Tony Robbins’ reality TV show “Breakthrough” just debued last night in the United States (USA viewers can watch episode 1 in the player below—unfortunately I don’t think it will play outside of the US).
Readers of Beyond Growth already know some of my opinions about Robbins and his approach to personal development, something I call “aggressive positivity.” Tom Shales, writing for the Washington Post, reviewed Breakthrough saying “at no point does Robbins suggest that it just might possibly be society that has failed.” Shales reviewed multiple episodes of the show, but only one has come out to the public so far, so I will be reviewing just Episode 1 (warning—I pretty much spoil the whole episode in my review, so watch the above first if you don’t want spoilers). I think this review may be particularly interesting to Beyond Growth readers because it is more balanced than my standard reviews of Robbins’ work (probably Eric Normand’s influence!).
Analyzing Tony Robbins “Breakthrough”
Episode 1, Frank and Kristen
Frank broke his neck in the pool on their wedding day, has been in a wheelchair since, and his wife Kristen has become his caretaker. A sad story indeed, especially given the timing of the accident. On the screen flashes…
“Step 1: Rewrite Your Story”
I suppose this is the first step in transforming difficult life circumstances culminating in a “breakthrough,” according to Robbins, the show’s producer. Note that the term “breakthrough” already conveys aggressiveness. Personally, my recommendation for a first step is to face reality as it is, noting what happened exactly and noticing exactly what constitutes one’s experience, but Robbins doesn’t get to this until a little later.
Because they went to a beautiful place and had tragedy, Robbins brings them to his island resort in Fiji (another beautiful place) for a new experience. Not a bad intervention in some ways, but not exactly practical for your average viewer. In fact, this intervention may convey more hopelessness than anything, for it’s difficult to see how I, the viewer, can change my life without all that money (but if only I could afford Robbins’ Mastery University, part of which takes place in Fiji…).
In Robbins’ Unleash the Power Within seminar, linked to from the “insider” website about the show, he pitches his advanced workshops in Fiji with the notion that if you think you can’t afford to put down the $500 non-refundable down payment right there for the multiple thousands of dollars course, it’s only because of your limiting beliefs about money that will keep you unsuccessful forever. (Robbins’ financial success is of course in part based upon this very aggressive sales pitch.) Having been subjected to that abuse, I can’t help but make the connection and wonder to what extent this show functions primarily as an infomercial for his seminars. I also can’t help but think to what extent this show exists to rewrite Mr. Robbins’ public image as a 1980’s infomercial star and hyped-up, now out-of-favor motivational speaker. But in any case, let’s get back to the show.
“Step 2: Confront Your Real Issues”
By this point, Frank and Kristen have not at all completed step one. Their story is basically the same, even after having first arrived at Robbins’ Namale Resort in Fiji. But they do appear optimistic that Robbins can perhaps help.
The couple does list their real issues:
- trauma from the specific accident at their wedding
- debilitating spinal damage that has lead to Frank being quadriplegic
- difficulty coping with the physical and medical difficulties
- loss of potential family and marriage plans and associated grief
- Frank’s dependence on Kristen’s continual care
“Tomorrow I’m going to give you both a task, and it will be an aggressive task … But you’ve got to complete it to continue the journey,” says Robbins (emphasis mine). But then Robbins introduces a plan on day 2 that doesn’t exactly have anything to do with confronting real issues. Instead of brainstorming ways of dealing with their challenges, they are to go…
Granted, Robbins does set up this ordeal with some intelligent framing. Comparing the last time they spent time in an exotic location together, he says that they took a leap and it didn’t turn out well, now they will take another leap. So perhaps we can read this as “ordeal therapy” as in Jay Haley’s book of the same title, based on Milton Erickson’s sometimes strange ordeals he gave clients as metaphors for their problem.
Robbins explains that the “method to his madness” is to trigger a breakthrough—not just now but long-term, helping these folks (his clients) to take control of their lives. The big question is whether this metaphor will generalize, and whether it is even the right metaphor, and whether the risk is appropriate. Tandem skydiving is pretty low-risk, but not without any risks. Has proper risk assessment been done and explained to Kristen and Frank? What is the lesson here to viewers about cost-benefit analysis of risktaking? Is skydiving even analogous to the kinds of changes Frank and Kristen are wanting to make in their lives, or is this just “Fear Factor”-like reality TV entertainment? I wonder specifically because we don’t know why Frank broke his neck—was he acting carelessly while drunk perhaps? Perhaps the lesson needs to be to be more cautious!
But before they go skydiving, Robbins says he will give them tools “to experience the raw strength and power that’s inside them.”
