Émile Coué de la Châtaigneraie (French: [emil kue də la ʃɑtɛɲʁɛ]; February 26, 1857 – July 2, 1926) was a French psychologist and pharmacist who introduced a popular method of psychotherapy and self-improvement based on optimistic autosuggestion.
Life and career
Coué's family, from the Brittany region of France and with origins in French nobility, had only modest means. A brilliant pupil in school, he initially studied to become a chemist. However, he eventually abandoned these studies as his father, who was a railroad worker, was in a precarious financial state. Coué then decided to become a pharmacist, and graduated with a degree in pharmacology in 1876.
Working as an apothecary at Troyes from 1882 to 1910, Coué quickly discovered what later came to be known as the placebo effect. He became known for reassuring his clients by praising each remedy's efficiency and leaving a small positive notice with each given medication.
In 1901 he began to study under Ambroise-Auguste Liébeault and Hippolyte Bernheim, two leading exponents of hypnosis. In 1913, Coué and his wife founded The Lorraine Society of Applied Psychology (French: La Société Lorraine de Psychologie appliquée). His book Self-Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion was published in England (1920) and in the United States (1922). Although Coué’s teachings were, during his lifetime, more popular in Europe than in the USA, many Americans who adopted his ideas and methods, such as Norman Vincent Peale, Robert H. Schuller, and W. Clement Stone, became famous in their own right by spreading his words.
The Coué method
The application of his mantra-like conscious autosuggestion, "Every day, in every way, I'm getting better and better" (French: Tous les jours à tous points de vue je vais de mieux en mieux) is called Couéism or the Coué method. Some American newspapers quoted it differently, "Day by day, in every way, I'm getting better and better." The Coué method centered on a routine repetition of this particular expression according to a specified ritual—preferably as much as twenty times a day, and especially at the beginning and at the end of each day. When asked whether or not he thought of himself as healer, Coué often stated that "I have never cured anyone in my life. All I do is show people how they can cure themselves."  Unlike a commonly held belief that a strong conscious will constitutes the best path to success, Coué maintained that curing some of our troubles requires a change in our unconscious thought, which can be achieved only by using our imagination. Although stressing that he was not primarily a healer but one who taught others to heal themselves, Coué claimed to have effected organic changes through autosuggestion.
Development and origins
Coué noticed that in certain cases he could improve the efficacy of a given medicine by praising its effectiveness to the patient. He realized that those patients to whom he praised the medicine had a noticeable improvement when compared to patients to whom he said nothing. This began Coué’s exploration of the use of hypnosis and the power of the imagination.
His initial method for treating patients relied on hypnosis. He discovered that subjects could not be hypnotized against their will and, more importantly, that the effects of hypnosis waned when the subjects regained consciousness. He thus eventually turned to autosuggestion, which he describes as
... an instrument that we possess at birth, and with which we play unconsciously all our life, as a baby plays with its rattle. It is however a dangerous instrument; it can wound or even kill you if you handle it imprudently and unconsciously. It can on the contrary save your life when you know how to employ it consciously.
Coué believed in the effects of medication. But he also believed that our mental state is able to affect and even amplify the action of these medications. By consciously using autosuggestion, he observed that his patients could cure themselves more efficiently by replacing their "thought of illness" with a new "thought of cure". According to Coué, repeating words or images enough times causes the subconscious to absorb them. The cures were the result of using imagination or "positive autosuggestion" to the exclusion of one's own willpower.
Coué thus developed a method which relied on the principle that any idea exclusively occupying the mind turns into reality, although only to the extent that the idea is within the realm of possibility. For instance, a person without hands will not be able to make them grow back. However, if a person firmly believes that his or her asthma is disappearing, then this may actually happen, as far as the body is actually able physically to overcome or control the illness. On the other hand, thinking negatively about the illness (ex. "I am not feeling well") will encourage both mind and body to accept this thought. Likewise, when someone cannot remember a name, they will probably not be able to recall it as long as they hold onto this idea (i.e. "I can't remember") in their mind. Coué realised that it is better to focus on and imagine the desired, positive results (i.e. "I feel healthy and energetic" and "I can remember clearly").
