The Art and Science of Talking To Yourself
Rev. Dr. C. Scot Giles
Countryside Church, Unitarian Universalist
June 2, 2018
“Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better,” and so are you.
That simple optimistic affirmation (which some of you may have heard before) goes all the way back to the very beginnings of professional hypnotism and the positive thinking movement. It was created by the French psychologist and pharmacist Émile Coué, who developed it at the turn of the twentieth century.
Coué is believed to be the person who first discovered what we now call the Placebo Effect. He found that if he gave his pharmacy customers a positive affirmation every time he dispensed medicine, the customers did far better. Soon he developed a popular method of personal improvement based on a mantra-like optimistic autosuggestion— “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.”
He used other autosuggestions too, tailored to the specific problems and illness of his patients. You would get a different autosuggestion if you came in for a pain medicine than if you had the gout. But he was best known for the simple “every day” verse. In all cases, you were to repeat the autosuggestion aloud about twenty times per day while going about normal activities.
Also, you needed not to allow skeptical thoughts to taint the autosuggestion. Even if you don’t think you’re getter better and better, you don’t let yourself criticize the suggestion.
The amazing thing is that people found it worked. Not only did they start to feel better about themselves, but their other thoughts started to be become more positive. We tend to be our own enemies. We think negative thoughts much of the time and they take their toll.
In 1886-7 Coué studied with two of the leading hypnotists of the time, Ambrose-Auguste Liébeault and Hippolyte Bernheim in Nancy, France. In 1910 he would open up his own school and clinic in that city. He taught thousands of people to overcome their negative thoughts using his method and instructed hundreds of others to become teachers of his autosuggestion methods in their own right. Students from Coué’s New Nancy School came to the United States and became the first hypnotists in this nation, and every hypnotist in practice today owes him thanks. Today a bronze bust of him sits on a monument erected by a grateful profession on the place where his school used to be.
One of the people taught was a leading Unitarian minister, the Rev. Norbert Chapek, who was the founder of the Flower Communion ceremony celebrated each year by most Unitarian Universalist congregations including our own. Chapek’s congregation was tiny and could not pay him a living wage. He earned his livelihood by being a “teacher of autosuggestion,” as hypnotists were called in that part of the world.
We have no description of what the personality of Émile Coué was like, but his writing indicates that he had a sunny disposition. He did not call himself a healer but said that he taught people how to heal themselves. He believed that “any idea exclusively occupying the mind turns into reality,” provided that idea is plausible. You could not make a missing leg grow back, but you could overcome your asthma.
Coué treated many of his clients without charge. His biographer, Harry Brooks, claims that he succeeded around 93% of the time.
Ever had the experience of walking into a room and then realizing that you forgot what it is that you came into that room to do? It’s pretty common. I sometimes joke at my lectures that I had a great mental victory. I walked into a room and actually remembered what I intended to do there. Of course, it was the bathroom, but still….
Seriously, when you walk into a room and realize you’ve forgotten why you did, you could say to yourself “I can’t remember,” or you could say to yourself, “it will come to me in a moment.” Coué argued that so long as you think “I can’t remember” you will not. But if you think “it will come to me in a moment,” it probably will.
“Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.” It seems a bit silly. I used to think so. Yet the Coué Method of autosuggestion meets all requirements of a well-formed hypnotic suggestion. Specifically:
It is simple.
It is positive.
It is in the present tense
It is believable.
It is measurable.
It carries its own reward - it feels good to say it.
Of course people don’t always use those exact words. I was once leading a class for young kids and they voted to say “Damn, I’m good” instead. Then teens took it further. They added another word to that formula. It started with the letter “F” and no, I’m not going to repeat it here.
We all talk to ourselves. I’ve spoken before about the work of Dr. Martin Seligman who created a system to classify the characteristic ways people talk to themselves. His research showed that people who talk to themselves optimistically have better health outcomes than those who speak to themselves more negatively. It’s not the case that healthy people are more optimistic, it’s that the optimism creates healthier people. As I’ve long said, what you tell yourself in the privacy of your mind has an enormous power to determine who you become.
I used to use self-deprecating humor in my talks and sermons. I once told a congregation that “You know? I used to be indecisive, but then I realized I wasn’t sure.” While that kind of talk may get you a chuckle, it’s actually got a nasty edge to it. I now never use that kind of humor. Be careful about what you say to yourself, because you are listening.
