Tony Robbins, #MeToo, and the Limits of Self-Help

The secular guru has preached a gospel of individual solutions to individual problems. But when it comes to sexual abuse, as to so much else: It’s not enough.

Tony Robbins speaks during the Women's Conference at the Long Beach Convention Center on October 25, 2010, in Long Beach, California
Tony Robbins speaks during the Women's Conference at the Long Beach Convention Center on October 25, 2010, in Long Beach, California (Frederick M. Brown / Getty)

“Problems are what sculpt our soul. Problems are what make us become more. If we can realize that life is always happening for us, not to us: game over. All the pain and suffering disappears.”

It was 2014, and Tony Robbins was speaking—really, he was preaching—to a rapturous crowd during one of his many spectacular live events: a “Date With Destiny” seminar in Boca Raton, Florida. Robbins was soothing. Robbins was seducing. Robbins, above all, was selling: Part pitchman, part guru, the products he markets include, first and foremost, himself and his own story of determinedly thwarted adversity. He has suffered, Robbins reminds his legions of fans; he has triumphed; he is his own best evidence. He is the secular miracle they are seeking for their own lives. Look upon my works, ye mighty, and repair.

Robbins’s events, accordingly—the performed and interactive versions of his expansive collection of motivational books—often read as what might happen were Guthy-Renker to expand its efforts from the production of infomercials to the production of religious revivals: Crowds sway and music blares and the air of stadiums and hotel ballrooms alike seems to throb with the fervent hope that life really can be made better through intention and perseverance and faith—not in a transcendent god, but in a very intimate one. The one that is You. Life’s insistent imperfections, the implied promise goes, can be made steadily more perfect through deep determination and searing self-examination and five easy payments of $129.99.

During a March 15 show in San Jose, California—an installment, this time, of his “Unleash the Power Within” seminar series—Robbins weighed in on #MeToo, in part by way of a heated debate he engaged in with Nanine McCool, a seminar attendee who identifies herself as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. McCool wanted to talk about #MeToo. And so, it turned out, did Robbins. “Anger is not empowerment,” he told the crowd, at one point. At another: “I’m not mocking the #MeToo movement,” he insisted. “I’m mocking victimhood. 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.”

A video clip of the interaction—a compilation produced by Now This News, distilling the 11-minute-long exchange between McCool and Robbins down to some of its most baffling bits—quickly went viral. And it inspired, as it did so, something Tony Robbins, bard of a particularly American brand of aggressive optimism, is generally unaccustomed to receiving: outrage. Righteous—and thoroughly reasonable—outrage. Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement, lambasted Robbins not only for his glib and seemingly willful attempt to misunderstand #MeToo’s purpose and participants, but also for the fact that, during their exchange, Robbins at one point physically pushed McCool: an exercise in literalized metaphor, ostensibly, meant to demonstrate that her “pushing back” against him wouldn’t make her any safer unless she also pushed back against herself. The hulking man with the hulking grin, physically pushing the small woman who dared to question him: It was, for an artisan of the spectacle as it would be for anyone else, an extremely bad look.

And, so: On Sunday, after the Now This video went viral—and indeed, as it was still being passed around in vexation and anger—Robbins took to Facebook to offer an apology: “I apologize for suggesting anything other than my profound admiration for the #MeToo movement,” he said.

Let me clearly say, I agree with the goals of the #MeToo movement and its founding message of “empowerment through empathy,” which makes it a beautiful force for good.

For 40 years I’ve encouraged people to grow into the men and women they dream to be. I watch in awe as more and more women all over the world find their voice and stand up and speak out. All of our growth begins with learning. My own started with a childhood marked by abuse. I am humbled that others have looked to the path I have taken in the decades since as lessons in their own journey. But sometimes, the teacher has to become the student and it is clear that I still have much to learn.

Robbins’s effort was, as apologies go, a fairly good one. And it is, of course, implicitly valuable for someone in Robbins’s position—powerful, white, male, a self-styled salesman of the goods of commercialized empowerment—to say, out loud and in public, that there is more he can learn. That there is wisdom beyond his own extremely limited experience of the world and its workings.

