The 11 word psychotherapy mantra of the early 1920s that actually sort-of works
Émile Coué was born in Troyes, France in 1857. He became a pharmacist and when handing out prescriptions he noticed that when he praised the efficacy of a medication to patients, the patients tended to respond better to their treatment. He found that the patients who got this pep talk tended to do better than the patients who did not, despite both groups taking the same drug. Today we call this the placebo effect but for Coué it demonstrated the incredible power of our imagination and how it can manifest itself in our conscious reality. This was the beginning of his journey into psychotherapy, hypnotism, and autosuggestion.
Coué believed that our unconscious mind governs all of our thoughts. He believed that our willpower always yields to our imagination. If you are trying to quit smoking but your mind is imagining the good feelings of smoking, you’ll be in self-conflict and the imagination will win. Therefor you have to change what you are imagining, you have to make your imagination think negative thoughts towards cigarettes, then quitting will be easier. He felt the road to conscious change was to first change the imagination, to change the unconscious.
To change the unconscious he developed a psychological technique he called autosuggestion. In autosuggestion you give a self-induced idea to, well, yourself, in the attempt to try and change something about your life. He saw it as a way to recondition the mind and in particular the unconscious. Left alone, your unconscious can develop negative thoughts that can persist unchecked for years affecting your mental and even physical health. Coué felt that with simple conditioning you could reprogram your mind and thereby improve your quality of life.
To help people use autosuggestion he created the The Coué method. He told patients to repeat a phrase twenty times just before falling asleep at night and twenty times just when waking up in the morning, in the hypnagogic and the hypnopompic states of semi consciousness. It is in these states that we are particularly susceptible to suggestion. The phrase Coué gave his patients to repeat was:
Coué opened up a clinic in Nancy, France where he taught this method to tens of thousands of patients free of charge. In the 1920s he documented his method and published Self-Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion which became an international bestseller. The simplicity of his method was in stark contrast to other psychoanalysis methods of the time. Here was something you could do for free, on your own, in just a few minutes each day. It created a Coué craze. He was written about in the papers, he spoke to excited sold out lecture halls around Europe and the United States, and his 11 word mantra was used in advertisements, on bracelet medallions, and included in songs.
So, does it work?
His ideas weren’t without critics. For some it was just too simple to be real. To others it sounded too mystical and not based in science. In response to this criticism Coué specified that his method of improvement only works within the realm of reality. If you’re blind you can’t change your unconscious mind as a way to gain sight. You also have to be open to the idea of change. If you judgmentally throw up a wall at the start of the process it will never work.
That said there is scientific evidence that supports his ideas. Harvard Medical has shown that not only does the placebo effect work but incredibly it can work even when you know you are taking a placebo. It’s the unconscious mind affecting the body even when you are fully aware of the trick being pulled. Further, in 2014 Harvard published a study showing how patients responded better to a medication when they were given positive information about it, just like what Coué did almost a hundred years ago. The Rosenthal-Jacobson study of 1968 demonstrated the Pygmalion effect where teachers were told a group of randomly selected students had above-average ability. This affected the teachers’ behavior who then paid more attention to the students which resulted in those students performing better on IQ tests. Otherwise ordinary students who were given positive messages & made to feel special actually did better than they would have otherwise.
Added info: Even though Coué-mania mostly died out shortly after he died in 1926, his mantra has carried on. You can find a nod to Coué and a modified version of his mantra in the Beatles’ 1967 Getting Better. It also shows up again later in John Lennon’s 1980 Beautiful Boy.