America's queen of self-help Susan Jeffers taught us how to 'feel the fear'
June 8, 2005
INTERVIEW BY CATHERINE LUCAS of The Times (UK)
"WHAT IS it for you? Fear of public speaking, asserting yourself, making decisions, intimacy, being alone . . ?"
These are the opening words of Susan Jeffers's ground-breaking self-help book Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway, which showed how to turn our fear and indecision into confidence and action. Published in 1987, it was one of the first big successes in the self-help field. And alongside writers such as Dale Carnegie, M. Scott Peck, Deepak Chopra and John Gray, Jeffers has created a bestselling genre dedicated to helping us lead happier and more fulfilling lives.
But there are plenty of people who are sceptical of the self-help boom. They consider it to be a dangerous trend that encourages an unhealthy dependency on therapy and feeds our dissatisfaction by giving us false expectations about how happy we ought to be. As I take the lift to the executive suite on the seventh floor of the Intercontinental Hotel in London, where I am due to interview Jeffers, I wonder what she will be like. Will she be a charlatan, spouting empty self-help catchphrases? Or worse, a cynical profiteer taking advantage of people's unhappiness? She turns out to be neither. Jeffers is warm, welcoming and wise and my first thought is: "This woman clearly knows what she is talking about."
She has a PhD in psychology, but she says it is her "experience of life" that qualifies her to write. She is in her mid-sixties and her books - 17 so far - are about overcoming fear, creating healthy relationships and living life with love and confidence. "I teach what I have learnt myself," she says. "I know the tools I write about work, because they have transformed my life. I used to be a very frightened and needy woman; now that has changed. Really it all comes down to a very simple question: how do you want to be in this world - happy or unhappy? I wanted to be happy, so I learnt how."
We are meeting to discuss her latest book: The Feel the Fear Guide to Lasting Love. With sections ranging from communication skills to creating trust and the secret to never-ending sex, it explains what real love is and how to make it last a lifetime. "But why don't we know how to love?" I ask. "Why do we need a book?"
"Because we are not taught," she replies firmly. "And because we have all these erroneous beliefs and expectations about what real love is. We think it is about falling in love across a crowded room. That's such a ridiculous concept: how can you fall in love with someone you don't know? That's not love, it is enchantment and it doesn't last. Within two years the enchantment wears off and then you've got a choice: to end the relationship or transform it into real love."
"So the problem is," Jeffers says, "most of us want a wonderful relationship, but often we don't understand what real love is or how to create it. We say we love the people in our lives, yet we don't act lovingly. Instead we blame and criticise and complain. We say, 'It's your fault, if you didn't do this everything would be great and I'd be happy'. But I know from my own experience that doesn't work."
Jeffers was born in Pennsylvania, a small-town girl who got married at 18 and had two children in her early twenties. "I was young and stupid," she says. "I thought you got married and lived happily ever after. I didn't realise that a marriage required hard work or that there were tools for keeping love alive. So even though my husband was a very nice man, little by little the anger and the resentment crept in and I couldn't appreciate any of the things he did for me."
She realised early on that a life as a stay-at-home mother was not for her, so she broke the conventions of 1960s society and went to college when she was 23, graduating with her PhD in 1970. A year later she got a job as the executive director of the Floating Hospital in New York, providing help and medical advice to the poorest people in the city. Then she left her husband after 16 years of marriage. But things still weren't easy. "I got tired of looking in the mirror and seeing my eyes were red from crying and I realised there had to be a better way to do this. So I decided - and you see it's always a decision - I decided to learn about relationships.
"The beauty of real love comes from appreciating the ordinary moments, like having dinner together, or the fact that someone loves you enough to take your trash out," she explains. But above all, Jeffers says, "if you want to be in a loving relationship you have to learn to be loving. We have to use the problems, the challenges, the incompatibilities to teach us to become more loving people." And to do that we have to pick up the mirror. "Usually when we get upset our first reaction is to pick up the magnifying glass and blame our partner. But by picking up the mirror we see what is going on inside us and how we can change. This is the tool that has most transformed my life, because I have learnt it's not about what is happening out there, it is about what is happening inside me." But it can be difficult to use, she admits, because often what we see is not very pretty.
So can the techniques she recommends fix all relationships? "No, absolutely not," she says. "Nor should they. If your partner is physically or verbally abusive or addicted to drugs or alcohol and won't go for help, then I think it is time to walk out of the door. But even when it's not that serious, sometimes we are meant to move on. My divorce was one of the most valuable experiences in my life because it set me on this path, and I wouldn't be where I am today without it. But you can still leave lovingly."
Despite the sceptics, Jeffers's books have sold extremely well in England (Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway has sold more than 900,000 copies alone) and they are published in more than 100 countries. But success did not come instantly.
"I left my job at the Floating Hospital to write Feel the Fear and then I had great trouble selling it," she explains. Her worst rejection letter said: "Lady Di could be bicycling nude down the street giving this book away and nobody would read it."
"But I kept going, because I felt if I could help a few people then it would be worth it," says Jeffers. "Now I get mail from people all over the world saying 'your book saved my life'. That makes me tremendously happy."
Some people might think your happiness has more to do with the money your books have made than the fan mail you receive, I suggest. "Real happiness has very little to do with money," she replies. "My personal happiness is not about money at all. It comes from learning how to live a powerful and loving life."
Which brings us back to the question of whether the self-help genre is really helpful or not. Why do you think some people are still so sceptical, I ask Jeffers.
"Many people don't understand what self-help is," she says. "They think it is about developing their ego or becoming selfish. But it's the opposite. The happier and more confident you become, the more loving you can become and the more you can contribute. And surely that's what life is all about - how to make a positive contribution to the world."
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