The day after New Year’s is dull and gray, and the whole of London looks like a late-stage hangover, muttering desperately about Dry January and other impossible resolutions. It’s a good day to meet with Marianne Power — a day very much like the morning almost exactly five years ago when she found herself poised above the murky, freezing water of the outdoor pond on Hampstead Heath, ready to take a swim.
She had decided that day to make herself over, and — this being 2014 — to blog about it. Her plan was simple. Every month she would choose a different self-help book and follow it devotedly. She would feel the fear and do it anyway, unleash the power within, dare greatly, and (if all went to plan) heal her life. Instead, amid a spiral of self-obsession and self-doubt, her life threatened to fall completely apart. Her book, Help Me! — out this week from Grove Press — chronicles her bumpy road from a “life-changing hangover” to a more humble kind of self-awareness, via flirtations with celestial guardian angels and bearded men in coffee shops, expensive retreats and lots of cheap wine. Discussing the experience over tea and cake in a north London café, Power is earnest and emotional; one of the consequences of trying to improve yourself all the way to a breakdown, she admits, is that the smallest things make you cry.
Before embarking on her self-improvement quest, Power treated self-help books like comfort food. The fantasy they offered — of getting richer and skinnier and finding love — was enough on its own, akin to buying glossy cookbooks “and eating chips every night.” When it came to their potential effectiveness, she was as skeptical as any Londoner. But as she got deeper into her 30s, discontentedly single, in debt, and surrounded by friends who seemed more successful, Power began to feel “defective.” What would happen if she embarked on a measurable, concrete mission: To perfect not one small area of her life but all of it, forever?
Most of Power’s chosen titles promise big, sweeping change. Her year began with Susan Jeffers’s 1987 classic Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway — which in her case meant skydiving, nude modeling, and, scariest of all, talking to strangers. She walked through hot coals at a Tony Robbins retreat and wrote herself huge checks in the hope that the money would manifest for real, through the power of “the Secret.” She tried communicating with angels and saying “f**k it” to all her anxieties. Hers were the kind of self-help books that promise to explain everything, manifesting millions of fierce devotees from whom you would probably back away at a party.
But few people backed away from Power — not even Brits, who wear their cynicism like a badge of courage. Instead, “I got emails from really quite senior, successful people saying, ‘I relate to this so much,’ or ‘I struggle with this.’” And the genre wasn’t played out; it was bigger than ever. Visiting a central London bookstore recently, Power found a self-help section that could have swallowed another store — subdivided into sections like “spirituality” (sub-subsection: angels), and something called “smart thinking,” covering everything from Steven Pinker to “entrepreneurial success literature” (self-help that men won’t be embarrassed to buy). The new vogue for “wellness” and “mindfulness” allows practitioners to talk about self-improvement without the lingering stigma of the term “self-help.” And among “younger, cooler people,” formerly fringe elements like crystal healing are moving to the mainstream. “All the witchy-type things are very popular at the moment, especially with young women,” Power notes. “And shamanism. Around Hackney you can’t go to the supermarket without hearing someone on the phone talking about their ayahuasca experience.”
Power’s mission, then, was to stay afloat in the sea of hype and find her own way forward. And her solution, ultimately, was old-fashioned therapy. In the U.K., that’s a bigger leap than you might imagine. “I’d thought you either had to have real, serious problems or you were a self-indulgent nightmare if you went to therapy,” Power says. “There is still this British and Irish thing of keeping your feelings down, stiff upper lip. Or drinking our feelings away.”
It was Power’s therapist who helped her understand why her self-directed project fell apart, why it’s impossible “to fix yourself with the same brain that caused your problems.” Although she couldn’t help raising an eyebrow in her book — a therapist would say that, wouldn’t she? — Power eventually realized that she needed a check on the all-absorbing focus on herself. “I thought the more I thought about myself, the more I would get answers,” she says. “But it didn’t happen like that. The more I was thinking about myself, the more problems I could see, and the more self-involved and cut off from people I was becoming.” Her friends and family, initially supportive but skeptical, couldn’t understand why someone they loved needed to work so hard to fix flaws in herself that only she could see.
Then there was the problem of connecting to others on the most intimate levels. Although finding a partner is one of the perennial goals of self-help, Power took her time before getting to a dating guide — Matthew Hussey’s Get the Guy, which posits that meeting a potential partner is basically a numbers game. She dutifully began approaching strangers and arranging excruciating Tinder dates, but hers was not a romantic odyssey. After meeting a handsome stranger in a coffee shop, she got invited to a wedding on a Greek island, but decided she was too broke and depressed to go. Today, she talks passionately about the perception that being single represents a flaw or affliction. She now believes it isn’t a question of confidence or initiative, or something to “fix” with a five-point action plan. It goes much deeper than that. Feeling yourself to be worthy of love is the project of a lifetime, not just a year.
Given everything she’s learned, I ask Power if she considers her own memoir, in its way, a self-help book? She didn’t intend it that way, but is now hearing from readers in other countries where the book’s been published — in Portugal, in Korea — who have identified with her story. One woman said it was like reading about herself, “and she figured she wasn’t so bad after all, because she liked me in the book.” Power believes (and others agree) that humbler, more personal stories like hers, which admit to struggle and doubt, are becoming more popular than books full of programmatic promises.
Anyone can be a source of help, after all — memoirists, philosophers, village elders, priests, family members. Power remains a big fan of Brené Brown, the author of Daring Greatly, who says she doesn’t believe in the term self-help, “because she doesn’t think we’re meant to do it on our own. We’re meant to help each other.” The books she’s looking for now are more generally geared toward understanding life. “I do find being a human being a hard process and I’m always trying to understand it a bit more.”
While Power recognizes the value of self-help books, she’s grown wary of their suggestion that perfection is possible. Not every day can be evidence of your best life — even if social media, especially Instagram, demands that we constantly perform our best lives for an audience, implying that “if life isn’t a yoga pose on a sunset beach then you’re a bit of a dud.” It took more than a year of “bashing my head against the wall trying to be perfect,” says Power, to understand that there’s really no such thing.
So perfection may not be possible in life, but is there a perfect self-help book? When I ask which one she’d save from a burning house, she’s diplomatic: “I think there’s wisdom in loads of them.” But Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now has pride of place at her bedside. “It’s about this annoying, obvious thing of just being in the moment, instead of worrying about what’s going to happen tomorrow or criticizing ourselves for what’s happened in the past.” Accordingly, there’s no grand revelation at the end of Power’s book, but a series of kind and ordinary truths: Be honest. Be kind. Lighten up. Have a drink. You’re doing great. “Such boring wisdom at the end, isn’t it?”