How Tony Robbins Reflects Deeper Problems with the Self-Development Movement


Long before the current kerfuffle around Tony Robbins’ dismissal of the #MeToo movement, I’d been talking to friends about how the self-development movement in its current incarnation is doing us all a disservice.

For those who haven’t been following the news, Tony Robbins was at his “Unleash the Power Within” event in San Jose, CA, when he spoke about how the #MeToo movement is about victimhood, and women are using it to gain significance.

“If you use the #MeToo movement to try to get significance and certainty by attacking and destroying someone else… all you’ve done is basically use a drug called significance to make yourself feel good,” Robbins says in the now well-known 11-minute clip.

Attendee Nanine McCool took the microphone. “I think you misunderstand the #MeToo movement… ” Robbins cut her off. A survivor of sexual abuse, McCool went on to explain, “You are a leader and a significant man, and you are doing a disservice in my opinion to the #MeToo movement.”

Robbins then instructed her to hold out her fist, and he pushed against it, backing her down the aisle. Apparently pretending he was taking the role of a woman angry about her abuse, he said, as the very big man pushed the small woman backwards down the aisle, “You’re telling me the more I push the more I’m going to be safe.” Watch the clip here.

I can’t stand watching the part of the video where he’s backing her up. It’s so dominating, and so unconscious. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike Robbins. I believe that Robbins and his ilk are truly unconscious of the effect of male dominance, violence and oppression. They just don’t see it. I took a trauma workshop in Oregon once, and the work of well-known trauma expert Stephanie Covington was being used for the event. It was an eye opener. I’d struggled with past abuse and could not seem to let it go. When Covington discussed how anyone in a dominant position in a culture truly does not fathom the effect they are having on the people they are oppressing, a light bulb went off. “Oh, these men truly just do not get it.” For me it was a watershed moment. I was able to more fully re-enter society, armed with this information. I believe people like Robbins don’t see it. Not really.

What brought me to have issues with the self development movement well before Robbins? First, let me explain that I consider myself part of the self development movement. For 30 years, I’ve healed myself within its arms, from workshops like Robbins’ (although I’ve never specifically been to one of his events), therapy, spiritual work, seminars, and workshops. And then, I turned around and became a metaphysical coach and a book coach. My passion is working with women (although I coach men, too), on finding their authentic selves. I’ve been doing it for 20 plus years, and have helped hundreds of people as a coach, and thousands as a teacher.

For a while, now, though, I keep having issues with the sessions I have with other healers and coaches. They are so judgmental. Instead of feeling confident afterward, I feel torn down, and I doubt myself. In fact, I’ll now start a session I’m receiving from a healer with, “Let’s keep this positive. ” I watch as the coach/reader struggles with that and fails, often falling into telling me a list of my faults. They dig into what’s wrong, like picking at a scab. I want them to leave it be. Can’t we all just let it BE?

Even as a small child I saw that people were fundamentally OK, but that it was the self judgment that was the problem.

  • Tired? That’s OK, you work hard.
  • Work too hard? That’s OK, it’s a difficult financial time for you.
  • Depressed? You have a reason to be.
  • Fragile? So are flowers and other beautiful things.

Why make the act of being where you’re at wrong? I’ve had to stop seeing coaches and healers for now. I can’t take it. I don’t want it.

I started to see it as an archetypal feminine and masculine divide. The feminine allows us to just be. The masculine wants us to take action in the world. At their healthiest both are beautiful, but we’re not at our healthiest here in the world, and it’s getting worse. The masculine is dominating and things are out of balance. (To be clear, both men and women have masculine and feminine archetypal energies. Although this blog divides people by genders, I understand it’s more complex than that, and more interesting.)

Two years ago, to take my book coaching business to the next level, I started working with marketers. They led me to study motivational speakers, and self-help gurus, Pat Flynn, Tony Robbins, Jocko Willink. Don’t get me wrong, I like them all. I don’t want judgment, but I do want to improve, so I’m willing to try new things. I do believe many of these self-help gurus are trying to put their energies into bettering the world. But why were they all men? I found a few women, but the industry seemed so dominated by men. I guess this is obvious in a male-dominated world, but it still shocked me. ALL the metaphysical healers I know, all of these super powerful change agents in the world who I’m so lucky to have in my life, are women. Why wasn’t I seeing more women then on the larger stage?

Fast forward a few months. I have regular firepit chats with women friends all over the world via Skype. I live in rural Oregon and I go out in the evening and start a fire beneath a brilliance of stars. One on one, my friends and I solve the world’s problems. These are beautiful, soulful women, artists, novelists, healers, and more. They live on both coasts, in middle America, in Europe, Asia, Canada, and Central America.
During one of these chats, one friend who is bright and smart and profound, was struggling with the fact that she could have such dark thought about people, that she could be so mean (inside her head — because outwardly she’s one of the nicest people I know.)

“You just need to own your bitch,” I told her. “We’re all dark, and mean, and really it’s OK. It’s human. It’s the pressure to always be nice and correct that is really the problem.” I told her I thought this was one of the problems with the self development movement. Somehow it teaches us that we have to be these good, spiritual people, and it’s ruining us. I know so many healers who are so intent upon showing what great and spiritual and connected people they are, and it’s all ego. It’s not real. And it’s why I left a life as a spiritual coach and moved towards the arts.

