Today we celebrate the birthday of Émile Coué (26 Feb 1857 – 2 Jul 1926), a French pharmacist who is best known for his advocacy of optimistic autosuggestion, or positive reinforcement.
As a pharmacist, Coué noticed the people he interacted with in his pharmacy appeared to react very well to positive suggestion. To reinforce and improve the effectiveness of the medicines he prescribed, he made a habit of praising the effectiveness of the prescribed treatment, and leaving small positive notes with the medication he sold.
This recognition of the power of suggestion led him to study the effect in more detail, and he became convinced that it held great potential. Even though he had no formal training in medicine or psychology, Coué introduced a method of primitive psychotherapy which involved the frequent repetition of the phrase ‘Tous les jours à tous points de vue je vais de mieux en mieux’, translated as ‘Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.’ A strong believer in the power of suggestion, he was convinced that regularly repeating this phrase (morning and evening) would result in tangible physical and mental improvements in a patient.
In 1920 Coué published a book on the topic, entitled ‘Self-Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion’ (available for free on the Gutenberg project). In his book, he reiterated the potential power of autosuggestion, describing it 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.”
Thanks to his tireless work in this field, his method of autosuggestion, sometimes referred to as ‘Couéism’, became very popular in the early part of the 20th century, first in Europe and later also in the USA. He had his detractors, particularly from other schools of psychoanalysis, but his approach has remained popular among many followers.
Perhaps the most succinct summary of the Émile Coué approach comes to us courtesy of Rev Charles Inge, who composed this limerick in 1928:
“This very remarkable man
Commends a most practical plan:
You can do what you want
If you don’t think you can’t,
So don’t think you can’t think you can.”