“Step 3: Discover Your Inner Strength”
Robbins first elicits Kristen’s weakest aspects of herself and gets her to fully associate into her suffering, reducing her to tears. This is hardly discovering her inner strength! There is no other time that Robbins elicits Kristen’s strength in the whole show, despite numerous challenges to support Frank’s “inner strength.” While clearly Frank is the one in the wheelchair, I can’t help but think that their marriage will be better if both partners feel strong and resourceful—why take Kristen down to show Frank’s strength?
He then has Frank be really present with Kristen in order to show his strength. Not exactly a girl-power kind of intervention here! But it is an interesting role reversal in getting the apparently weak paraplegic to be the strong one emotionally. I found this touching in that Frank was able to be strong when apparently (physically) so weak.
Robbins: “That’s the beginning of a breakthrough. Our job now is to improve on that on our second challenge, skydiving, which is going to be aggressive, but I think will provide even more of what they need. It will provide the next step.” Again with the aggressive—oh vey! But I suppose no one would watch a TV show called “The Gentle Way” where contestants compete to see who can be more kind to themselves and each other.
“Step 4: Redefine What is Possible”
Apparently the producers (i.e. Robbins) think step 3 is over with, but Kristen still hasn’t discovered her inner strength—just Frank. Step 1 still isn’t done, as their story is largely the same. A small but significant change took place with the role reversal of care exercise in step 3, the best therapeutic intervention so far. No other “real issues” have been confronted or dealt with in any way at this point that I can tell though.
Robbins says that Kristen needs to see Frank as strong in order to change their life situation. Why not Frank seeing Frank as strong, or Kristen seeing Kristen as strong, or Frank seeing Kristen’s strength? I didn’t hear “strength” being a part of the language of either Kristen or Frank—seems to me interjection of Robbins’ values here rather than what is being expressed by the couple themselves.
As they take off in a helicopter to skydive, Robbins reminds Frank and Kristen of the metaphor of the ordeal: “just remember what this is—a new life, a brand new life.” One has to give Robbins credit here—he definitely has a method to his madness, and is very consistent with following through with his method. I have noticed however that metaphors are usually more powerful if the individual interprets them for themselves rather than making them explicit like this. For instance, asking a child “what do you think this means?” invites them to think about a situation, lending more involvement and participation, rather than moralizing or interpreting “this means X” for them. This is clearly Robbins’ show—in more ways than one—and not exactly client-directed therapy!
Frank found the skydiving an amazing experience, and Kristen reported that Frank was the strong one, able to support her through the experience which made her “feel like a wife.” On the one hand, this is a great continuation of the role-reversal of Kristen being the co-dependent caretaker. On the other hand, this strikes me as an unneeded emphasis on heteronormative gender roles. Why can’t both feel like they are strong and resourceful, both able to support each other as appropriate? Why does Robbins imply that Kristen needs to be submissive and powerless to feel like a wife? Probably because Robbins subscribes to (and teaches) David Deida’s spiritualization of gender essentialism that Deida teaches in his Way of the Superior Man and related weekend workshops (at least one of which costs $3000 for an individual or $5000 per couple and is sponsored by “pick-up artist” Eben Pagan).
Robbins asks Frank and Kristen what the skydiving meant to them, and they responded that it meant they could “do anything.” Kristen and Frank definitely look more open-minded about change now, which is good, although I’m concerned that “anything” is a bit too open about possibilities, not yet fully confronting the reality of their difficulties. Clearly there are things that a paraplegic simply cannot do, or even that someone who has full use of their limbs cannot do.
Robbins then presents the next challenge, somewhat mysteriously (to create reality TV tension no doubt, as the music underscores at this point), saying that each of them has needs they haven’t been meeting, so each will have their own separate tasks to fulfill that will involve some risk and danger. I have to ask why risk and danger is necessary here—emotional risk perhaps, or perceived danger, but why real risk and danger? Couldn’t there be a gentler intervention?
“Step 5: Exceed Your Expectations”
Frank is scared. Robbins says “Frank is going to get physical here. He’s going to find out how strong he really is, that he’s not fragile.” The task is basically to play rugby for paraplegics—a game called “Murderball.” If this isn’t aggressive positivity, I don’t know what is!
Robbins says that this will teach Frank that he is strong. Of course another equally likely possibility is that he will be utterly humiliated and feel weak, especially compared to these Olympic athlete caliber players. That doesn’t happen here, probably due to careful framing of the experience, but certainly has been the case for many people who attempt athletics as kids or even as out-of-shape adults. Many who try to get fit as adults go too hard and injure themselves, or else end up associating pain and self-punishment with moving their already stiff and painful bodies. (I myself recently got back into regular fitness in 2010, starting with very minimal and gentle exercise, and working up to 30 minutes of continuous vigorous calisthenics—pushups, pullups, situps, and bodyweight squats. I attribute my success this time to the gentle, patient, and persistent approach I took—vowing to never go beyond my limits.)
