example, held that autosuggestion was simply a counterproductive and addictive form of self-delusion: “A climax of dependence masked as independent power is achieved by the methods of autosuggestion where a weak and passive ego is controlled by an immense superego with magical powers. This power is, however, borrowed and even usurped”. (Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis, 1946).
However, for a pharmacist turned amateur therapist, Coué had more than likely managed to open a fascinating research path regarding verbalisation and its capability to elicit physiological changes in humans. He claimed that, as the words were uttered by the subject over and over, the mind started adopting them as a new reality, which it then, presumably, started applying to the physical body. It seemed that, Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis himself, was never too far in believing that mind and body were closely linked and had the power to affect each other by means of words: “Freud sees words as critical to the process of symbolization, which he views as midway between conversion and autosuggestion. Examples of symbolization are drawn from the cases of Rosalia H., who hysterically lost her voice at having to suppress anger, and from Cacilie M., whose facial neuralgia appeared as an embodiment of a slight she had received (“a slap in the face”). Freud shows that as the centrally charged themes in the patient’s affective life are tapped, the implicated organ, in his words, “joins in the conversation,” adding credence to the view that the organ is in fact involved in a psychologically meaningful way. In Freud’s view, meanings traverse the mind and body more easily than we think, and words– their expression, use, and arrangement-develop out of bodily experience more readily than we credit. The fluid interchange between words and bodily symptoms defies previously constructed barriers in much the same way as Freud’s use of relationship in therapy.” (Daphne de Marneffe, ‘Looking and Listening: The Construction of Clinical Knowledge in Charcot and Freud’, Signs, Vol. 17, No. 1, Autumn, 1991).