How Tony Robbins Promotes a Conservative Worldview
Toxic masculinity, victim-blaming, and the myth of meritocracy are just a few of the tools he uses to uphold the status quo
When I first learned about Tony Robbins’ sexual assault accusations, I was not surprised. As a survivor of sexual violence, I had been turned off by Tony’s hyper-masculine machismo early on. He struck me as someone who gets high off of power. And as someone who wouldn’t hesitate to exploit his power for sexual gains.
I also wasn’t surprised when he publicly dismissed the #MeToo movement in 2018. Specifically, he lambasted women for using a “victimhood mentality” to “gain significance.” He also suggested that women who are victims of abuse bring it upon themselves. This was when the conservative agenda that had always been implied in his message suddenly became explicit.
But these conservative ideas had always been apparent to me in all of his lectures and events. Even if I had to read between the lines.
When I say “conservative ideas,” I’m referring to several things:
- His belief in rigid gender norms.
- His support for the myth of meritocracy (or the bootstrap myth) — the capitalist idea that success and failure are solely determined by hard work and personal choices, not life circumstances or systemic factors.
- His belief that people can overcome mental illness and trauma through sheer willpower. And that if you don’t you’re a sensitive “snowflake.”
Because these ideas subtly pervade all of his material, I never understood how people found him empowering or motivating. Listening to him made me feel worse about my problems. As if all the negative things that had ever happened to me, from sexual misconduct to financial hardship, had been my own fault. As if I had brought them upon myself.
Don’t get me wrong — if you feel that his ideas have helped you, I don’t want to invalidate your experience. I’m not here to burst anyone’s bubble.
But, for many people, the worldview he promotes is disempowering, misleading, and even dangerous. Below are three of my major critiques of Tony Robbins and the conservative ideas he upholds.
1. He perpetuates toxic masculinity and harmful gender stereotypes
Anyone who’s witnessed enough of Tony Robbins’ events and “interventions” is well-aware that he has very conservative views about gender. He believes in extremely regressive gender norms. Men should be strong — women should be docile and weak.
Women should be emotional and nurturing. Men should be stoic and emotionless. Above all, he believes that men and women are naturally very different, and those differences are sacred and should not be violated under any circumstances.
Here’s a rather misogynistic, generalizing quote about one of the gender differences he believes in:
Women don’t really mean what they say. They give you clues and then they want you to be a detective and uncover what they mean.
And here’s one about gender differences in general:
Women think that men should be like women on some level, and vice versa. And this just creates so much havoc because our culture has what’s politically correct and then there’s how people really truly respond.
But what makes this statement hypocritical is that when people “really truly respond” to Tony in a way that doesn’t align with these rigid gender norms, he pathologizes it and shames their behavior, attempting to “fix” it.
When he encounters a woman who is “too masculine” or a man who is “too feminine,” he makes a huge fuss. He imposes his gender ideology even on people who do not adhere to it, pretending that’s the natural order of things. His expectations become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This is most obvious when he’s doing an intervention with a man he perceives as insufficiently masculine, a “beta male” who has a lot to learn from his “alpha male” wisdom.
For example, at one of his retreats, he did an intervention with a heterosexual couple who needed “relationship help.” After identifying the man in the relationship as the problem, Tony attempts to “fix” him:
Tony: What’s your vision for your relationship sir?
The man, who is being unexpectedly put on the spot in front of a room of thousands of people, gives a stumbling, timid, and awkward yet genuine response. He seems like an introvert out of his element.
Tony rudely interrupts the man’s answer.
Tony: Stop! It’s painful.
He then goes to meet the man in the crowd for a forced intervention, repeating:
Tony: Holy fuck. That was painful!
I can’t believe that’s the chest she was talking about putting her head on.”
A blatant jab at the man’s supposedly “inferior” masculinity.
Then, the first questions he asks to initiate the intervention couldn’t be more intrusive:
Tony: How often do you make love?
Was your father a powerful man or a feminine man? Did he please your mom all the time?
(As if feminine is the worst thing a man can be?)
He diagnoses the man as being overly feminine and “weak” and attributes this affliction to the man’s father.
He then tells an inane story about a baby lion who was raised by a family of sheep, who grew up to believe he himself was a sheep. One day, when the lion was much older, he saw his own reflection and finally realized he was a lion, not a sheep, and that he was therefore strong, not weak.
The obvious message is that the man has been living as a sheep, but needs to finally realize he’s a lion. And act like it.
After finishing the story, he asks the man to roar. The man lets out several huge “roars.” Tony then congratulates him, hugs him, and officially declares that he’s been transformed from a “boy” into a “man.” (Here’s the video of the man “roaring” ferociously. It’s instant meme material.)
But how does roaring into a microphone prove that this man has come away with anything of value? I would bet that this man was mortified about being taunted over his “inferior masculinity.” Far from being “transformed,” he was probably traumatized and scarred for the foreseeable future. The experience most likely just reinforced his insecurities and feelings of inadequacy.
2. His interventions with trauma survivors and mentally ill people are based on victim-blaming
When I watched one of his $6,000 weekend retreats, I noticed that an alarming amount of the passionate attendees were survivors of trauma and/or people struggling with mental illness. These poor souls had endured inconceivable suffering and abuse and were desperate for relief, love, or a solution to their trauma. So desperate that some had even sold their belongings to scrounge together the $6,000 to attend.
