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Dark side of self-help: Motivational speaker Tony Robbins accused of misconduct


by Jennifer McShane
18th May 2019

Self-help, like almost anything in life, is a double-edged sword. You want a change in life but to get that change, you have to do something about it. This involves looking inward. This is the basis of self-help; change yourself – your thinking, your outlook, your clothes – change anything and you are on the path to improvement and hopefully, a happier life. It makes sense, and in one way, it’s positive because we’re usually encouraged to start small.

Open the bills that scare you. Don’t be afraid to say no, to throw caution to the wind, to let yourself get rejected. All of this leads us to take chances – seeing which way the cards may fall. It’s encouraging because anything, could, in fact, happen as a result. And even if it’s not what you expected, it is still change.

Related: Marianne Power’s lessons learned from a year of self-help

The darker side to self-improvement has always been problematic in that it also tells us there is something wrong with us as human beings; that we are not good enough as we are. Some books tell us to strive for happiness, for example, but, a life spent chasing something so elusive will surely lead to an obsession that will only strive to amplify the fact that you haven’t ‘got it’ yet.

“The more we seek balance from something external to ourselves, the more elusive it becomes”

The above quote has always stood out for me. If you’re being sold the idea that buying this, reading this, doing this, eating or drinking this will give you that balance – and it doesn’t – you’ll inevitably be left feeling worse.

The same can be said if you attend a motivational event but, for example, the tables turn and the speaker allegedly implies the fact that you’re in this position is your fault entirely – even if it’s the opposite.

Sexual misconduct and domestic abuse

This is, according to an investigative piece by Buzzfeed, what has happened in the case of self-help guru Tony Robbins. Caught in the crossfire of the #MeToo movement, he has been accused of sexual misconduct by former fans and staffers, and of regularly berating victims of rape, violence and abuse as a form of “therapy.”

The allegations are contained in a lengthy story posted by BuzzFeed News after the online news outlet conducted a yearlong investigation based on leaked recordings, internal documents, and dozens of interviews with fans and insiders.

Buzzfeed, following a year-long investigation, claims Robbins “berated victims of rape and domestic abuse” and that his empire is policed by strict confidentiality agreements and contracts forbidding attendees at his coaching camps from recording what goes on inside. He was supposed to be helping people; instead, he allegedly subjected his followers to unorthodox and potentially dangerous “therapeutic” techniques such as walking across hot coals and attending hours of sessions without sleep, or much food or water.

“False, unfounded, and incendiary allegations”

Robbins said he “vehemently” denies the allegations and of putting any attendees in danger, posting a statement:


“Let me be clear, while my open-classroom therapeutic methods are not for everyone, and while I am on my best day still only an imperfect human being, I have never behaved in the reckless, irresponsible, or malicious manner intimated by false, unfounded, and incendiary allegations suggested by BuzzFeed story-tellers,” he said.

Buzzfeed released a statement in response to this:


He rocketed to fame in the 1990s and now has millions of fans, including celebrities such as Oprah. People who said they were victims of sexual and physical abuse, who struggled with addiction or mental illness, paid thousands of dollars to see him on the promise he could teach them to stop thinking of themselves as “victims” and thus overcome pain. A self-described enemy of “victimhood,” he claimed he had the power to “transform your life.”

Related: Tony Robbins has been blasted for his take on #MeToo

And many would agree. But as Robbins himself says, his methods are not for everyone, and those that have used them told Buzzfeed they might be offended by some of his past behaviours but remain grateful to him for “saving” or “changing” their lives.

Self-help. A double-edged sword.

Main photograph: @marshawright

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