Suggestion Formulation and Application

In order to get the most from self-hypnosis you must use suggestions. It is through suggestions that you specify your goals and direct the subconscious to the achievement of those goals. Once your subconscious is in alignment with your conscious goals their achievement is usually automatic. Getting that alignment can take some effort, however. That is why a knowledge of the formulation and application of suggestion is of vital importance.

How Suggestion Works

The subconscious mind does not know the difference between reality and what we loosely think of as imagination. This is partly because the subconscious mind is limited to deductive logic, and partly because of the dynamics involved in keeping subconscious processes sub- or unconscious.  Deductive logic is the process of reasoning from the general to the specific. Inductive logic forms generalities from specifics and is the logic of science. Much of the uniqueness and contradiction that are in the subconscious mind are possible because of this limitation in reasoning capability.  The importance of this for us is that a good suggestion repeated often enough and long enough will be accepted by the subconscious mind as true. Please notice the “good” in the previous statement. What that means is that if the suggestion is formulated correctly, and if it is not of a nature to trigger much resistance, it will work. It is important to keep in mind that many things can get in the way of the effectiveness of suggestions and keep them from being good ones. Your job is to minimize the risk of triggering one of those things, and to formulate and apply suggestions that get you where you want to go.

Before you can do that you need to be aware of some of the more serious ways in which suggestions can go wrong.

How Suggestions Can Make Things Worse

The Hippocratic Oath taken by physicians includes the statement that they will “do no harm.” That would be a good addition to anyone’s thinking who is working with suggestions. Suggestions that are flawed or that go against subconscious needs can make things worse. When this happens it is usually the result of errors that belong to one of the following categories.  There IS such a thing as “can’t”! It always seems a little strange to have to say this but it needs saying: avoid impossibilities. You are not going to grow another limb or even change yourself from left- to right-handed. You are not going to change your eye color, reverse the aging process, or get rid of 20 pounds of fat overnight. I am using hyperbole to make my point here because although hypnosis sometimes seems like magic, it is not.  Trying to achieve the impossible will not physically harm you, but it can do serious damage to your subconscious acceptance of self-hypnosis and any suggestions you may be working with. If you are not consciously taking this seriously, why should your subconscious?

But wait a minute! Self-hypnosis can be used to achieve things that have not been possible without it, so what are you supposed to use as a criterion for what is and what is not possible? How does one determine where the line is? How do we define what is impossible?  This is a tough one. For example, common sense says that a woman cannot enlarge her bust size. Yet many women claim to have done just that with self-hypnosis. (This has not been clinically proven, but there are numerous reports of women who have applied suggestions to enhance their breasts, and who claim they have had results. Many of them claim they had to get larger bras, so there does seem to be something going on here.)  To conclude on the business of what is possible and what is not, you’ll just have to use your own judgment. As a rule of thumb, approach everything gradually and just keep ratcheting upward until you have reached the limits of possibility.

Imprecise formulation

One characteristic of the subconscious mind that can really be irritating is the way it takes everything literally. If you have messed around much with computers you are probably getting used to this because computers are also totally literal.  This tendency toward literalness can make it almost impossible sometimes to formulate a suggestion with language. In case you have never noticed this before, language is very sloppy. And of course we make everything worse by our over-reliance on clichés. The literality of the subconscious mind is its own. By that I mean referring to dictionaries will not help a lot because those meanings may not be the same ones held by the subconscious mind. Be aware too of syntactic problems in the formulation of your suggestions. For example, don’t formulate suggestions like, “I want to lose weight in the worst way,” because that may be the way you end up losing it.


Clichés are actually another form of imprecise formulation and they can create a whole world of problems when it comes to suggestion formulation. You would think that this would not be the case, since it is what you consciously mean that should be communicated to the subconscious. Unfortunately it does not work that way.  Subconsciously we tend to take things literally and what that literality is, is determined by the subconscious itself. External standards like dictionaries and other sources of meaning are not determinants. This can work both ways for the subconscious. One way is the literal meaning of a word which may have the precedent meaning; that is, the first and enduring meaning for the subconscious. This usually tends to follow the usage patterns that were prevalent when we were at the most formative age for language acquisition. For instance, “cool” meant not warm when many were growing up. None of the farmers around Texas at that time would have said that Chet Atkins’ music was cool, or that their new tractor was cool. Unless of course they meant it in a temperature sense. So it is highly unlikely that I would subconsciously interpret “cool” as anything but not-warm.

