London - Three weeks ago I stood up in a church hall in front of 15 strangers, slipped my white, fluffy dressing gown off my shoulders and then sat down again, completely naked - not a stitch on.
Trying to focus on a spot on the floor in front of me, rather than the sea of expectant faces, all I could think was: “What the hell am I doing? How could I have forgotten to shave my armpits? Why am I not at home, getting ready to watch Sherlock, like a normal person?”
Stripping off for a life-drawing class is far from the only out-of-character thing I did last month. From performing stand-up comedy in front of a packed pub to chatting up strangers on the Underground and jumping out of a plane at 13 000 ft, life has certainly become very strange of late.
On the first day of 2014 I started a crazy year-long mission: to follow the rules of a different self-help book each month to the letter - no matter how ridiculous, embarrassing or cringe-making it is.
I’ve always been a sucker for self-help books. If it promises to change my life in my lunch-hour, rid me of my “negative patterns” and has a seal of approval from Oprah - the Queen of self-improvement - I’ll buy it.
And I’m not the only one.
Until fairly recently, we Brits were not into self-help. That was something for navel- gazing Americans - people happy to talk about “feelings” and their childhoods - but things have changed.
Recent figures showed that while British book sales have dropped by 1 per cent overall since the recession began, sales of self-help books have increased by 25 percent in the same time.
Indeed, it’s estimated that telling Brits how to be thinner, happier and more confident has earned self-help publishers £60-million in the past five years.
Yet many experts argue that the very fact there are so many self-help books on the shelves is proof they don’t work. 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 am a case in point. Despite having read these books for more than a decade, at the age of 36 I am broke, single and chronically anxious. I’m useless with men and useless with money. I don’t own a house and don’t have a pension.
In fact, I’ve just moved back in with my dad while I have a rethink about where my life is going.
It’s not that I’m desperately unhappy. I have work as a writer that I enjoy, friends I love and a family who are always there for me.
But, like many people, I know that I don’t live life to half of its potential. I spend a good portion of it worrying, analysing and berating myself. I am my own worst enemy.
Yet, despite all evidence to the contrary, I still believe that there is wisdom between these rainbow-coloured book covers. I think the reason they haven’t worked is because, like most people, I just read them, nod in agreement and then carry on as usual. I don’t actually follow any of the advice.
So, this year, I have decided to put self-help to the test. I am going to find out what happens if you actually do exactly what the gurus say.
If they tell me to practise radical honesty, then fine, I’ll tell my friend she’s fat.
Or if I have to write wish lists to the universe as it says in The Secret, then I’ll write a shopping list that would put Imelda Marcos to shame.
I began January with Feel The Fear And Do it Anyway by Susan Jeffers - a self-help classic that’s sold 15 million copies since it was published 25 years ago.
It was also the first self-help book I ever read. A friend gave it to me when I was 24 and in a PR job I hated, and from the first page I was hooked. Susan Jeffers’s basic premise is that if we sit around waiting for the day we feel brave enough, clever enough or pretty enough to do the things we want to do, we’ll never do anything.
The secret of successful people is not that they are any less scared by things, she says, but that they (you’ve guessed it) feel the fear and do it anyway.
In fact, according to Jeffers, we should aim to be scared every day because that’s a sign we’re pushing ourselves and moving forward. And soon the things that once scared us become second nature.
The book had such an effect on the 24-year-old me that I quit the job I hated a month after reading it. I had no idea what I was doing, but soon heard that a friend of a friend was working at a newspaper and I volunteered to be office tea-maker. That was the start of my journalism career; the risk paid off.
Since then I’ve been good at taking bold risks, be it leaving jobs or moving countries. But I’m still crippled by more vague fears: fear of failure, fear of looking stupid, fear of not being good enough. I’m scared of stupid things such as parallel parking, telling people what I really think and smiling at men.
Beneath these seemingly little things, I think, lies a huge fear of rejection. My big, reckless decisions were such a gamble that I knew it wouldn’t be a personal reflection on me if they didn’t work out.
But if I smile at someone and he doesn’t smile back? That hurts at the deepest level of who I am. I find being vulnerable in front of another person the scariest thing of all.
So at the beginning of January, I created a list of all the things that scared me, published them on a blog so that my friends would read them and hold me to account, and promised to tackle one a day.
And boy have I done it. In fact, I have faced more fears in the past anxious few weeks than I have in all my 36 years put together.
I began with driving on the motorway: something many people do every day, but I haven’t done in six years; certain I’m just one dodgy lane change away from death.
But unless I want to spend my life on the bus, it’s a fear I need to get over. So, instead of taking three trains to visit a friend just outside London, I drove there via two motorways. I may not have gone above 60mph or left the slow lane, but I got there and back in one piece. Facing this fear felt significant, as if I was taking control of my life.
