When a Teacher Breaks the Trust: Tony Robbins

Self-help’s Bad Week

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for the self-help industry. The trial of NXIVM’s leader began. NXIVM is the Upstate NY leadership organization turned cult that has been in the news due to the involvment of some celebrity members and the sensational details of what happened in the group (branding, sexual abuse, manipulation, etc). We wrote about the significance of that group here.

And then, BuzzFeed News put out this article about Tony Robbins, detailing his harsh treatment of abuse victims at his events, as well as claims of disturbing behaviour with employees and event attendees. Since the article came out last week, more women have spoken out about their own negative experiences. These are just allegations, and no charges have yet been laid against Robbins; it would be prudent to withhold absolute judgement at this point. However, many of these details have been trickling out over the years and we have good reason to believe at least some of them. And we do know that the much-touted firewalk at his events has gotten out of hand and harmed people in the past–a sign of poor planning and lack of regard for customer safety.

The Bigger Problem

A broader point that the BuzzFeed article points out is definitely true–that the huge and unregulated self-help industry has managed to avoid significant scrutiny, even during movements such as #MeToo. This is especially troubling when some professionals in this industry purposefully put their customers in vulnerable positions.

The #MeToo movement has triggered reckonings inside a wide range of professions where men hold sway. Scandal after scandal has engulfed Hollywood giants, politicians, and CEOs, forcing a major change in the politics of sex and power. But the self-help industry, which generates billions of dollars every year, has faced little scrutiny.

Licensed professionals who treat mental health issues must undergo extensive training and follow strict ethical guidelines governing their relations with their clients. Self-help coaching requires no such qualifications or standards. But it creates a potent recipe for the abuse of power, setting its leading lights up as godlike figures with answers to life’s most painful questions, and placing the supplicants who seek their wisdom in their thrall.

This information about Tony Robbins might come as a shock to many people. It might be hard to take in. Ever since we started talking out about dangerous leaders in the self-help industry, many people have responded with statements like, “Oh yeah, but not Tony Robbins, though! I love him!”

Tony Robbins is at the top of the motivational industry. Books, events, DVDs, documentaries. He sells out in pretty much every way he packages his message. Many, many people feel his teachings have had a positive, if not transformational impact on their lives.

I can fully understand how it would be difficult to accept this news about him when he has had such a positive impact. What do you do?

Separating the Teachings from the Teacher

Here’s a possibility. If you have loved Tony Robbins and have found his message valuable in your life, you can keep that. It is possible to separate the teachings from the teacher. It is ok to take what has been good, what works for you, and to leave the teacher behind because that teacher doesn’t turn out to be the person you thought he/she was. Do that without guilt. And you know what? This can be really empowering. Because you are taking ownership of your own positive experience, while moving away from something that could be harmful to you, or others.

SEEK friend and motivational psychotherapist, Dr. Glenn Doyle, wrote about his own feelings regarding Robbins on his blog. He has long looked up to Tony Robbins personally, and has seen many clients over the years who’ve also had positive experiences with Robbins. His post is fantastic and speaks to both customers and providers of self-help. Please give it a read.

I am sorry if something has been shattered for you with these allegations about Tony Robbins. It is terrible when a teacher asks others to give them so much trust and then breaks that trust with actions that so contrary to the things that they have taught–especially when they are making money off of this relationship. In fact, when people get hurt, we believe it should be criminal, which is why we are pushing for greater consumer protection through legislation.

A Challenge Moving Forward

But maybe we can use this as a challenge. The challenge is to be honest, open, and critical. Don’t ignore a reality that feels painful. Examine it. Listen to your gut. Get proactive. Learn how to recognize the signs of a potentially dangerous teacher. Be strengthened by what you have learned–both the transformational and the challenging.

And as we say again and again, be your own guru.

"Be Your Own Guru" Seek Safely

Featured Photo (of Tony Robbins) Attribution: Randy Stewart (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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