When formulating your verbal suggestions, search for wordings that are explicit and specific.  Avoid generality as much as possible and spell out exactly what it is you want. To come up with this kind of formulation you ask, “Exactly what behaviors will I be exhibiting when I am doing what I want to do, or being what I want to be?”

  • In Public Speaking,  the behaviors would include:

  •  1) steady, strong, unwavering voice;

  •  2) standing still without bouncing from one foot to the other;

  •  3) dryness of body (no perspiration), wetness of mouth (ordinary saliva production-it is almost impossible to speak if your mouth is too dry);

  •  4) poetic movement of hands and arms, fluid movement of head and neck;

  •  5) calmness of gaze, ability to shift gaze from one part of the audience without being jerky or unnatural in the movement of the eyes;

  •  6) avoidance of “uhs” and other verbal fillers;

  •  7) bladder and bowel control (this is a real and serious problem for many people who must speak publicly);

  •  8) good memory, ability to remember the speech without having to read it;

  •  9) good timing and tact (very subjective, like art: we know it when we see it, but we can’t define it); and

  •  10) rapport with the audience-feel good about them, feel their friendliness, get through to them.

These 10 points, or literal specifications, cover just about everything that can go wrong in the delivery of a speech. They are immensely more specific than simply saying you will be “cool, calm and collected.” They are a veritable schematic for the subconscious on how to deliver a speech.  Notice that I keep saying deliver the speech. The speech itself, its subject and its relevance to the occasion and the audience, and its development are different matters. The best delivery in the world of a bad or inappropriate speech will still yield failure. Fortunately you can use suggestions to enhance your sense of what is appropriate, your choices of topics and wordings, and your motivation to research and put together a really good speech. But this takes several more suggestion topics or guidelines, just like the 10 points above.

All of this should also serve to point out that you cannot just whip into a state of hypnosis, lay a couple of quick suggestions on yourself, and be fixed. It won’t work that way. This is not that kind of planet. If it were you could use the old Emile Coué formulation: “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.” Simply add “at everything” to the end of that formulation and you would be fixed for life. But as I said, it’s not that kind of planet.

Too much, too fast.  As you can see from looking at the list of 10 public-speaking-related items above, you can work up a fairly large body of material to go into your suggestions. If you are to adequately cover the range necessary to improve or change yourself along any single dimension, you must develop a comprehensive set of suggestions. And when you start dissecting the relevant behavior to make your suggestions, you find that it takes a lot of words to parse any behavior.  One way to cut some of this verbiage down is to use image suggestions. That is, form a picture in your mind of what you want, the way you want to look, what you want to be doing, how you want to be doing it, and so on. But you still need some verbal suggestions because images can be ambiguous, and some goals are difficult to “see.” For example, what do you look like when you have quit smoking? What do you look like when you are not wanting a cigarette? No different from what you look like when you want one, unfortunately. So you will still have to formulate verbal suggestions for most achievements.

Organ language

Organ language refers to any semantic reference to any part of the human body. All languages abound in this kind of reference. Examples are expressions like “get a leg up” (gain the advantage), “up to my neck in (whatever)” (overcome by too much or too many (whatever), “butt heads with” (oppose someone), “lend an ear” (listen), and “elbow grease” (hard work).

