I was 24 when I read my first self-help book. I was drinking cheap white wine in All Bar One by Oxford Circus, moaning about my crappy temping job, when my friend handed me a battered copy of Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers.
I read the tagline out loud: “How to turn your fear and indecision into confidence and action…”
I rolled my eyes before turning it over and reading the back: “What is stopping you from being the person you want to be and living your life the way you want to live it? Fear of tackling an issue with your boss? Fear of change? Fear of taking control?”
I rolled my eyes some more. “I’m not scared, I’m just in a crap job.”
“I know it’s cheesy but read it,” my friend urged me. “I promise it’ll make you want to go out and DO stuff!”
I couldn’t see what it had made her do other than get drunk with me, but no matter. That night I read half of the book in a wine blur. The next night I finished it.
I might have been an English lit graduate with literary pretensions but there was something about the shouty capital letters and exclamation marks that was intoxicating. That American can-do attitude. It was the exact opposite of my English/Irish pessimism. It made me feel like anything was possible.
After reading it I quit my temping job even though I had no other work lined up. A week later I heard that a friend of a friend of a friend was working at a newspaper. I called her and when she didn’t pick up, I kept calling. And kept calling. I showed a tenacity that was entirely new to me. Finally, she called me back and told me I could come in on work experience. Two weeks later I was offered a job.
That was my start in journalism. The risk paid off.
After that I was hooked on self-help. If a book was promising to change my life in my lunch hour, give me confidence/a man/money in five easy steps and had Oprah’s seal of approval, I’d buy not only the book but the t-shirt and the audio course.
Books such as The Little Book of Calm, The Rules of Life and The Power of Positive Thinking were all read, cover to cover. Passages underlined. Notes in the margin. Each one seemed to promise a happier, saner, more fulfilled me… but did they work?
Did they hell!
Despite reading I Can Make You Rich—written by Paul McKenna, a former radio DJ turned hypnotist who had indeed made himself very rich with his new brand of self-help—I was a disaster with money. Give me a tenner and I’d have spent twenty by the time you put your wallet back in your pocket.
Even though I’d read Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus and Why Men Love Bitches, I was always single.
And while Feel the Fear had got me started in my career, any further success was not thanks to reading The Success Principles—it was down to an all-consuming fear of failure, which made me work obsessively.
While helping me pack for one of my many flat moves, my friend Sarah found it hysterically funny that in every room there was a stash of self-help books. Under the sofa, under my bed, stacked next to the wardrobe.
“A lot of them are for work,” I argued. Which was true, to a point. Sometimes I did write about them. But most of the time I’d bought these books for another reason: I thought they were going to change my life.
“Don’t they all say the same thing?’ asked Sarah. “Be positive. Get out of your comfort zone? I don’t get why they need 200 pages to say something that’s summed up in a paragraph on the back.”
“Sometimes the message needs to be repeated for it to sink in,” I said.
Sarah picked up a book which was sitting on top of the fridge next to two phone chargers and a pile of takeaway curry menus.
“How to Stop Worrying and Start Living,” she said, reading out the title of a well-thumbed book.
“That’s a good one!” I said. She laughed.
“No, really it is, it’s a classic, it was written in the Great Depression. I’ve read it at least three times.”
“You’ve read it three times?” said Sarah.
I read self-help for comfort. These books acknowledged the insecurities and anxieties I felt but was always too ashamed to talk about. They made my personal angst seem like a normal part of being human. Reading them made me feel less alone.
“And you think it’s helped you.”
“You don’t worry anymore…?”
By now she was doubled over, tears coming out of her eyes.
I wanted to get annoyed but I couldn’t. I worried more than anybody I knew.
I was a poor advert for that book and indeed for any of the books on my shelf—or rather the ones hidden under my bed. I was proof of the argument that if self-help really worked you’d just need to read one and you’d be sorted. As it was I was buying at least one a month—and yet here I was, hungover, depressed, neurotic, alone…
So why did I read self-help if it didn’t, well, help?
