Self-help books nearly drove me out of my mind!

Self-help books nearly drove me out of my mind! How a single, anxiety-ridden woman in £15,000 of debt almost lost her marbles following the advice of lifestyle gurus

  •  Marianne Power followed advice of self-help books for a year to sort out her life
  •  In the name of self-help she walked over hot coals and got rejected by people
  • She read a number of popular self-help books such as The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne

The darkness of the cab felt like a confessional. It was the week before Christmas; groups of office workers in festive jumpers and girls huddled in high heels flashed past the passenger window.

It was usually my favourite time of the year. But I felt nothing. Or worse than nothing. And now I found myself confiding in a bald, sixtysomething cabbie.

All he’d done was comment that I ‘looked relaxed’ and out it all spilled, along with an ocean of tears.

‘I feel as if I’m having a breakdown,’ I said. ‘Like I’m losing my mind.’

Marianne Power, pictured, followed the rules of a different self-help book for each month for a year

The driver stared at me in the mirror as I told him I couldn’t seem to do anything I used to — work, enjoy nights out — and had alienated my closest friends. I was even dreaming about killing my parents and was haunted by images of my funeral.

‘I think the world hates me and that I am a bad person,’ I found myself saying.

The reason for this sudden collapse? Ironically, it was something that I’d thought would help me. A year earlier, aged 36, permanently single and in debt with my life going nowhere, I had set myself a challenge.

I would follow the rules of a different self-help book each month for a year — no matter how ridiculous, embarrassing or cringe-making.

I would systematically tackle my flaws one book at a time: money (never good with money, I was £15,000 in debt), my inability to find a man (my relationships never lasted longer than six months and occurred with less frequency than the Olympics) and the constant whir of worry . . . Then, at the end of the year, I’d be . . . perfect!

One book had got me to face my deepest fears by jumping into an icy pond, chatting up strangers on the Tube and doing a stand-up comedy routine.

In the name of self-help I’d even walked over hot coals, literally, and spent a month purposefully getting rejected by as many people as possible (more of which later . . .).

Marianne Power was never good with money and had debts of £15,000 and trouble finding a man

 Far from feeling empowered, however, here I was weeping in a black cab. It turns out too much self-examination — or ‘toenail contemplating’ as my bewildered mother puts it — can turn into self-loathing.

Although I didn’t expect the taxi driver to understand, he surprised me. ‘What you’re doing is kamikaze, love,’ he said. ‘You’ve been poking around in your head and that’s dangerous stuff.’

Then he added: ‘You’re touching the void — and you’ve got to step back because you won’t be any good to anyone if you go under.’

I was shocked by his insight. That’s exactly what it had begun to feel like. I’d started the year thinking I wanted to change, but if I wasn’t the old me, then who was I? What if I was just going to stay a broken mess like this for ever?

A spontaneous therapy session with a London cabbie was just one of many bizarre experiences in a turbulent year.

Like my long-suffering mother (who, when I explained I was replacing negative thoughts with positive ones, replied: ‘You mean delude yourself?’), my two sceptical sisters and my bemused friends, you may well ask why I’d started the whole thing in the first place.

After all, my life wasn’t bad. Far from it . . .

I was a successful freelance writer living in London. I had friends and family who cared about me. I bought overpriced jeans and drank overpriced cocktails. I went on holidays. I did a pretty good impression of someone having a good time.

But I wasn’t. I was lost. As friends re-grouted bathrooms and planned villa holidays, I spent weekends drinking or lying in bed watching the Kardashians. I was always single, I didn’t own a house and I didn’t have a plan.

Marianne faced her fears during one particular month by swimming outside at a lido

 The tears that were usually confined to my bedroom had started making public appearances — at office dos and friends’ parties — until finally, I’d become that woman at weddings, the one who lurched from drunkenly dancing to Beyoncé’s Single Ladies to sobbing in the bathroom.

One hungover Sunday I realised things couldn’t go on as they were; more than ever, I felt that I was wasting my life.

Why self-help? Ever since the formerly cynical 24-year-old me ditched a dull temping job and landed a job at a newspaper after reading Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway by the American psychologist Susan Jeffers, I’d been hooked.

This book has sold millions of copies around the world and has been translated into more than 35 languages.

Published in 1987, the basic premise of Feel The Fear is that if we sit around waiting for the day that we feel brave enough to do the things we want to do, we’ll never do anything.

The secret of happy and successful people is not that they are any less scared but that — you guessed it — they ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’.