There have been many cases reported in which organ language was ultimately determined to be the source of the problem. The subconscious mind’s literal translation of body-related statements can lead to some silly sounding, but nonetheless severe, situations:  For example, a man prone to severe headaches whenever his brother-in-law was around. He had often made the statement that his brother-in-law was a pain in the neck. A young lady whose stomach troubles, as identified in ideomotor questioning, were related to her mother’s frequent statements to her that “all you ever do is bellyache.” (This case points out that organ language is not limited to oneself. Be careful about expressions you use repeatedly with your kids and with other people in general.) A woman’s skin condition-a rash and persistent itch that resisted all pharmaceutical treatment-which was the result of an over-used cliché. She was a cleanliness freak and whenever someplace did not meet her standards she would say that it “made her itch.” A man who, shortly after his fiancée jilted him, began to have serious chest pains. Tests found nothing wrong with him, but psychotherapy uncovered a relationship between the pains and the word “heartache.” This illustrates the fact that organ language can cause problems without an expression being “said” over and over. “Heartache” is one of our prevalent cultural icons and need not necessarily be said to be a source of trouble.

The lesson from all of this is twofold: Carefully avoid any reference to body parts in the formulation of suggestion unless that is exactly what you want and mean, and check for the influence of organ language if you have mysterious problems.

Subconscious Resistance

The subconscious part of your mind is there to protect you. It would not be doing a very good job if it changed willy-nilly all the time. It is difficult to accept when we want to lose weight or get rich and famous, but the subconscious mind actually does its job best by resisting all change.  It is this characteristic of the subconscious mind that helps keep people in the land of the living and the sane. It also this characteristics that drives you to distraction when you want to do something but your subconscious won’t let you, like quit smoking or lose weight or any of the other things that seem to be so difficult.

Much of the talk above about making things worse with suggestion is really a reference to the resistance of the subconscious mind that can be triggered. Look at it this way. You represent a species of organism that has evolved over many thousands of years. You are the both the recipient and embodiment of innumerable genetic and cultural characteristics that have proved to be successful in the past. That is, you are here because your ancestors survived. So you can expect subconscious resistance to change. The best you can do is minimize the change when possible, and deal with it when it does block progress, or when it makes things worse.

Latitude of Acceptance

There is almost always a latitude of acceptance for change at the subconscious level. This is the window of possibility, the amount of change that the subconscious will find acceptable at any given time. If you confine your change efforts to these windows you will not trigger subconscious resistance.  Once the change you want is in place, the window moves up and you can start working on the next level within the window. In this manner you ratchet your way up the ladder of change one rung at a time, rather than trying to soar to the top all at once. Think of it in terms of degrees of change. Let’s say that you want to make more money and you are going to apply suggestions to that effect. Let’s say further that you made $60,000 last year, just to pick a number. The fact that you made $60,000 last year and did not have a problem with it (we will assume) means that figure is an acceptable one to your subconscious mind. Now you want to up the ante. But you definitely do not want to jump up to a figure that will trigger subconscious resistance. If you do, you probably will not even make as much as you did last year. The subconscious can be fiendishly clever about thwarting the achievement of goals that it finds threatening. You can almost be guaranteed that this will happen if you, say, double the figure and shoot for $120,000.  You have to do it by degrees. Get in a hurry and you could end up going backwards. So how do you determine the upper limit—the latitude of acceptability—that your subconscious will accept? The best way is with auto questioning. By using one of the methods of auto questioning you can set the maximum acceptable limits, for this as for other areas of application.

Always determine your latitude of acceptance for any suggestion you want to use.

Functions of the Subconscious

The basic functions of the subconscious are preservation, protection and procreation. If you use suggestions that violate the way the subconscious interprets its purpose in any of these areas, you will not get anywhere with the suggestions.  Sometimes you can start out okay, but as soon as your suggestions kick in and you begin to get results the subconscious becomes alarmed and puts resistive forces in place. If you have an experience like this—early success followed by reversal of the gains—it is probably caused by subconsciously perceived threat. Because the subconscious mind is exceptionally devious and mysterious, you may find that your suggestions’ failure is masked to look natural.

Subconscious Needs

Many of our more subtle needs reside at the subconscious level. We are usually aware of obvious needs, such as the needs for air, water, food, warmth, etc. But some of the “softer” needs may not be so obvious. Some of these vary across individuals and can include such subconscious requirements as the needs to be an adult, to always have a nurturing adult figure in our lives, to be healthy and, in short, to be anything upon which we might have imprinted when young.