Robbins says “Instead of trying to tell someone, give them an experience and then it’s true for them.” Frank gets lots of positive feedback, and the head Murderball player says he “really exceeded everyone’s expectations.”
Meanwhile, Kristen is whisked off to a spa where she gets private yoga and golf instruction, so that she can experience herself as separate, have time to grieve, and know that Frank can exist on his own without her constant monitoring. I think the time away is great in some ways, helping Kristen to see Frank as more independent and thus breaking co-dependent patterns. But note here that the “needs” each one of them has is strongly gendered—Robbins mind-reads that Frank has needs to play aggressive sports while Kristen has needs to be pampered at a spa. Robbins didn’t ask (at least not on camera) what their unmet needs are. Perhaps Frank could really use a massage! It’s also a class message—if you’re rich and need a break, take a vacation away from your spouse at a fancy spa. This isn’t exactly a practical solution for most viewers.
An Olympic Murderball player takes Frank to his home and says that his wife is pregnant and Frank gets curious, because he and Kristen were wanting to have kids and don’t feel they can now. This was a really ingenious way of opening Frank up to the possibilities of having kids as a paraplegic. But it wouldn’t necessarily have been impossible to just have told him directly. A local branch of a nonprofit for people with disabilities could have done just as well without having to fly around the world. Viewers are not necessarily being educated about such public resources in this program, which emphasizes more the genius of one man and his ability to change lives.
Frank is going to play in a real Murderball game, and Robbins flew in his wife and family to watch. “This is something he wouldn’t have done before” says Kristen. But then again, it’s something that Frank didn’t decide to do now either! He did it because he was on TV and tricked into doing it by Robbins. Just as it is better to have an experience than be told something, it is better to decide to do something than be forced or tricked into doing it. Will Frank continue taking such positive risks once he is no longer on the show? Few other reality TV contestants continue the changes they make while on their show due to the “unreal” context that is so removed from daily life.
At the end of the game, his family and friends express how inspiring it was for them, how proud of him they were, etc. which I found very inspiring and heartwarming. Having friends and family express appreciation can be a powerful exercise.
Frank had a dream of racing a truck in the desert but “knows” he will never do so now. “Where is your truck?” Asks Robbins. Frank says “in a million pieces” and Robbins says “no, it’s not” ’cause he had it moved into his driveway. And the next step he says is to have his friends and him work on it so he can race it with Robbins in the passenger seat.
This show is like one surprise party after another! Clearly this is the “reality” element of the reality TV show that is highly unrealistic and relies on a huge budget—something few viewers will be able to “achieve” with this 7-step process. That said, none of these specifics—jumping out of an airplane, playing special olympics games, or fixing and racing a car—are really that outrageous for disabled people to do in my opinion. I too would challenge Frank’s “knowledge” of his inabilities, as they are simply inaccurate based on what other people have done. By the way, no mania is required here—just facts. Many folks with lost limbs or other “disabilities” have done feats that able-bodied individuals would find incredible. While many such activities might very well be out of the realm of possibility for someone newly injured, most aren’t impossible depending on the individual’s actual health condition, and many are even do-able with little money.
“This isn’t just about building Frank’s truck. This is about Frank realizing that he never has to give up on his dreams,” says Robbins. If Frank has dreams of running a marathon, he’d probably have to give up on that, considering he has no use of his lower limbs. But certain specific dreams are still attainable, like fixing his truck and driving it in the desert with special equipment to drive a car with your hands. It’s very important that we not overgeneralize here—overgeneralization is what created the false belief of Frank’s that he “knew” he couldn’t fix his truck now. Creating more overgeneralization by saying “he never has to give up on his dreams” will lead to just as many problems in the opposite direction.
“Step 6: Change Your Belief System”
“I’m in my truck. I didn’t think it would ever get done,” says Frank, with wet eyes. A very touching moment, to be sure!
One way to change a belief system is to work on your head, the other is to go out and have an experience that destroys your belief system, says Robbins. Note again the aggressive destruction of beliefs. Rather than making beliefs more accurate, more flexible, or even recognizing the positive intent of old beliefs, Robbins has an appetite for destruction and nothing less will satisfy.
Frank had an amazing experience driving his truck in the desert. The risk of course was pretty high that he might injure himself again, something I find concerning in that the risks were not addressed in the show, but then again it at least was Frank’s choice this time.
Robbins, ever the showman, ends this spectacle with a recreation of their marriage ceremony.
“Step 7: Own Your Breakthrough”
Step 7 sounds more like Oprah than Robbins—“Own it girlfriend! Own your breakthrough!”