That American can-do attitude was highly intoxicating. It was the exact opposite of my English/Irish pessimism — to her, anything was possible.

After that, if a book was promising to change my life in my lunch hour or give me confidence/ a man/money in five easy steps I was sold.

Books such as the 1997 bestseller The Little Book Of Calm by Australian meditation teacher and businessman Paul Wilson, which advised on how to tackle stress in situations, The Rules Of Life by Richard Templar (‘the personal code for living a better, happier, more successful kind of life’) and The Power Of Positive Thinking, by the motivational speaker American Methodist clergyman Norman Vincent Peale (first published in 1952), which advised on how to achieve an optimistic attitude, were all read, cover to cover. Passages underlined. Notes in the margin.

My friend Sarah found my growing piles of self-help books hysterically funny.

‘Don’t they all say the same thing?’ she asked. ‘Be positive. Get out of your comfort zone?’

In October Marianne was mainly laid up in bed at her Mum’s, suffering from a virus, being fed toast and paracetamol

Sarah had a point. After all, if one book really could unlock the secret to happiness and success, why on earth would we ever need to buy another? I figured the problem was that people rarely carried out their advice.

Despite my extensive self-help library, I had actually acted on it only once, even though it had worked.

On the strength of Feel The Fear I had quit my temping job, with no 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. I showed a tenacity that was entirely new to me.

Finally, she returned my call — I could come in on work experience. Two weeks later I was offered a job. The risk had paid off. Logically then, if I followed more self-help books to the letter I’d be, well, fixed?

Some people were more convinced than others by my audacious plan. ‘Please don’t use the word “journey”,’ said Mum.

‘I won’t,’ I replied.


‘I prefer “spiritual path”.’

‘Oh Marianne . . .’

My experiment started in January, when I returned to my old favourite, Feel The Fear.

The first book Marianne read was Feel the fear and do it anyway by Susan Jeffers

 ‘Basically, I have to do something scary every day,’ I told my flatmate, Rachel.

We drew up a list that ranged from outdoor swimming (in winter) to being a nude model. 

As I ticked them off, I felt high on triumph. Who knew the sensation of being stabbed by a million tiny icicles while swimming in North London’s Hampstead Ponds was oddly life-affirming?

Or that despite my many body hang-ups, posing naked at a life drawing class had not proved beyond me — even though a guy I fancied drew my backside the size of Australia? Or that I could do stand-up comedy in front of an audience of strangers and was good at public speaking?

I did more crazy things in January than I’d done in a lifetime. And it made me feel alive.

So FAR, so good. Next, I attempted to tackle a major problem in my life: the fact I’m a total disaster with money.

In her book Money, A Love Story, American entrepreneur, millionaire and ‘financial wellness expert’ Kate Northrup argues that those who don’t look after their money are self-sabotaging.

A London cabbie recommended that Marianne see a therapist who said she had been ‘conducting experiments on herself.’

 For the first time, I added up my debt: it totalled £15,109.60, a figure that made me feel physically sick.

But by the end of the month I had vowed to face up to my problem, by selling my old stuff on eBay, maybe even drawing up a budget plan.

March’s message, however, was somewhat contradictory. The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne, said I could have anything I wanted in life if I just believed. No need to work, study or do anything, really — just wish for it.

According to this 2006 bestseller, which has been translated into more than 50 languages, and read by more than 30 million people worldwide, it’s all down to the ‘law of attraction’, which states that ‘thoughts become things’.

So if you think about money, you’re going to get lots of money.

Hmmm. Even though the book is a global bestseller, I had trouble with this argument from the start, but still I merrily stuck a Post-it note with my ideal weight over my true weight on the dial of the bathroom scales and created vision boards of the perfect me with my perfect home and ideal man.

Much to Mum’s frustration, I even wrote myself an imaginary cheque for £100,000. (‘We all have a genie in a bottle, do we?’ she said.)

By April, I was enduring Canadian entrepreneur Jason Comely’s masochistic Rejection Therapy. This started as a card game and has turned into a global phenomenon. The aim is simple: I had to get rejected once a day. Not try to get rejected or attempt to get rejected but actually get rejected.

The idea is that we’re all living in fear of rejection so we don’t do half the things we want to because we’re scared people will say ‘no’. By exposing ourselves to this uncomfortable feeling more regularly, we learn not to fear it.

My hope was it would help me in all aspects of my life — particularly my uneventful love life.

I started small in the local pub, asking the stuck-up barwoman to let me pull my own pint (she did) and a group of girls I’d never met whether I could join their table (they said yes).

