Here’s Why Tony Robbins Should Definitely Not Be Your Guru

I am hungover and am going to take you through the emotional journey that is watching the new Tony Robbins documentary. This means watching it again. While hungover. I am doing this for you so you don’t have to.

For a long time, I thought Tony Porter and Tony Robbins were the same person. They are not. One is a champion of social change. The other is a raging “self help” narcissist. I had hoped there was more to him than this, but the Netflix documentary “I Am Not Your Guru” (weird title considering that’s exactly what he thinks he is) didn’t really convince me, or anyone else I have foisted it upon.

The documentary opens with who I initially presumed to be a “preacher” working a miracle in one of those massive Mega Churches in the States where everyone is swaying and crying. For an unknown reason the young man undergoing the “intervention” is hoisted aloft by some of the 2,500 strong crowd and carried around the room. It turns out that this is no Mega Church, but a motivational seminar, and this man is suicidal.  The man explains why, Robbins slags his shoes, talks about himself (this happens a lot), says “f*ck” a lot (this also happens a lot), and makes a joke about masturbation. The sound engineer’s finger hovers until Peak Emotion has been achieved; the man is crying, Robbins pulls him into a hug, and then Snow Patrol’s “Run” gets louder and louder until it’s thundering around the garishly lit, packed room. They fist bump and I get sick in my mouth a little. Then Robbins casually walks off leaving the now apparently no longer suicidal man awkwardly standing with his tear stained face. Until he gets hoisted aloft.

Welcome to “A Date With Destiny”, a horribly named, 12 hour a day, 6 day seminar costing each attendee over $5,000. Massive lighting rigs and huge screens adorn the walls of the conference theatre and dance music blasts as people rush the doors. Staff give high fives while avoiding being trampled. Everyone looks demented. The idea is to get the crowd into “peak energy” because “that’s really important for Tony”, his assistant tells us, as they leave Tony’s enormous Florida home. Disco lights are flashing and hype people are leaping around the stage urging the giant crowd into greater and greater states of elation/anxiety (no room for introverts here!).

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Backstage, Tony bounces on his tiny trampoline and reminds us that “words have the power to pierce the conscious mind”.  He runs out on stage to rapturous applause, awkwardly claps his giant hands to the insane music and pumps the air. Everyone is going crazy and even imagining being there is incurring palpitations. My dog is looking at me funny.

He says a few things that suggest that maybe this won’t be a totally terrible experience – about “emotional fitness”, about how no-one is “broken”, and about how the way we think, feel and behave influence each other. “Who gets that, say AYE!” Everyone yells “AYE”.  I mutter “sure”.

A girl of 19 stands up and talks about her diet and Robbins’ slips into his entry level pop Psychology armchair and asks her which of her parents she craved love from the most. She says her dad. “Yes” says Robbins, “clearly”. Clearly. He goes on about blame, smirking around the room at nodding heads, and then seamlessly turns it into a smug speech about himself,  his own pain, and his “insatiable hunger to end suffering for any human” (at the low low price of $5K). He gets a round of applause. The camera zooms in on women wiping away tears. People crowd around the girl and her mother and I am utterly confused as to the point of any of what just happened.

“Tell me about your father” Tony says, head tilted, to a woman holding a microphone with tears streaming down her face. “My father?” she says, surprised. “He taught you you were his little princess didn’t he? Motherf*cker!” He defends his use of this language as being “direct”. He gives some nonsense about using it to “provoke people back into the reality of this moment”. I want to punch Tony hard in his giant face.

Then he gets her to break up with her boyfriend on the phone, right there, in front of 2,500 people. She wants Robbins’ approval so badly that it hurts to watch. “Pick up your f*ckin’ phone”, he says dismissively, walking away, smirking. As he lectures her about the relationship he knows nothing about, he occasionally shrugs his shoulders in apparent exasperation with her. She fumbles in her bag. Of course nobody is making her do anything. Just her intense desire to please the giant man shouting “f*cking” commands at her, the several TV cameras all pointed at her, and the palpable energy of the giant crowd all around her, all who see this as a “breakthrough”. Oh and the $5K she spent to be there. Her boyfriend hangs up on her. The music blasts. She gets a standing ovation. She looks devastated. Tony gives a little speech about being “authentic”. I want to shoot myself in the face.

The only bit of ethical activity is when the staff focus on “red flags” – vulnerable participants. The “lead trainer” approaches Tony with some of their intake forms. Tony dismisses the first one – “Total attention getter. I want to know what she looks like so I don’t waste time on her”. Truly amazing that Tony has such an insight into the human mind that he can ascertain this from a simple form. He must be truly gifted.