I soon became bolder: chatting up a man on the Tube. Given I can’t even smile at anyone I fancy, let alone talk to them, it’s no wonder I’m single.
I imagine all the reasons they would not be interested in me: too fat, too ginger, too badly dressed (all the things I was as a teen and how I still see myself inside, even when someone pays me a compliment). I don’t need men to reject me because I’m doing it for them, in my head, all the time.
It took me half an hour of travelling before I picked up the courage to comment to the handsome man in a suit standing next to me how crammed the carriage was. His reply was non-committal, but I wasn’t dissuaded.
“Where do you live?” I asked, as the Tube became oddly silent and a couple of people looked up from their phones. One man sitting near us even smirked.
Handsome Man looked alarmed. “Er, Streatham,” he said. “Is it nice?” I continued. I could see he was torn between not wanting to be rude, but worrying he had a nutter on his hands. “Yes, we like it very much,” he said.
Message received loud and clear. He had a girlfriend. But I still felt strangely chuffed with myself.
According to Susan Jeffers, every fear we face leaves us feeling stronger, even if it doesn’t yield the result we wanted. Buoyed, I went bigger, tackling two fears that make up most people’s nightmares: public speaking and stripping off in front of total strangers.
Strangely enough, though a recent survey revealed people are more scared of public speaking than they are of dying, my seven-minute speech about this challenge in front of the Camberley Speakers was weirdly enjoyable.
Like most women, the very thought of showing my cellulite to a room full of strangers - especially men - made my tummy turn. I told myself it was a life-drawing class, not a beauty contest, but by the end I felt strangely underwhelmed, rather than empowered.
Perhaps because this challenge had nothing to do with who I am; I was just a piece of artistic meat.
For other women it may be different. My co-model on the night, a larger lady, told me she started life modelling as a way of helping her get through depression, saying it has helped her learn to love her body.
Our fears are as unique as we are, but psychologists say they all boil down to two sources. The first, fear for our physical safety - so people are scared of snakes, dentists and heights because they could hurt (maybe even kill) us.
The second, fear of social isolation, which makes so many of us scared of looking stupid or disliked. After all, if you were ostracised from your community in centuries gone by, your chances of making it on your own would be small.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve realised that facing physical fears doesn’t make much difference to how I feel about myself. Take the day when I did a skydive. Throwing yourself towards the earth from 13 000ft in the sky is not a natural thing to do.
The coldness of the air (it was minus 15 without the wind-chill factor) combined with ferocious wind was one of the biggest shocks of my life.
My first words when I got back on ground were: “I’m never doing that again.” I realised my fear of heights does not hold me back in life - it’s a healthy feeling that helps keep me safe, and not so pronounced that it stops me going down escalators.
Stand-up comedy, however, was different. That one act tapped into all my deepest fears at once - fears of failing, being rejected, looking stupid.
All of these fears stop me putting myself out there - and when I got through my joke-telling routine, on a high, to the sound of laughter and applause, I realised they also mean I’ve been missing out on some of the best moments life has to offer.
When I got a taxi home, the driver was so impressed with my guts that he wouldn’t take any money from me. That night I went to bed with a grin on my face and woke up the next morning feeling that something had shifted within me. I have never been prouder of myself, and that has stayed with me. I feel quietly invincible.
So, has this book changed me for good? Most of my life is spent in a worried rut, but last month I felt alive. Every day felt like a day when something could and would happen.
It was exhausting but exciting. I feel strong, braver, bolder. I realise that almost all of the fears that rule my day-to-day life are psychological ones, and that it’s facing those that has made a real difference to my confidence.
Jeffers says that under-pinning all our fears is the biggest fear of all: that we won’t be able to cope if things go wrong. Her answer to that? “You’ll handle it.” And it’s true - I did.
In fact, the biggest lesson I learned in January was that my fear of getting rejected or looking stupid feels far worse than the reality does. I now find myself doing little things, like smiling at men in Tesco or parallel parking, without worrying about the outcome half as much.
Now I’m tackling another fear - my bank account - with the help of a book called Money: A Love Story, by Kate Northrup, who claims she clawed her way out of debt by changing her attitude towards money and herself.
I’m hoping it will put me in control of my finances for the first time, and make me the kind of person who can open a credit card statement without feeling sick.
So, where would I like to be at the end of the year? Well, I’d love to be in the black and saving money, working towards buying my first home of my own.
I’d love my career to go up a notch and to approach life with a ‘Sure, why not’ attitude instead of “I can’t, I’d probably mess it up”.
I’d also love to meet a man with whom I could build a future. A man who is clever, kind and funny; and doesn’t mind the fact I’m obsessed with self-help. Let’s see what happens... - Daily Mail