A helping hand: The undeniable legacy of Susan Jeffers, the self-help guru who taught us to Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway
20:56 GMT, 12 November 2012
'Without Jeffers, who died last month at the age of 74, everything from Chicken Soup For The Soul to Women Who Love Too Much might never have found space on the nation's bedside tables'
Back in 1987 one woman changed the way that millions of women lived their lives.
In a slim book with a catchy title, a middle-aged American psychologist called Susan Jeffers promised we could take control of our destinies and make previously unimaginable leaps forward.
Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway was the first self-help book to crack the tough shell of British scepticism, and to date it has sold two million copies in the UK alone.
Without Jeffers, who died last month at the age of 74, everything from Chicken Soup For The Soul to Women Who Love Too Much might never have found space on the nation's bedside tables.
Before Feel The Fear, the British tended to find self-help simplistic or plain embarrassing. Emotional reticence and the stiff upper lip were the order of the day; successful American self-help 'gurus' such as Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale were considered to be snake oil salesmen.
But Feel The Fear did not just win us over to the concept of self-help, we became Jeffers' greatest enthusiasts. Her British agent David Grossman told me: 'The book was a worldwide bestseller, but it had a bigger impact in Britain than anywhere else.
'Susan's take seemed to match perfectly with our more timid or fearful attitude to things – so finding a new way of dealing with that had a great appeal for people here, particularly women.'
The book was based on a series of lectures on fear that Jeffers gave at the New School for Social Research in New York.
The brilliant title was dreamt up in a matter of minutes. Finding a publisher took longer. Her favourite rejection letter read: 'Lady Di could be bicycling nude down the street giving this book away and nobody would read it.'
But Jeffers, a woman who brought humour to everything she did, had the last laugh. Her own story reads like a classic tale of triumph over tragedy, fresh from the real-life section of a self-help book.
Susan Jeffers was born in small-town Pennsylvania and married her high-school sweetheart when she was 18. As she remembered: 'I was young and stupid. I thought you got married and lived happily ever after.' /11/11/article-2231492-15E63910000005DC-545_306x450.jpg” width=”306″ height=”450″ alt=”Susan Jeffers” class=”blkBorder” />
Jeffers' book is filled with lots of no-nonsense advice for dealing with whatever is your personal terror: changing your job, leaving a bad relationship, speaking in public, getting older, being alone
if that wasn't challenge enough, after 16 years, she left her husband.
She has written: 'I certainly learned a lot about feeling the fear and
doing it anyway! It was during those ten years that I began my journey
to self-discovery that led to writing self-help books.'
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One of the bumps on her journey was the diagnosis, in her late 40s, of breast cancer. Her treatment included a mastectomy which, unusually for the times, she often talked about.
She acknowledged that finding a way to be positive about it had helped shape the motivational advice threaded through Feel The Fear.
Her operation coincided with starting a relationship with an Englishman seven years younger than her. Mark Shelmerdine, whom she married in 1985, was a film and TV producer, whose company London Films was responsible for Poldark and I Claudius.
'I wasn't sure if Mark would leave me because of the physical changes,' said Jeffers, who opted not to have reconstruction. 'But I came to understand that my essence and not my breasts was what his love was based on.'
Chicken Soup For The Soul, a collection of motivational stories, sold millions of copies and spawned both sequels and spoofs. Why Men Love Bitches is 'a quick fix for anyone who feels as if they are a doormat'
Jeffers was always keen to demystify cancer and show other women that its diagnosis need not mark an end to their femininity.
'I don't feel mutilated, as some magazine articles suggested I would, and I feel just as sexy as I did before the mastectomy.'
David Grossman, who agreed to become her agent soon after the operation, said: 'I couldn't help but feel that the cancer had spurred her to write the book – she really had faced the fear.'
Much of her message has been absorbed
into conventional wisdom, so it may not seem particularly
earth-shattering now, but then it was manna from psychological heaven
Jeffers' book is filled with lots of no-nonsense advice for dealing with whatever is your personal terror: changing your job, leaving a bad relationship, speaking in public, getting older, being alone.
Letting go was a critical part of her philosophy. If you think you can control everything you will remain terrified of change, paralysed by the unknown.
Much of her message has been absorbed into conventional wisdom, so it may not seem particularly earth-shattering now, but then it was manna from psychological heaven, supplying readers with a toolbox of advice for every sort of challenge, from making career decisions to bereavement.
She described different levels of fear and coached readers to step further into their anxiety rather than back off from it.
In the 25 years since it all began, the book has been published in 100 countries and sold 15 million copies. In the meantime, the self-help industry grows exponentially – and not always to anyone's benefit.
Oliver Burkeman's book, left, parodies the titles of some self-help potboilers, while Make Every Man Want You is 'plainly pitched at the gullible'
Some of the titles – Make Every Man Want You: Or Make Yours Want You More; How to Be So Irresistible You'll Barely Keep From Dating Yourself!; or Why Men Love Bitches: From Doormat To Dreamgirl – A Woman's Guide to Holding Her Own In A Relationship, are plainly pitched at the gullible. Then there's the fad for claiming that three or five or seven key tips or paths or steps will lead to happiness and everlasting love.
As one academic wrote, the real number these authors are interested in is printed on your credit card.
Alain de Botton acknowledges that much of self-help is 'endlessly upbeat, repetitive and patronising'
Alain de Botton, founder of The School Of Life, a London-based centre for intelligent debate, acknowledges that much of self-help is 'endlessly upbeat, repetitive and patronising.'
However, that doesn't mean we won't benefit from the best, intelligent, thoughtful variety, which is aimed at nailing the myth that 'only really stupid people read self-help books'.
Self-help author and journalist Oliver Burkeman, whose book Help! How To Become Slightly Happier And Get A Bit More Done parodies the titles of some self-help potboilers, is adamant that Jeffers is one of the good guys.
She stops us from 'wasting time trying to perfect our mental state – to make ourselves feel happy or motivated or optimistic,' he says.
'Better to accept the limited control we have over our emotions and find ways to live alongside them.'
There is no doubt Jeffers made a fortune out of the Feel The Fear franchise: you can buy mugs and baseball caps with her affirmations such as 'Life is huge', 'Say yes to the universe' and, of course, 'Feel the fear and do it anyway' from her website, and sign up for seminars, run by trainers she authorised, in 20 countries.
Such commercialisation makes it easy to mock, but Feel The Fear is the best kind of self-help book. It's the kind that changes people's – particularly women's – view of themselves and allows them to explore their potential.
Louise Chunn is a former editor of Psychologies magazine.