But apologies of this sort are also their own kind of public spectacles, informed by their own brand of pageantry. And this one rings especially hollow, despite the sincerity of its story and the abjection of its tone, in large part because of how deeply it runs counter to the core of Robbins’s philosophy.

Self-help, after all—not all of it, but much of it, and certainly the brand that Robbins sells—is premised on the necessity of the individual working within, and around, the constraints of the status quo. In its paradigm, you are meant to improve yourself (or perhaps, in the current, Silicon Valley–inflected jargon, self-optimize) within a context that is insistent, immutable, inevitable. Your parents, your body, your world: These are things you have been given with very little say in the matter, and you are not supposed to question them so much as you are supposed, with the help of the wisdom imparted by, among others, Tony Robbins, to bend them to your will. Life is always happening for us, not to us: The notion is not simply an observation. It is a call to arms.

In this vision, the logic of systems and structures—the idea that the self is constrained and conscribed by cultural and economic and political infrastructures that operate, generally, with scant concern for the individuals caught within them—has very little place. To acknowledge those external forces outright is to complicate the convenient picture, to question the ability of individual people to become their best selves, to live their best lives, to embrace their own truths. Life happens for you, not to you. Except, of course, when it doesn’t.

Which is to say that Robbins’s commercialized philosophy is in some ways in fundamental tension with #MeToo and its aims. #MeToo is certainly, of course, about the sanctity of the individual story, about the dignity of the self, about—to use Tarana Burke’s phrase, which Robbins echoed in his apology—“empowerment through empathy”; it is also, even more specifically, about the systematization of empathy. The movement is not simply meant to engender catharsis for those who participate in it—and it is very stridently not meant to make people feel “significant.” It is meant instead to enable people to use their stories as tools and as weapons for changing the world. There is, as one entry in the self-help genre has had it, Leaning In. And then there is rethinking and rebuilding the structures that determine the angle at which one will be required to do the bending.

Robbins’s initial, indignant dismissal of Nanine McCool, and of the movement she is part of—“Popular life coach Tony Robbins tried to mansplain #MeToo,” Glamour put it—resonated in part because its logic echoed so many other people’s dismissals of so many other survivors. The guru insisted on perceiving victimhood itself through a libertarian lens, reasoning that it must on some level—because, in this worldview, everything must, on some level—be a product of self-interest. It’s an attitude that is reminiscent of the one held by many of those who have criticized #MeToo on the grounds that it is too angry, too performative, too self-aggrandizing. Too many small people trying to make themselves bigger. Too many “victims” who are aspiring, in the very vanity of their victimhood, to significance.

Robbins, in his statements about #MeToo, also brought up his recent interaction with a “very famous man, very powerful man,” who declined to hire a potential employee because she was “very attractive,” and thus “too big of a risk.” This injustice was, apparently—as Robbins framed it—an unintended consequence of the unchecked angers of #MeToo: the status quo, disrupted. Life made harder, more awkward, more difficult. The Darwinian struggle of, and for, the self made more fraught. Victimhood as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What Robbins was ignoring—and what so many others have ignored along with him—is the simple fact that victimhood is, itself, part of the contract people must make with life in a social world. To claim victimhood is not to bask in weakness or to aggrandize oneself; it is simply to acknowledge reality. The world is unjust. We are all, in some way, constrained by that fact. We are all caught up. We are all connected. We are all complicit. Self-improvement, in that context, is of course an admirable goal; it will be meaningful, however, only to the extent that it acknowledges all the other selves who are hoping and striving and trying their best. It never seemed to occur to Robbins, as he spoke to that stadium full of people seeking wisdom, that those who have come forward to share their #MeToo stories might have done so not because of selfishness, but because of its opposite: the simple desire to help other people, to spare them pain. To take that slightest and yet most powerful of things—generosity—and build it, act by act and story by story, into the system.