One of them had been born into a cult in which she was sexually abused for the first decade of her life. Another was a refugee from a war-torn country who had grown up as disadvantaged as possible. Many had been traumatized by poverty. Some were immigrants struggling to find a footing in the US. Many others were on the verge of suicide, or burdened by mental illnesses like severe depression, OCD, or bipolar disorder.
His solution for them?
“Get your shit together.” Be stronger. Try harder. Stop being weak and lazy. Pick yourself up.
But in reality, what would actually help these people is not the power of willpower or “uncovering their truth,” but therapy or societal changes that would give them greater social support. What they really need is a social safety net that protects them from poverty and relentless financial insecurity. Immigration reform. Greater protections for women and people of color. Universal healthcare that gives them access to therapy.
In a sense, Tony is preying upon people’s trauma by charging them $6,000 for an event that promises to radically transform their life, without actually tackling the root of their problems, or the systemic societal issues that caused them.
He might think of his approach as much-needed “tough love.” But what he’s really doing is blaming people for their own shitty life circumstances, which are completely outside of their control. This is a very toxic and insidious form of victim-blaming.
As for mental illness in particular, he often gaslights people by blaming them for not overcoming their symptoms — he insists that mental illness is “all in their head,” that they’re only “making excuses” for not getting their life together.
For example, in one of his interventions, he spoke to a woman who was struggling to succeed in life because of her severe OCD. How did he react? Not with empathy or understanding, but by denying the reality of her condition.
He said the following:
OCD is a story you tell yourself. Mental illness is a story. We get to decide every second of our lives what our story will be.
This might sound empowering on the surface. But by dismissing mental illness as a delusion, he further stigmatizes it and exacerbates it. For many people with serious mental illness, their symptoms are far from “imagined.” They’re very real, and way beyond their conscious control.
They can’t magically “snap themselves out” of mental illness. As if it’s that easy. They can’t rewire their own brain in an instant.
He even proposes that you can power yourself out of severe depression by simply “changing your physiology.” How can you do this? By standing taller, talking faster, talking louder, moving faster, holding your head up (literally), etc. One quick method is by assuming a masculine posture of putting your arms behind your head and propping your feet up.
He cites “science” that supposedly shows that these “power poses” can immediately increase your testosterone by 20% and lower your cortisol (stress hormone) levels by 22%.
This also supposedly makes you 33% more likely to “take action.” The posture “produces more certainty,” which makes you take better actions than you otherwise would have. He neglects to mention that these claims about power posing and snapping yourself out of depression have been thoroughly disproven.
On one occasion, he gives this “power pose” advice to a woman lamenting her mom’s diagnosis with stage 3 ovarian cancer. He urges her to use these techniques to overcome her sadness and fear of her mom dying.
What if what would help her feel less worried is affordable healthcare for her mom, not a power pose?
3. He promotes the bootstrap myth, which depoliticizes people’s suffering
Tony places a huge emphasis on “choice.” It’s the word he always returns to, as if everything that happens to you is within your control and is your responsibility. Even poverty or financial hardship.
This is a direct quote that encapsulates his belief in choice:
Stress doesn’t come from the facts [life circumstances]. Stress comes from the meaning we give to those facts. Yes, those things [traumatic events] happened. But you have one singular individual power that can change anything in your life and regardless of what’s happened to you, the answer is the power of choice.
This sounds like woo-woo pseudoscience to me. Not much better than “Law of Attraction” nonsense, or the idea that you can magically “manifest” anything you desire just by thinking about it.
And here’s another one:
It’s not so much the conditions of our life that control our destiny as much as the decisions of our life. Decisions equal destiny. Not conditions.
Whether or not he intends to, he is perpetuating the bootstrap myth, also known as the myth of meritocracy — the idea, which forms the bedrock of our capitalist culture, that success is solely determined by willpower and effort. That anyone can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps to overcome adversity and succeed.
This may sound empowering, but the flip side is that if you don’t succeed, or if you’re poor, it’s your own damn fault. It’s because you didn’t try or work hard enough. You are a failure because you ultimately chose to be one.
He reduces people’s entire fate to a matter of personal choice, which denies the reality that life circumstances determine a greater portion of your outcome than mere choices. It might be sad to realize at first, but instead of making you hate yourself, this realization can help people channel their rightful anger toward the injustices that caused their oppression.
Identifying that your problems, or your poverty, have arisen outside of yourself isn’t disempowering, like Tony believes — it’s the key to identifying the problems that we, as a society, need to address.
Here’s a direct quote from him that’s specifically about financial instability during the pandemic:
Some people say, this [negative] situation happened with the economy, and that means I’m going broke. Other people say this situation happened with the economy and that means I’m gonna work harder. Everybody else is gonna quit, but I’m gonna dominate the marketplace.
This approach individualizes the solutions to financial hardship, which isn’t very helpful. It places the burden on the individual to swim against the current and accomplish the Sisyphean feat of overcoming systemic setbacks that are built into the structure of our unjust society. It’s not tackling the root of the problem. Individualized solutions like this also neglect the fact that many people are experiencing identical problems. Instead of encouraging solidarity and collective action, these solutions push us to compete with each other.
Ultimately, it’s disingenuous and harmful for Tony to pretend that through sheer effort, we can all accomplish what he has. We don’t all have white male privilege. We don’t all have 600 million dollars at our disposal. Most importantly, we don’t all want to help only ourselves.
Instead, many of us want to change the unjust status quo that makes people suffer in the first place. And far from challenging the status quo, Tony Robbins is the first to benefit from it.