As success guru Wayne Dyer put it, “Every time you start a sentence with (the words) I Am, you are creating what you are and what you want to be.”
We live in a stress filled world. Dr. Herbert Benson the author of classic book on mediation The Relaxation Response calls stress the “hidden plague” of our civilization. When in the Stone Age humanity developed clothing and harnessed fire, as far as we can determine our bodies stopped evolving. We have the same bodies as our neolithic ancestors. Our neurological systems developed to deal with the pressures of a campsite—wild animals, warring tribes, bad weather. But our social evolution has not remained static even though our neurological systems have. We are ill equipped to deal with the pressures of modern times—globalism, the 24/7 news cycle, email, the smartphone, the unreasonable job expectation. Such things are now everywhere.
To extend Benson’s metaphor of stress as a contagious disease, if you want to avoid having stress hurt you, it is imperative that you behave in exactly the same way that a scientist behaves when entering a contaminated area. If you work for the Centers for Disease Control and you go into a village where there is an active Ebola epidemic, you don’t go in wearing normal clothing. You wear a Level Four Decontamination Suit. Just so, if you live in a society where stress is everywhere, you need to take proactive steps to protect yourself from coming down with the deleterious effects of that stress—which is as much an invisible peril as a virus or bacteria.
The best protection you can have is to use your mind to take control over the thoughts you entertain. You want to encourage optimism. But that is easy to say and hard to do. Coué’s affirmation actually can help and I both use it myself and routinely recommend it to my clientele. But there is more. You can cultivate an attitude of Equanimity—an attitude of calmness, composure and even temperament. Recently neuroscience has made a discovery that can help.
The Carnegie Mellon Study
Here I need to give credit to Dr. David Creswell at Carnegie Mellon University.
Dr. Creswell recruited 153 volunteers who considered themselves emotionally stressed for any of a number of reasons. They were divided into three groups. The Control Group members were given a smartphone app that gave general stress management advice.
The people in Experimental Group #1 were given an app that taught mindfulness meditation. The ability to focus attention inward and calm oneself in order to just objectively observe what one’s mind was doing, putting emotion aside.
The people in Experimental Group #2 given the same mindfulness app as the in Experimental Group #1, but were also given an instruction to say “yes” aloud to all sensations, feelings and thoughts they experienced during meditation.
All three groups practiced 20 minutes/day plus 10 additional minutes for 2 weeks. The smartphone app tracked them to be sure they complied. Psychological tests were used to measure participant’s stress level before and after the experiment.
Little changed for Controls. There was some improvement in stress management for Experimental Group #1. However, Experimental Group #2 showed the best lowering of stress and feelings of loneliness. Also, on self-report they were measurably more social and relaxed.
It was the audible reinforcement, the saying “yes” aloud that made a great difference in stress de-contamination. What it appeared to do is create in the mind of those people a feeling of acceptance for whatever was being experienced. Hearing themselves say “yes” was huge.
We know that the brain is constructed in such a way that information heard audibly is processed differently from information that is read silently or simply thought. One of the techniques I routinely use is dream interpretation. People in our culture typically have trouble remembering their dream after a few minutes after waking. However, if while they are still in the borderline state between sleep and wakefulness, if they will say the dream aloud, letting different parts of the brain process that information, they are much more likely to recall the dream later.
I find it fascinating that the spoken word, even if spoken to oneself alone, has more power to affect change than thoughts held silently in the mind. I am reminded how in religious tradition the spoken word is given a special emphasis. In Judeo-Christian Tradition the Bible is referred to as the Word of God, not the Book of God.
We go to church to hear sermons spoken aloud, rather than simply reading them.
In scripture it is written in the mythology that at creation “And God SAID let there be light: and there was light.” God doesn’t think “let there be light,” God says it. So too when God “says let there be a firmament….” and God “says let the waters be gathered together…” and so on. Even in the most primitive of religious mythology there is an understanding the words spoken aloud have a greater power than words merely thought.
