THE BEST THINGS I LEARNT FROM SELF-HELP BOOKS
Marianne Power on her year of self-improvement
In my mid-30s, I found myself in a slump. On paper, things were good – I had a big job, fancy wardrobe and nice friends – but, underneath it all, I was lost. While friends bought their first homes, got married and started families, I was stuck in the life I’d had since my 20s, drowning in a sea of deadlines, debt and hangovers. Around this time, I was reading a lot of self-help books and, with every book I read, I’d dream of how perfect life would be if I just got up at 5am to meditate, or repeated affirmations or really did get out of my comfort zone. Then, one hungover Sunday, while rereading my battered copy of Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway at 3am, I had the idea that I thought would change my life. I would no longer just read self-help, I would do it. I would pick one self-help book a month for a year and follow its advice. I would systematically eradicate my every flaw – from money to men – and then, well, life would be perfect! That was the idea at least. It didn’t work out like that. Here’s what I learnt…
JUST DO IT
I started my year with Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway, which told me to do something that scared me every day. Author Susan Jeffers argues that we all wait for the day we feel confident and clever enough to do things we want to do but that day never comes – the only way to feel brave is to do the scary thing first. I started small with parallel parking and graduated to jumping out of a plane and stand-up comedy. It was petrifying but I discovered that life changes the minute you take some sort of action – big or small.
MONEY IS EMOTIONAL
After this high, I chose Money, A Love Story by Kate Northrup. I have
always been useless with money, but I thought my problem was that I didn’t have enough of it. Turns out that’s not true – you could give me a million pounds and I’d find a way to lose it. Kate argues that how we handle money is a reflection of how much we value ourselves. We are also influenced by our childhood. Kate asks: what’s your first money memory and how does it relate to where you are today? I saw that I have recreated the boom-bust life we had growing up and that deep down I believe that, if I had money, people won’t like me.
DREAMS CAN COME TRUE
There’s no need to work very much, according to Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, just stick up some pictures of your dream house on a vision board and it’ll appear. Even though this idea made me livid, creating my board made me realise that I’d never allowed myself to dream big because allowing yourself to have dreams opens you up to disappointment. But it’s quite amazing how many of the things I put on my board have come true. I put on a picture of green smoothies, a girl doing yoga and another doing a handstand – and within two weeks I’d been commissioned to write an article about living off kale for a week and another on upside-down yoga. Coincidence? I also added a picture of a book cover to represent me writing my first book, and that’s happened, too. I don’t know if that’s The Secret or hard work but, either way, my life has changed.
WE REJECT OURSELVES
In April, I played a self-help game called Rejection Therapy, which involved finding ways to be rejected every day. Jia Jiang’s idea is that our fear of rejection stops us from going after the things we want in life but, by actively seeking it out, we learn that rejection doesn’t kill us and that people often say ‘yes’ when you think they’ll say ‘no’. But, God, I hated it. Our survival used to depend on being accepted by the group – so while being rejected won’t kill us, it does still
feel like death. But I persevered and had some beautiful moments, including the day I chatted up a man in a coffee shop. In that moment, I realised that I had rejected myself more than anybody else had.
IT’S TIME TO CARE LESS
My fifth book was a liberation. John C Parkin argues that ‘fuck it’ is the Western expression of the Eastern philosophy of accepting and letting go – and that as soon as we say ‘fuck it’ to worrying about our weight, our job or what people think about us, we relax and, as soon as we do, things seem to go our way more than when we’re trying to control everything. And I think that’s true.
WE ARE ADDICTED TO OUR PROBLEMS
Tony Robbins is a 6ft 7in, lanternjawed, self-improvement god who wrote Awaken The Giant Within back in 1991. I spent four days with him at London’s EXCEL centre, along with 7,000 others, as he spouted information like a sexy machine gun. The one thing that stuck with me is his belief that our biggest addiction is not to booze or food or drugs but to our problems. He argues that we think we don’t want problems but actually they fill a need: they make us feel important or we use them to connect to others. He says that if you find yourself in the same unhappy situation time and time again it’s because you are getting something out of it. And I agree with him.
PEOPLE ARE OUR GUARDIAN ANGELS
Apparently, 41% of British women believe in angels, and there is a whole self-help world dedicated to helping people get in touch with their winged friends. I read How To Hear Your Angels by Doreen Virtue, which advised me to write letters to my angels and wait for white feathers to show me they were present. I had no luck but I did learn that people are your angels. Throughout my crazy year, friends, family and strangers often managed to say the perfect thing at the perfect time. I had one conversation with a taxi driver that I swear came direct from God, though I’m not sure I believe in God, either.
YOU CAN CONTROL HOW YOU REACT TO ANYTHING
I gave up on habit two of the Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People, which says it all really. My head was fried from self-help by the time I came to this hefty tome, but there is one story from the book that I think of almost every day and that’s the example of Viktor Frankl. A Holocaust survivor, Frankl argued that you can’t always control circumstances, but you can control your reaction to them and that it’s always possible, even in the worst of times, to find meaning and kindness.
ALL WE HAVE IS NOW
It’s such a cliché. Live for the moment, be mindful, blah, blah, blah… Before I read The Power Of Now, this kind of message would make me roll my eyes but, thanks to Eckhart Tolle, I get it. He argues that we spend our lives beating ourselves up about the past and worrying about the future, and miss the only thing that is real, which is the right now. He asks: do you have a problem right now? The answer is nearly always ‘no’. So ask yourself, do you have a problem right now?
TO MEET MORE MEN, YOU NEED TO MEET MORE MEN
I did not want to do a dating book, but Matthew Hussey’s Get The Guy kept getting recommended to me and I found it surprisingly practical. He argues that if we are single, we are so desperate to meet The One we actually meet no one. We have to get out there and practise talking to all members of the opposite sex so that when we meet someone we like, we don’t panic. So I flirted with the bin men, asked for a date at a business networking event… and remembered that men are humans, too, not the aliens I’ve often seen them as.
THERE IS NO PERFECT
As my year of self-help came close to ending, I started beating myself up that I was nowhere near the perfect person I wanted to become. I was still in debt and a stone heavier than I was at the beginning thanks to saying ‘f**k it’ to my diet. Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly made me understand that there is no such thing as perfect and that we all feel we’re not good enough and that we will not be loved. She says the only way to be happy is to drop the perfectionism and to share our real, vulnerable selves with others. I saw that was true when I stood up in front of a room of strangers during a therapy week and shared all the things I usually kept to myself. People were so kind and, when I listened to them, I realised that we are all the same.
I grew up in a house where loving yourself was big-headed but You Can Heal Your Life explains that you have to love yourself before doing anything else. And you have to love yourself even if you think you are too fat, or not successful enough or single. You have to love yourself right now, warts and all. In this way my journey of self-improvement became something else. I did not improve myself, I accepted myself and then, miracle of miracles, learnt to love myself.