Rules of Suggestion Formulation

Be specific.

Emile Coué (1857-1926) was the inventor of the highly generalized, one-size-fits all approach to autosuggestion. At one point in his career he had almost everyone in Europe and America going around saying, “Every day, and in every way, I am getting better and better.”  The fact that some of those people really did report getting “better and better” attests to the power of suggestion. They got better in spite of the fact that, as we now know, specificity in suggestions is much more powerful than generality. Specificity, that is, as it applies to outcomes. DO NOT get SO specific as to suggest to your subconscious mind all of the steps (physiological and otherwise) it should take to, say, reduce your interest in food. To do that you would end up with suggestions about glandular processes, pheromones, brain opiates, and a whole host of other things that none of us consciously know nearly as much about as your subconscious mind does. So don’t get crazy with specificity. Just stick to specific outcomes that make sense to you.

Be literal

Be very careful in the wording of suggestions. You might end up getting what you literally asked for, and that can be a shock if you used words like “cool” to mean in command of yourself, “swift” or “cool” for something to be desired or admired, or “bitchin’” to mean, well, whatever it means to you consciously. “Bitchin’” and “awesome” are two words that never seem to have happy consequences when used in suggestions. See the material above on Clichés for more on this.

Be positive.  

Always try to use positive wording for your suggestions. This can be difficult, especially in those situations where you are trying to quit or get rid of something. If you have to use a negatively formulated suggestion, go ahead, but try for the positive approach first.  Here is an example of negative versus positive formulation for a case of nail-biting:

NEGATIVE: I no longer bite my nails.

POSITIVE: Every day my fingernails are becoming longer and healthier.

This suggestion might work just fine for one nail-biter but have no effect at all on another. One problem is the logical limitation of the subconscious mind. Since it reasons (if you could call it reasoning) only with deductive logic, the subconscious mind sees nothing contradictory about both chewing nails and having long, healthy ones. In other words, the subconscious might fail to make a connection between chewing and having normal nails. You and I consciously know that these are two mutually exclusive events. This is intuitively obvious when both induction and deduction are available. But without the inductive side of logic, mutually exclusive events can exist side by side without apparent contradiction.  This is why there are times when, even though you have a perfectly logical and well-formulated suggestion, it can backfire or be ineffective. So you have to resort to auto questioning to get to the root of the problem and change your suggestion accordingly. This is a lot of work, but here is why it is worth it: If you can get the right suggestion formulation and apply it properly, you can be or do just about anything that relies upon your own efforts.

Use “I,” not “you.”

 In the formulation of your suggestions, address yourself as “I,” not “you.” Don’t say “you are…,” say “I am . . .”

Avoid clichés.

 Some people are so accustomed to speaking and thinking in clichés that they don’t even know what they are. If you have trouble with this, look up the meaning in a dictionary to see what most people think a word means. If your choice is not even close, pick different words.  Here is an example of what might have been a good suggestion turned bad by the inclusion of a silly cliché: “Any time I am in a negotiating situation I want to come across as a tough cookie.”

See the Clichés section above for more information

Be Visual

Visualization can be a very important part of your suggestion application. There are some instances, perhaps most, in which a good, powerful visualization is more effective than the best worded suggestion.

Come up with an image of your desired state or whatever it is you want to achieve. The more vivid and dramatic the image, the more effective it will be. Here are a couple of examples:

  • WEIGHT CONTROL: Picture yourself as you want to be, doing the kinds of things you want to do when you look svelte and slender. See yourself looking in a mirror and admiring the way you look in new clothes. Or nude.

  • HEADACHES: Imagine your brain stem, especially in the area where it joins the midbrain (look in an anatomy book to get a accurate image if you like; otherwise, just make-up whatever you think it might look like). Imagine a calming, soothing, numbing coolness radiating up and throughout your head. Imagine the blood vessels in your head originally pulsing and throbbing but quickly settling down to their normal status as the coolness pervades your entire head.

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