“Write about that,” my firepit friend urged. She’s a millennial, and I’m a generation older than she is. She said she felt a lot of her friends are going through the internal struggle of “not being OK” somehow just being who they are, with their entire range of emotions. “You’ve got to write about this.”

Our conversation triggered a memory of when I was living in Seattle. You know when you have these intense epiphanies, and at the moment of the insight, for the rest of your life you remember exactly where you were. I was in Ballard on NW Market, driving. I was depressed. This was something like 18 years ago now. I was sick of being in my black moods — I’d been doing therapy for years, and I couldn’t shift it. I realized suddenly that I was trying to “Ohhmm my passion away”, that I was using self development as oppression of my complex and exciting spirit. It was a deep understanding, that the healing work wasn’t really healing me, it was just sitting on top of my soul like a wet and rotten blanket. A lot had happened to me in my life, too much, and I was angry. I was upset. I was bruised. And I was desperately in love with life. My heart had been broken so many times. And how I was feeling was exactly right. The healing I was doing was giving me the notion that how I was feeling was wrong. If I was more spiritual (ie a “better” person), I’d be lighter and happier. There was a hierarchy for who was a better spiritual person, and with my darkness, I didn’t fit into it. I was sick of it. All of it.

From that epiphany came a transformation (which took years). I moved more deeply into role of “artist”, and left a lot of the self development behind. I wanted to be every emotion. I wanted to express every emotion in my art and in my novels. With art and fiction writing, I could include the darkness, the sad, the pathetic, the hurt, the rage. I didn’t always have to be “light” and politically correct.

Back to the present. As happens with big ideas for me as a writer, very soon afterwards other information came into my sphere to deepen my understanding of these issues I have with self-development.

Another friend urged me to write about the subject matter, saying, “The whole self development movement is sucking me dry.” The phrase stuck with me. She’s a very in tune friend, deeply empathic and intuitive, so I went away from the conversation asking myself why self development was actually draining to her. I realized when we’re told we’re wrong all the time, when we’re not really listened to, but lectured at — as Robbins did to McCool, as sometimes healers do when they give you a reading or session — we’re pulled off our centers. In our center, we’re all right. When we’re told we’re not, we reach outside of ourselves for answers. There’s no foundation beneath our psyches, beneath our feet. And yes, that is exhausting and draining.

A week later, a new client, a cold call, booked a session with me. I need to add here before I go on that all healers, myself included, and all people who want better in the world must go inside and look at where we’re being overly judgmental in the sessions we give. Obviously this starts inside, with every individual.

This woman is a therapist who has worked with women for decades, and she wants to take her work to the next level. The gist of her philosophy: How to take the deep rich internal spiritual lives of the women she works with and bring that into the external world, using a new more feminine based approach, and not the masculine “just do it” philosophy of the current self-development pathos. And she was passionate about how important it is for women to get out into the physical world, to help shift the paradigm, to help create a greater balance with the masculine and the feminine.

I spoke to her about an issue that I have, with going from a deep feminine place and trying to bring it into the world. I am a visual artist, and I want to be in galleries. In the masculine paradigm, I’m told to “just go and do it!”

“There are five missing pieces in me that need support to do that,” I said, to do it with deepest authenticity that represents my true voice.

  • I am shy.
  • I was beaten down around my art as a child.
  • I don’t know how to own my voice in public.
  • I need people who get that I just can’t “go and do it” and give step by step support.
  • My artistic voice is deeply feminine and outside the mainstream box, and without support, I may crumble around external “normal-world” pressure.

What I loved about this therapist client is that she wants to build a step-by-step nurturing process that helps women be authentic and be in the external world.

Women have not been cultivated in their authenticity. We hide who we are and play roles to please others, or to get jobs and simply have enough money so we can eat. How do we build strength in the core of a woman’s soul? I did therapy for sexual abuse, and I did therapy for finding my authentic voice as an artist, and I was shocked that the therapy about finding my voice was as brutal and devastating and took as many years of hard word as the abuse work. It still shocks me. It’s why I’ve become a creative healer to others through book coaching. I get how much support you can need to believe in your own truth!

We need a new form of self development that is more engaged with the feminine way of approaching life. If we’re deeply introverted, for example, how do we nurture and cultivate that? How do we then bring that out into the physical world through our work? How do we get that we’re “right” for being fragile, or depressed, and not “wrong”, as many of the more aggressively masculine self development people might imply? How can we own our power if it’s fragile, and simple. If it’s kind. If it’s sweet.

Back to Mr. Robbins. Listening is a more archetypal feminine trait. Talking and lecturing is more masculine. What if Robbins explored the feminine here? What if he had just listened? What if he’d turned to McCool and said, “Tell me. I want to hear you”? What a different reality he would’ve created in that seminar. The archetypal masculine is so ingrained that it is taken as given, and “right”. I get that people like Robbins do not understand this, and that he believes he’s right. It’s just I’d love for him see there are many forms of being right, not just one.

On Sunday, Robbins did issue an apology, saying he still has a lot to learn. Don’t we all.

Everyone in the self development movement and everyone who wants a better world — it’s our job to shift consciousness. And we need to begin with own consciousness first. We need a new form of “self-development”, a new philosophy, that allows women (and the archetypal feminine in all of us both men and women) to simply be first, and then helps us step by step to bring that authentic way of existing into the external world.

I am the founder of Art of Storytelling, a book coaching service. 

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