Coué observed that the main obstacle to autosuggestion was willpower. For the method to work, the patient must refrain from making any independent judgment, meaning that he must not let his will impose its own views on positive ideas. Everything must thus be done to ensure that the positive "autosuggestive" idea is consciously accepted by the patient, otherwise one may end up getting the opposite effect of what is desired.
For example, when a student has forgotten an answer to a question in an exam, he will likely think something such as "I have forgotten the answer". The more he or she tries to think of it, the more the answer becomes blurred and obscured. However, if this negative thought is replaced with a more positive one ("No need to worry, it will come back to me"), the chances that the student will come to remember the answer will increase.
Coué noted that young children always applied his method perfectly, as they lacked the willpower that remained present among adults. When he instructed a child by saying "clasp your hands and you can't open them", the child would thus immediately follow.
A patient's problems are likely to increase when his willpower and imagination (or mental ideas) are opposing each other, something Coué would refer to as "self-conflict". In the student's case, the will to succeed is clearly incompatible with his thought of being incapable of remembering his answers. As the conflict intensifies, so does the problem: the more the patient tries to sleep, the more he becomes awake. The more a patient tries to stop smoking, the more he smokes. The patient must thus abandon his willpower and instead put more focus on his imaginative power in order to succeed fully with his cure.
Thanks to his method, which Coué once called his "trick", patients of all sorts would come to visit him. The list of ailments included kidney problems, diabetes, memory loss, stammering, weakness, atrophy and all sorts of physical and mental illnesses. According to one of his journal entries (1916), he apparently cured a patient of a uterus prolapse as well as "violent pains in the head" (migraine).
C. (Cyrus) Harry Brooks (1890–1951), author of various books on Coué, claimed the success rate of his method was around 93%. The remaining 7% of people would include those who were too skeptical of Coué's approach and those who refused to recognize it.
Medicines and autosuggestion
The use of autosuggestion is intended to complement use of medicine, but no medication of Coué's time could save a patient from depression or tension. Coué recommended that patients take medicines with the confidence that they would be completely cured very soon, and healing would be optimal. Conversely, he contended, patients who are skeptical of a medicine would find it least effective.
References in fiction
- 1926: The Coué Method is mentioned in P. G. Wodehouse's short story "Mr. Potter Takes a Rest Cure".
- 1928: Coué and Couéism are referred to frequently in John Galsworthy's novel The White Monkey from his Modern Comedy trilogy.
Fleur Mont (née Forsyte), expecting what her husband (the tenth baronet) keeps referring to as the eleventh, repeats daily "every day in every way my baby's becoming more and more male".
Other characters in the novel are also Coué followers, including, rather improbably, the strait-laced and sensible Soames (although he remains sceptical).
- 1930: Miss Milsome, in The Documents in the Case, written by Dorothy L. Sayers and Robert Eustace, dabbles in all sorts of self-improvement schemes, including using "In every day. . . "
- 1946: In Josephine Tey's novel Miss Pym Disposes, the title character, herself a psychologist, refers to Coué with apparent scepticism.
- 1948: In Graham Greene's novel, The Heart of the Matter, the narrator dismisses the Indian fortune teller's reading of Inspector Wilson's hand:
"Of course the whole thing was Couéism: if one believed in it enough, it would come true."
- 1969: In the film The Bed Sitting Room Room (1969), the character "Mate", played by Spike Milligan, repeatedly utters the phrase "Every day, in every way, I'm getting better and better" while delivering a pie.
- 1970: The Coué Method is briefly mentioned in Robertson Davies' book Fifth Business; the passage ends with a criticism of Couéism:
"So Dr. Coué failed for her, as he did for many others, for which I lay no blame on him. His system was really a form of secularized, self-seeking prayer, without the human dignity that even the most modest prayer evokes. And like all attempts to command success for the chronically unsuccessful, it petered out."