What happened to Experimental Group #2 is that they were able to calmly identify the emotional stressor they were experiencing, and by saying “yes” aloud were able to program their mind to accept that emotion without praise or blame. They experienced equanimity—the state of being calm, composed and an even temperament. This was an approximation to putting on a Level 4 Stress Decontamination Suit. The benefits of calm acceptance of what goes through your mind is huge.
As a demonstration I am going to show twelve images on the pulpit screen. When you look at each image, pause for a few seconds and identify how it makes you feel. They let us say the word “yes” in unison. Don’t just describe the image to yourself, ask yourself how it makes you feel, and then accept without praise of blame that you are a person who feels that way.
At this point I do want to offer a trigger warning. There is nothing in the images that is violent or obscene. However, the images are intended to be provocative. Therefore, if you know you are in an emotionally fragile state for some reason you might wish to close your eyes until this exercise is over.
Images #1 - #12, (on Dr. Giles’s verbal cue)
People who use this technique teach their mind to accept themselves and their experience without judgment or critique. This sort of acceptance soon leads to a more positive way of being in the world—a calm optimism.
When one realizes that one is having a feeling, one simply says “I am feeling ______, and they says “yes” aloud. The goal is to notice that one is feeling without denial or struggle. This makes it easier to let any negative feeling go.
This technique is typically easier for those who identify as women than for those who identify as male because men are socialized not to express their feelings and often have a limited emotional vocabulary. If that describes you, a corrective is to read more emotionally expressive literature.
As my favorite time-management guru, David Allen, is fond of saying, “Your brain does not have a brain. You have to be smarter than your brain” and learn how to use it to have the experience of the world that you want.
Do, Have, Be Fallacy
There is a thing some hypnotists call the “Do, Have, Be” fallacy.
“If I do A, then I will have B, and I will be C.”
“If I work two jobs, then I will have more money, and then I will feel secure.”
“If I go on enough dating websites and write a really great personal profile, I will be have more popularity, and can find my soul mate.”
“If I get up earlier and go to the gym, then I will have a better physical appearance and people will admire me.”
In all of these examples, the speaker is requiring some behavioral circumstance (getting two jobs, going on websites, getting to a gym) that must be in place in order to feel a certain way (secure, popular, more handsome or beautiful).
While popular because it provides an easy explanation as to why someone might feel insecure, unpopular or unattractive, it is in fact a fallacy. You cannot make yourself be anything by doing particular actions first. You can only be in some specific mental state because your emotions have shifted into that state. External circumstances are not irrelevant, but they do not cause emotions.
Money can’t make you happy. It may help for a bit, but there are a great many people who have a lot of money and are miserable.
Those my age and older may remember the 1965 Simon and Garfunkel song, Richard Cory. Here is a snippet from the lyrics.
They say that Richard Cory owns one half of this whole town,
With political connections to spread his wealth around.
Born into society, a banker's only child,
He had everything a man could want: power, grace, and style.
The singer goes no to lament his own poverty and feelings.
But I work in his factory
And I curse the life I'm living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be,
Oh, I wish that I could be
But the song concludes with these lyrics:
He freely gave to charity, he had the common touch,
And they were grateful for his patronage and thanked him very much,
So my mind was filled with wonder when the evening headlines read:
"Richard Cory went home last night and put a bullet through his head."
Being rich doesn’t necessarily make you happy.
Driving the right car can’t make you feel successful. It’s nice to have a car you like, but there are plenty of people who drive around in a nice car and who feel bad about themselves.
The admiration of other people will not make you feel confident. Indeed, it is more likely to make you feel like a fraud.
If you want to feel happy, secure, popular or self-accepting you do not need to wait until some special circumstance is in place. You can become those things just by adjusting how you explain the world to yourself in the privacy of your mind.
My colleague Victoria Gallagher advocates for a different path. Instead of falling for the “Do, Have, Be” fallacy she recommends thinking “Be, Do Have.”
If you want to surround yourself with happiness you need get to a place where you feel happy. Then you will do the things that happy people do, and you will have the things that happy people have.
If you want to be a person of accomplishment, get yourself into a place where you feel motivated, then you will be more productive, and you will have the things that accomplished people have.
You start with yourself and how you are feeling, then you adjust that by adjusting what you say in your head and how accepting you are of what you think and feel.
It’s all about the way you talk to yourself, and if you do it right “Every day, in every way, you will get better and better.”
And that’s my sermon.