Like eating chocolate cake or watching old episodes of Friends, I read self-help for comfort. These books acknowledged the insecurities and anxieties I felt but was always too ashamed to talk about. They made my personal angst seem like a normal part of being human. Reading them made me feel less alone.
Then there was the fantasy element. Every night I’d devour their rags-to-riches promises and imagine what life would be like if I were more confident and more efficient, if I didn’t worry about anything and jumped out of bed to meditate at 5am… There was just one problem. Every morning I’d wake up (not at 5am) and go back to life as normal. Nothing changed because I didn’t do anything the books told me to do. I didn’t do the “journaling,” I didn’t say any affirmations…
Feel the Fear changed my life the first time I read it because I took action: I felt the fear and quit my job. But since then I hadn’t stepped out of my comfort zone—I’d hardly stepped out of bed.
And then with Sunday’s hangover finally fading, while I re-read Feel the Fear for the fifth time, I had an idea. An idea that would stop me being a depressed, hungover mess and turn me into a happy, highly functioning person:
I wasn’t just going to read self-help, I was going to DO self-help.
I would follow every single bit of advice given to me by the so-called gurus to find out what happened if I really did follow the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Really felt The Power of Now. Could my life be transformed? Could I get rich? Skinny? Find love?
The idea came to me fully formed: One book a month, followed to the letter, to see if self-help really could change my life. I would do it for a year—so twelve books in all. And I would systematically tackle my flaws one book at a time: money, worrying, my weight… Then, at the end of the year, I’d be…perfect!
“OK, but you’ve got to actually do stuff,” said Sheila when I told her my idea on the phone a few days later. “You can’t just read books that make you analyze your feelings for the whole year.” Her tone implied I’d just use this as a massive opportunity to navel-gaze and become even more self-obsessed than usual.
“I will do stuff!” I snapped. “That’s the whole point.”
“Which books are you going to follow? Have you got a plan?”
Again, a dig. Sheila knows I never have a plan.
“I’m going to start with Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway because that had a big effect the first time I read it and then I think I’ll do a money book and then, I don’t know. In self-help land they talk about the right book finding you at the right time,” I said.
I knew I sounded flaky.
“Are you going to do books you’ve read before or new ones?” she asked.
“A mixture,” I said.
“Are you going to do a dating book?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“I don’t know, Sheila! Later in the year. I want to work on myself first, then I’ll think about a man.”
I hated that I used the phrase “work on myself.”
“So what exactly do you want to get out of all this?” Sheila asked. This is why she gets paid the big bucks. To see the flaw in any plan.
“I dunno. I’d just like to be happier and more confident and get out of debt. I’d like to get healthier and drink less—“
“You don’t need a book to drink less,” Sheila interrupted.
“I know you don’t!” I said, taking a quiet gulp of wine.
“OK, but you have to actually DO things. Not just talk about them.”
“Yes, Sheila, I get it. I will.”
But even Sheila’s realism couldn’t get me down. I got off the phone, closed my eyes and imagined how perfect I would be at the end of the year.
Perfect Me would not worry or procrastinate, she’d get her work done easily. She would write for all the best newspapers and magazines and earn obscene amounts of money doing it—enough to get braces to fix her dodgy teeth. Perfect Me would be living in a gorgeous apartment with big windows. She’d have bookshelves full of highbrow literary books that she actually read. At night she’d go to swanky gatherings where she’d look gorgeous in low-key but expensive clothes. And she’d go to the gym all the time. Oh, and she’d have a handsome man in a cashmere sweater by her side. Goes without saying.
You know the kind of perfection you see in magazines: those interviews with perfect people in their perfect homes with their perfect outfits talking about their perfect lives? I was going to become one of them!
It was November now, so I’d start in January. New Year, New Me.
I felt a jolt of excitement. This was it. This was the thing that was really going to change my life.
I had no idea then that my neat twelve-month plan would turn into a sixteen-month roller coaster in which every bit of me was turned inside out.
Yes, self-help changed my life—but was it for the better?
From Help Me!: One Woman’s Quest to Find Out If Self-Help Really Can Change Your Life. Used with permission of Grove Press. Copyright © 2019 by Marianne Power.