- 1973: The leading character, Frank Spencer (played by Michael Crawford), in the BBC's situation comedy Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, often recites the mantra, on occasion when trying to impress the instructor during a PR training course.
- 1976: In the film The Pink Panther Strikes Again, the mentally-ill Chief Inspector Charles Dreyfus, repeatedly uses the phrase "Every day and in every way, I am getting better, and better" as directed by his psychiatrist.
- 1980: The chorus in the song "Beautiful Boy" — which John Lennon wrote for his son, Sean — makes a reference to Coué's mantra:
- Before you go to sleep
- Say a little prayer
- Every day in every way
- It's getting better and better.
- 1981: The protagonist in Emir Kusturica's 1981 film Do You Remember Dolly Bell? often recites the mantra as a result of studying hypnotherapy and autosuggestion.
- 1992: In Kerry Greenwood's novel, Death at Victoria Dock, investigative detective Phryne Fisher recites the mantra during a particularly trying case.
- 1998: In Nest Family Entertainment's animated children's film The Swan Princess III and the Mystery of the Enchanted Treasure, a character uses the mantra while training for a competition.
- 2012: In Boardwalk Empire (season 3, episode 1) the fugitive Nelson Van Alden (played by Michael Shannon), now a salesman, looks into a mirror and repeats to himself the mantra: "Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better".
While most American reporters of his day seemed dazzled by Coué's accomplishments and did not question the results attributed to his method,), a handful of journalists and a few educators were skeptical. After Coué had left Boston, the Boston Herald waited six months, revisited the patients he had "cured", and found most had initially felt better but soon returned to whatever ailments they previously had. Few of the patients would criticize Coué, saying he did seem very sincere in what he tried to do, but the Herald reporter concluded that any benefit from Coué's method seemed to be temporary and might be explained by being caught up in the moment during one of Coué's events. Coué also received much criticism from exponents of psychoanalysis, with Otto Fenichel concluding: "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".
- How to Practise Suggestion and Autosuggestion
- My Method: Including American Impressions
- Self-Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion (1922)
- R. Gregory, The Oxford Companion to the Mind (1987) p. 169
- Henri Ellenberger, The Discovery of the Unconscious (1970) p. 842
- "Émile Coué." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 26 Dec. 2008 
- Marguerite Marshall. "Applied Auto-Suggestion of Famous French Healer Explained." Boston Post, January 4, 1923, p. 13.
- quoted by Frederick L. Collins, "Three Minutes With a Headliner." (Kingston Jamaica) The Gleaner, February 9, 1923, p.6.
- Coué, E: "Self Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion" (1922) p. 19
- Brooks, C.H., "The practice of autosuggestion" (1922) p. 62
- Coué, E: "How to Practice Suggestion and Autosuggestion", p. 45
- Wallechinsky, David. "Emile Coue (1857–1926) French Healer." The People's Almanac. 2nd Ed. 1975.
- "Behind Closed Doors of Coué's Famous Clinic, Showing Marvelous New Method". Boston Post. August 13, 1922. p. 41.
- "Coué Patients Not All Helped by Treatment". Boston Herald. June 16, 1923. pp. 1,4.
- Fenichel, Otto (1946). The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis. p. 564.
- Baudouin, C. (Paul, E & Paul, C. trans.), Suggestion and Autosuggestion: A Psychological and Pedagogical Study Based on the Investigations made by the New Nancy School, George Allen & Unwin, (London), 1920.
- Brooks, C. Harry, 1922. "The Practice of Autosuggestion by the Method of Émile Coué. George Allen and Unwin.
- Ella Boyce Kirk, My Pilgrimage to Nancy (New york 1922)
- Karl Abraham, 'Psychoanalytical Notes on Coué's method of Self-Mastery' International Journal of Psychoanalysis VII, 1926
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