Marianne also read Unleash the Power Within: An Owner’s Manual for the Brain by Anthony Robbins

 Proof that rejection happens less often than you think it will. This rolled over into May and by the end of the month I’d approached new publications for work — and succeeded — asked out a man in a coffee shop and gone on an actual date. All positive outcomes.

So where did it all go wrong? I suspect it was at the point I started taking it all a bit too seriously. Before, I’d been able to laugh at my extracurricular reading habits, but by June (the month of John C. Parkin’s F**k It: The Ultimate Spiritual Way), I didn’t want to hear anything even vaguely critical about my project.

In his international bestseller, John, a British advertising executive who now runs a holistic centre in Italy, says the moment we say ‘f**k it’ we stop obsessing about things which are not important. It’s an expression that says — ultimately — that nothing matters that much.

It’s certainly liberating to say ‘f**k it’ to having that glass of wine, or to whacking a big payment on the credit card.

It’s not so liberating when your credit card starts being refused at cash points.

I also started to push friends away, fearing their ‘negativity’ about my interest in self-help. Before, I would have been devastated at the thought of hurting a friend, but I was now saying ‘f**k it’ to being nice.

For example, I told Sarah that I didn’t want to go to the pub and moan and rant with her any more. Turns out she wasn’t that thankful for my moment of honesty.

Gradually, it was also dawning on me that self-help can be dangerous for someone like me. 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.

So, despite the fact I managed to walk on hot coals (in an East London car park with 7,000 others attending Tony Robbins’s Unleash The Power Within seminar) in July, I put self-help on hold in August.

By then, nearly £20,000 in debt, I shut myself away to work.

September found me back on track tackling American motivational speaker and New Age author Doreen Virtue’s many books about angels — but her theory that we all have angels looking after us, and all we have to do to contact them was to write them letters and wait for white feathers to fly in front of us, was difficult even for me to accept.

I was beginning to feel more than a little spun out by all the conflicting bizarre ideas floating about in my head.

Also, nine months into my challenge, I was more stupid with money than ever and had put on nearly a stone.

In his international bestseller, John Parkin, a British advertising executive who now runs a holistic centre in Italy, says the moment we say ‘f**k it’ we stop obsessing about things which are not important.

And where was my perfect man? I couldn’t manage a book in October: I was mainly laid up in bed at Mum’s, suffering from a virus, being fed toast and paracetamol.

Mum certainly thought that my sickness was a sign. ‘All this thinking about

yourself is not good for you,’ she urged. 

I had to agree that I’d become sick of myself. Literally. Despite the daring deeds and beautiful moments, I felt a bigger failure than ever because I was failing at self-improvement.

I had told myself that the secret to happiness lay in the next book, or the next book, or the next book . . . But rather than pulling myself together I was starting to come apart.

 At night, I was having nightmares about killing members of my family.

In the daytime, I felt like that onscreen spinning wheel of doom which tells you that your computer is about to crash.

In this context, perhaps it wasn’t the best idea to plan my own funeral.

November’s book, The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey, says that most of us are ‘climbing ladders that are leaning against the wrong wall’.

This 1989 bestseller, which sold more than 25 million copies worldwide, argues that we need to identify what we really want in life and the best way to do that is to imagine your own funeral and what you’d like others to say about you.

What came to mind was pretty bleak: friends and family blaming me for the end

of my life. 

When I started imagining my fictional suicide, I knew that it was time to stop.

That’s how I found myself confessing all to a London cabbie. 

His suggestion was that I should see a real therapist, advice that I followed.

And the therapist made a lot of sense.

‘I’m not surprised you’ve come unstuck,’ she said. ‘You’ve been conducting

experiments on yourself. 

You have been your own guinea pig and you’ve had no supervision.’

Although she didn’t tell me to stop what I was doing, she said I needed help in

doing it. 

An outside perspective. So, after a month’s break, I carried on with professional


As the year drew to a close, there was much that I still

wanted to achieve. 

I now realised I’d pushed friends and family away because they represented unvarnished reality — the real me.

Surely self-acceptance was key — was there a way to achieve that?

And then there was the biggest fear of all to tackle — love. 

My self-help project wasn’t finished yet.

Adapted from Help Me! One Woman’s Quest To Find Out If Self-help Really Can Change Her Life by Marianne Power, published by Picador on September 6 at £14.99. © Marianne Power 2018. 

To order a copy for £11.99 (offer valid until August 25, 2018) visit or call 0844 571 0640. P&P is free on orders over £15.

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