The most upsetting part of this documentary for me is when he invites suicidal people to stand up. Again, they have free will, but I wonder, when you spend $5K on a ticket, and you see this giant man as a beacon of hope, and he invites those with your issue to partake, are you going to refuse and potentially do yourself out of getting help? They get up and he talks to a young woman. She tells Tony that she is 26 and he berates her in his signature hilarious way – “Oh give me a break, you can take another 30 years of this shit! You’re not that f*cking weak!” At this point I am struggling to breathe, such is the level of hatred I am harbouring for Tony Robbins.

She tells him how she was born into a Christian cult. The story of sexual and emotional abuse is horrific. When she is finished he pulls her into a bear hug which goes on and on. He has some nice words for her,  acknowledges her pain, tells her she is a miracle. I am an emotional mess at this stage, clutching my struggling dog to my chest. Tony allows one single tear to travel down his enormous face. Damien Rice’s “Cold Water” blasts and she gets a standing ovation while Tony tells her that he loves her. Staggeringly creepily, he also says “I don’t want you, I love you” while looking her dead in the eye. Literally nobody was thinking about you wanting her, Tony, until now. In a move surprising nobody, he goes back to himself again. He goes on and on about his spiritual strength and how gifted he is. He just can’t resist.

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Everyone is clapping and crying. He gets her up on a chair and I have to admit that this is a nice moment of genuine appreciation from the crowd for her. Then it all goes horribly wrong again. He tells her that there are “men out there who just want to send you love, and that’s all they want, is to just send you love”. He gets her to pick three “uncles” out of the crowd as music plays. No reason is given for this, or for calling them “uncles”. Amazingly, he tells her that by looking into their eyes she’d know if they’re 1. safe (because that is clear from a person’s eyeball) and 2. that they  have “no agenda” (because agendas are also clear from a person’s eyeball).  What kind of human thinks it’s a great idea to surround a woman with three strange men minutes after she discloses sexual abuse.  I have experienced the healing power of supportive male allies first hand. I am all for it. But Christ almighty this is not the way.  He tells the “uncles” how they are chosen blah blah blah. Emotions are at Peak Emotion right now. Tony rambles on about our true nature and feeling deeply alive. Then he tells the girl that she can be trained to become his protegee. What a convenient quick fix to suicidal ideation! He truly is a miracle worker. He bangs on about his power again, and walks off as music blasts and the crowd give yet another standing ovation. Backstage he says “I’ve never dealt with this issue before”. Oh REALLY, TONY. I WOULD NEVER HAVE GUESSED. As he takes a moment to recover, I wonder if the young woman is having her immediate needs looked after.

Other highlights include Tony getting a hapless husband to roar like a lion, after letting his misogyny show (again) with the meaningless question “’was your father a powerful man or a feminine man?” and the “Transformation Day” which is integrating the participants “thoughts, ideas and concepts into the very core of (their) nervous system”.   “Integrating”  a new state, feeling or learning and so on is often present in the therapy room. There are many different ways you can to invite your client to allow things to deepen and integrate. Little did I know that actually all you have to do is shout about it in small groups. The louder you shout the more true it is. “I see, hear, feel and know that I am PASSION!” shouts one guy. One woman half laughs during it, as though she knows this is ridiculous but she’s spent the money now so f*ck it. 

I told several of my friends about this, pressuring them to watch it, reminding them every day until they did. They were all confused. “But he isn’t helping anyone”, “He’s just talking”, “He’s a psycho”, “Why does he clap so weird?” All astute observations.

I am all for the empowerment approach of supporting a person’s choices to help themselves or try something new in whatever guise it comes. However. There are reasons that there is training in suicide intervention. Safety is not guaranteed for a suicidal person to speak in front of thousands of people about their reasons for wanting to die. It is gross to use disrespectful language to order a woman to break up with her boyfriend. It is not acceptable to grab a man by his hair and drag him around and humiliate him. It is also not okay to assign “uncles” to a sexual abuse survivor. It is also bizarre, as a giant man in a position of significant power,  to pull a female sexual abuse survivor into your chest uninvited. But you’d need to know about these things, wouldn’t you.

Tony Robbins is a mix between a show “psychic” and someone who’s read too many pseudo scientific self-help articles, combined with his own monstrous ego. Spend your money on quality therapy (you know, a qualified person working under an ethical framework), a mindfulness course or two, a nice weekend away, lots of ice pops. Whatever. Tony seems to be goal orientated, so if that is your thing, try Solution Focused Therapy, or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Don’t spend it on a Tony Robbins workshop or books or whatever else he is selling. For the love of God please. This is a man with no formal education whatsoever in psychology or psychotherapy or facilitation, who performs “interventions” that he makes up on the fly, on vulnerable people in front of a crowd of thousands.  This is not a psychology workshop, it’s pop-psychology on acid. This is not the facilitation of “breakthroughs”, it’s a stage show.  No. Just no. It’s a no. From me to you.  No.

At the end they make the “sound of who (they) are” while bagpipe music crescendos.  For some reason. Then everyone leaves and goes back to their lives.

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