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From jumping out of a plane to doing stand-up comedy: Meet the woman who tested if self-help books can change your life

by - 31 January

To read one self-help book every month for a year. And not only to read but to follow their self-improvement rules. That's how Marianne Power - an Irish freelance journalist living in London, started her year-long experiment in 2014. Single, lonely and in debt, she decided to find the road to happiness in the pages of 12 self-help books. Marianne described her crazy and funny experiences in her blog - The Help Me Blog. The journey resulted later in her own book - Help Me! which is now translated into 20 languages. 

Do self-help books really help - I asked Marianne Power

Marianne, how did you come up with the idea to read a different self-help book every month for a year?
By my mid-thirties 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 same life I’d had since my twenties, 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 re-reading 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 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!

When did you start reading? What were your expectations at the beginning?
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 brave enough, clever enough and confident enough to do things we want to do but that day never comes – the only way to feel brave and confident is to do the scary thing first. I started small with parallel parking and opening bank statements, and graduated up to jumping out of a plane, doing stand-up comedy and modelling naked for an art class. It was petrifying but the rush of confidence I felt after each challenge was massive. I felt so proud of what I had done.
I honestly hoped that by the end of the year I would have tackled all my problems and that I would be a perfect rich, skinny, happy person with a boyfriend who wore a cashmere jumper! The kind of person you see in magazines.

What was your experience with self-help books before launching the project?
I read my first self-help book when I was 24. I was drinking cheap white wine in a bar with a friend, moaning about my temping job, when my friend gave me her copy of Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers. ‘Read this,’ she said. ‘It’ll make you want to go out and DO stuff.’ I couldn’t see what it had made her want to do other than get drunk with me, but no matter. I loved it. The American enthusiasm and capital letters and YOU CAN DO IT! exclamation marks were the perfect antidote to my English/Irish pessimism and worry. After that I was addicted to 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. But I rarely did what the books told me to do – until my year of self-help.

What did you learn about these books and about yourself during the project?
I learned that I was capable of doing much more than I’d thought I was. When I did public speaking and stand up comedy it went very well, which was a shock. When I approached strangers in Rejection Therapy most of the time they were lovely – again, this is not how I thought it would be. I learned that we are the ones that limit ourselves.

What was the most challenging aspect of reading self-help books for a year?
Doing embarrassing things such as approaching men on the train, or naked modelling was uncomfortable but the hardest thing was the months of self-examination. I was thinking about myself too much. Also, the more self-help books I read the more I felt like a failure because I was not getting up at 5am to meditate or was not able to think positively all the time.

How did you select the books?
Some were books recommended to me, some were books I’d read before and some were books tackling areas that I knew I needed to look at – such as money and dating.

Which book did you find helpful, and which – not so much?
I loved the Power of Now. It described the voice in my head that was always criticizing everything I did and helped me understand that the only way to ever be happy is to be in the NOW. Most of us miss the present because we are too busy worrying about the future and analyzing the past. If you ask ourselves ‘Do I have a problem right now?’ the answer is almost always No. So, take a deep breath and relax.
I also loved Daring Greatly by Brene Brown explains that human beings are not meant to be perfect, we are messy, flawed and that’s OK, we can still be loved. The only way to find happiness is to have honest, vulnerable communication with others. A beautiful description of what it’s like to be human. The book I most often recommend is F**K It by John C Parkin – it’s self-help for people who don’t like self-help or would not normally read self-help. It argues that ‘F**k It’ is the Western Expression of the Eastern philosophy of accepting and letting go and the moment we say ‘F**k it’ to worrying about work, money, our weight… everything goes better. I think that’s true. It’s a very easy book for anyone to read and it’s funny too.

Do self-help books actually help? If yes - how did they work for you?
Yes, they did help a lot. They helped me to get to know myself and to understand life a little bit better. They also gave me the kick to do things I would not normally do. However, I learned about three quarters of the way through that I needed professional help to make changes and so I started working with a therapist who had a hugely positive impact on me.

What would be your advice to people who feel like you "left behind, alone and irrelevant"?
Self-help books are a really good way for you to start to understand what areas of life are not working for you but if you are really stuck and unhappy – see a therapist then do – they can help you see things that you cannot see in yourself. Therapy is one of the most important things I’ve done for myself, especially a week-long therapy retreat called The Hoffman Process.

What kind of book is your book? What’s the main message?
It’s a funny, honest book about a woman who it trying to figure out who she is and what life is all about. The main comment I get from readers is ‘it’s like reading myself’ – so people get comfort that they are not alone in their insecurities and fears.
My main message is that you are fine the way you are. You don’t need to meditate or do yoga or even be happy all the time. Life is messier than than that and that’s OK. My second message is that we need to help each other. So if you are feeling down, yes, read my book but also see a friend and be honest about how you are feeling.

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