Again, symbolically, this was a great idea. Recreating the marriage in a celebration overwrites and creates anew the marriage Frank and Kristen wanted, while more fully integrating the experience of paraplegia. It doesn’t necessarily deal with some of the practical details however—for example how exactly to have kids? A winning attitude isn’t enough. They are now inspired but don’t have any practical information whatsoever. How to deal with catheters and other practical details of disability that Kristen was taking care of? These all-important practical details are swept away in the pathos of the spectacle.
“I can’t imagine anything holding us back anymore” says Kristen. While this is certainly a much more optimistic view of the future than before, it also has a tinge of the unrealistic. Clearly there will still be many more life struggles, struggles that will have to be faced without the budget or assistance of Tony Robbins’ reality TV show. It can actually be a very significant problem to not be able to imagine potential threats to one’s future, as then you won’t be able to think of and act upon potential solutions. This kind of breakthrough has little-to-no potential for lasting resourcefulness, and potentially could even lead to depression when faced with future challenges.
Recreating the wedding again was a beautiful and touching intervention, but not exactly something that could have easily been recreated without a huge budget. Weddings are extremely expensive!
What this show seems to imply is that one needs to have intense, aggressive, risky, and high-priced adventures or challenges in order to make a significant life change. Robbins says that experience is key to making changes, but then doesn’t offer anything practical in terms of realistic experiences one can have on a recession budget (cue sales pitch for his seminars!).
Meanwhile, therapeutic experiences can happen far more rapidly, not to mention cheaply and easily in the comfort of your own mind! Visualization, acting, painting, or other expressive arts can all be methods of brief therapy on a budget. Books on self-help Cognitive Behavioral Therapy are cheap, or free from the library, and will give far more practical advice on creating more accurate, less distorted beliefs.
At best, this show provides an inner reference that viewers can add to their creative imagination, identifying with the characters and thus living vicariously through their struggles and victories. At worst, it is inspiration porn, cheapening life’s struggles into entertainment for others, further encouraging unrealistic solutions and time-lines to dealing with the inevitable difficulties in life.
At the end, Kristen says “if I could go back in time to the moment in the pool, I would tell myself ‘it’s going to be OK! Everything will be ok. Because everything is OK.'” In fact, she just said what was needed in the first place to heal—not crazy experiences in Fiji, jumping out of an airplane, or an expensive live recreation of their marriage ceremony, but just a little self-love through visualization. Many brief therapy techniques do exactly that—visualize going back in time to a previous traumatic incident, see it from the 3rd person perspective, and tell yourself what you wanted to hear to comfort your old you. Processes like this can often be done for free or for the price of a single therapy session in 15 minutes or less (not 30 days and millions of dollars) and can get amazing results in healing from difficult experiences. Robbins knows this, as he is already familiar with these exact techniques from NLP for rapid change. (For example, here is a sample video of Steve Andreas working with a client with grief. Notice how this makes for really boring television in comparison!)
Robbins’ strength is in creating powerful positive experiences (i.e. highs). But do these experiences translate into positive resources that can help one navigate the highs and lows of life? I have argued already that they do not—like firewalking, skydiving and Murderball do not teach life skills. Such adventures are fun, touching, and memorable. Often they are addictive. In other words, they make for great entertainment. But these short-lived highs usually do not lead to effective change, persistent and flexible behavior, and a deep resourcefulness—and when they fail, Robbins and other self-help gurus tend to blame the victim rather than take responsibility for the ineffectiveness of their interventions.
Note that there is no followup, so there is no knowledge of whether this change lasted long-term. No doubt if there was a followup, it would continue to be framed in a reality TV Disney-like way, emphasizing what has worked and not the ongoing struggles of living with disabilities, despite making some progress and having some heavily financed adventures, courtesy of Mr. Robbins.
Will this television show make the world a better place? I’m concerned that it will probably do the opposite. I imagine someone becoming disabled and before giving any empathy, their friends or family saying, “Now don’t get discouraged—this is a great opportunity. I saw this show with Tony Robbins and this guy in a wheelchair jumped out of an airplane and ended up racing a car in the desert!” Robbins position as television show host strongly encouraged his show participants to go along with his agenda—a family member or friend would risk destroying a relationship if they pulled the same stunts haphazardly.
Even more than lack of inspiration, I think we have lack of empathy in our self-help fueled culture. The ideological positivity of self-help culture fuels that very empathy deficit, as Barbara Ehrenreich argues eloquently in her book Bright Sided (appropriately titled Smile or Die in the UK release). While the disabled and others encountering life challenges certainly need to be convinced that they can in fact do many things, this encouragement needs to be enveloped in empathy and addressing real human challenges—without the Hollywood budget and aggressive positivity. Personally, I’m not convinced that this is the Breakthrough that American television audiences really need.
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