The cult of Tony Robbins

There’s a documentary on Netflix about life coach Tony Robbins. I’m just finishing it right now. I already knew who he was, but had never really seen him in action. The doc shows a lot of what he does with people. I am left both admiring and horrified. Also a little bemused.

If you don’t know who this guy is, he’s not a one-on-one kind of life coach (or at least that’s not what they showed). He does these huge, stadium-filling shows where he goes out and talks to people in the audience.

Watching how he talks to people to try to unravel the source of their problems, I was reminded of the old carnival huckster’s trick of pretending to be psychic: say a very general thing, or tell someone something they want to hear, and to a large extent this shill/customer will lead the conversation. You just have to follow their cues.

Later on in the doc, Robbins admits he does exactly that. He says he doesn’t fix people by doing what he thinks is right, he fixes them by doing what they think is right. He lets people guide him to the kind of help they’re looking for.

His instincts in this appear to be very, very good. That’s the part I admire. He’s incredible at reading people.

On the other hand, though, giving someone what they think they need is not necessarily going to help them. What if they’re not very self-aware and the problem they think they have is not the problem they actually have? Judging by his interactions with many of these people, what they needed was validation. There was a theme where he kept telling suffering people how strong they were.

I agree that people who’ve been through hard times are strong. And I think – in North American culture, anyway – there’s a stigma that even just having negative feelings is weakness, so that people who are suffering through shit are probably also lambasting themselves for this. So they probably need to hear that they’re strong. But sometimes that’s…kind of all Robbins tells them. They get all ecstatic and teary to hear this and everyone applauds but…I mean…nothing is solved. There’s no game plan for them get to a place of not suffering anymore, unless the plan is “when you’re sad, just remind yourself how strong you are” which is tantamount to telling someone to fix their shit using positive thinking. Feh.

Oh, wait, I’m at the closing credits now and they’re telling us what happened to the handful of people they showed Robbins interacting with. They are allegedly continuing to be fine. The documentary never did feel very balanced, though; more like a big ass-kissing session. I’m certain they cherry-picked who to include, and made sure everyone who made the cut had a happy ending.

Here’s the bemusing part: Robbins shows himself to be super gender essentialist, talking about “male energy” and “female energy” an annoying amount and making reference to tired old gender stereotypes. Which is funny because he makes his living listening to, empathizing with, and healing people – all things that are very much culturally coded as feminine. He swears a lot, and claims that it’s to get people’s attention and make them listen better, but I have a strong feeling it’s actually to protect his fragile, fragile masculinity; it’s to counterbalance all the time he spends nodding and tearing up while listening intently to people’s problems. I just want to hug him and rock him and tell him, “Don’t worry, Tony Robbins. Gender roles are kind of bullshit anyway, but even if they weren’t, you’re 6’7” and have that barrel chest and deep, deep voice. Nobody’s gonna mistake you for a chick. Sssssssh. It’s okay.”

Two other random thoughts:

  1. His shows incorporate some chanting/meditation stuff that comes across very cult-like and creepy to me, as does his often overly simplistic take on how to solve people’s problems.
  2. One of the women he helped looks so much like a blonde Mia Sara to me that it’s completely uncanny.


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