One Woman’s Quest to Find Out if Self-Help Really Can Change Your Life
By Marianne Power
364 pp. Grove Press. $26.
Since I started writing about self-help books, I’ve been forced to out myself — I love them. Not to improve myself, of course, since other than my looks and personality and value system, I’m perfect. No, I love them because the good ones can give you a little life jolt that’s as useful as a double espresso. The trick to reading these books is to heed one of the primary tenets of the recovery movement: “Take what you need and leave the rest.”
Alas, Marianne Power didn’t get the memo. Power, a British freelance journalist and blogger, believed everything about herself needed overhauling. She knew she was a good person, but she was, to use that wonderful expression, crap at daily life. The book jacket shows an adorable slim redhead. But she hated her thighs and her teeth and her unwashed ginger hair. (“So wash it!” I think, about 20 times, reading along.) She hated her drinking and debt; she hated the fact that she was in her mid-30s and still didn’t have a serious relationship.
Power had been a self-help junkie for more than a decade: “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.” There was also the fantasy element, the promise of being more confident and efficient, richer, more successful, even taller. (Really. Amazon lists a surprising number of books on how to grow taller.)
In those years of reading self-help books, did Power turn her life around? No, she did not. Being human, she read and read and did nothing. But, she thought, what if she actually gave herself over to one solid year of self-improvement, following the tenets of a variety of her favorite books to the letter? Each month, she would follow a different book. So, while reading Susan Jeffers’s “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway,” she sky-dived, posed naked for a life-art class and tried stand-up comedy, arguably more terrifying than jumping out of a plane. With Kate Northrup’s “Money: A Love Story,” she decided to face her debt head on and get to the root of why she had overdrafts on all her credit cards. Trying to be serious about money was so difficult she then decided to follow “The Secret,” a book by Rhonda Byrne whose basic principle is that you don’t need to do anything but wish and visualize to make great things happen. So she goes from watching every penny to writing herself fake £100,000 checks and eating whatever she wants because, if you really believe, money (and men and houses and weight loss) will come your way. It’s surprising to discover that “The Secret” wasn’t written by a 5-year-old, but maybe not surprising to learn that it has sold millions of copies.
And so it goes. Walking on hot coal with Tony Robbins. Rejection therapy. Something something with Eckhart Tolle that I, personally, will never understand, but it was good enough for Oprah and Paris Hilton, so what do I know?
Still. The misery.
“I started to see how self-help can be dangerous for someone like me,” Power writes. “I was too busy reading books, spouting affirmations and dreaming big to get on with silly stuff like earning enough money to pay the bills.”
Power occasionally brings the funny; her description of one bad date was a genuine Bridget Jones moment. (“He sounded interesting. He thought so too. I spent two hours being run over by his voice.”) But the navel gazing and the guilt about the navel gazing make her go a bit mad about halfway through her journey; she pushes friends and family away, drinks excessively, bolts from perfectly lovely men and continues to avoid washing her hair. Some of those closest to her begin to avoid her. But all have an annoying way of showing up again to tell her that, despite her self-loathing, the rest of the world doesn’t see her the way she sees herself. As a writerly contrivance, you can do this once or twice; when you do it over and over the reader begins to think, Maybe she skimped on the self-help books about writing.
The contradiction at the heart of many self-help books is that you’re supposed to accept yourself more while simultaneously changing to create a better you. I say: Pick one. If you’re making daily vision boards and writing yourself fake checks, then the chances of embracing the life you have are kind of slim. If you’re doing daily affirmations to yourself in the mirror, naked, learning to love your cottage cheese thighs, that’s great; but the chances of losing those thighs aren’t so great. Either takeaway from self-help is fine, but instead, Power pingpongs between the two. “Help Me!” is filled with epiphanies that are unceremoniously discarded a few pages later. Perhaps that’s the point of the book, but this can be a little exhausting.
Diverting and often amusing as it can be to join Power on her George Plimpton-like adventure through some of the classics of self-help, readers won’t have trouble anticipating the happy ending. It involves nature and friends and a baby (not her own). Lesson learned: Happiness comes from appreciating the little things. “Now it was time to stop thinking about myself, to look out rather than in. To live life rather than analyze it.”
Unless there’s an offer for a sequel. Then all bets are off.