Tony Robbins and the Cult of Aggressive Positivity, Part 2: How Positive Thinking Can Make You Depressed

By Duff McDuffee on July 14th, 2010 1

This is part 2 in a series. Best read part 1 first if you haven’t already.

The other day I read an article in Newsweek entitled The Creativity Crisis (via my Twitter-friend @BeyondMeds). The article is about how American creativity is declining and what we can do about it. While there are many interesting tidbits in the full article, what stood out to me most was a particular research study from University of Georgia’s Mark Runco:

…creative people, for the most part, exhibit active moods and positive affect. They’re not particularly happy—contentment is a kind of complacency creative people rarely have. But they’re engaged, motivated, and open to the world.

The new view is that creativity is part of normal brain function. Some scholars go further, arguing that lack of creativity—not having loads of it—is the real risk factor [for anxiety and depression commonly thought to be a trait of creative people]. In his research, Runco asks college students, “Think of all the things that could interfere with graduating from college.” Then he instructs them to pick one of those items and to come up with as many solutions for that problem as possible. This is a classic divergent-convergent creativity challenge. A subset of respondents…quickly list every imaginable way things can go wrong. But they demonstrate a complete lack of flexibility in finding creative solutions. It’s this inability to conceive of alternative approaches that leads to despair. Runco’s two questions predict suicide ideation—even when controlling for preexisting levels of depression and anxiety.

In Runco’s subsequent research, those who do better in both problem-finding and problem-solving have better relationships. They are more able to handle stress and overcome the bumps life throws in their way. A similar study of 1,500 middle schoolers found that those high in creative self-efficacy had more confidence about their future and ability to succeed. They were sure that their ability to come up with alternatives would aid them, no matter what problems would arise.

In other words, people who aren’t particularly depressed or anxious now that can easily list potential problems but can’t come up with any solutions are more likely to think about suicide (a hallmark of depression).

The Unsuccessful Success Strategy

Lets say you were to take one of these people from the study who can’t think of solutions and get him or her to walk across burning hot coals barefoot by entering a “peak state,” screaming “COOL MOSS! COOL MOSS! COOL MOSS!”, and beating their hands on their chest to “break through their fear.” Are they likely to be more creative in coming up with potential solutions to their problems and thus staving off depression? What if this person were to take Robbins’ suggestion that the firewalk is a apt metaphor for how one should deal with life’s challenges in general?

Here’s a little thought experiment:

  • A person with a lack of creativity in solving personal problems (i.e. “unsuccessful”) learns this “success strategy” of aggressively pumping themselves up instead of thinking about solutions.
  • Unprepared for potential personal threats—since they haven’t thought through them—and yet manically overconfident, this person inevitably fails at reaching their goals, or else massively overcompensates thus creating multiple negative side-effects (more problems).
  • Failing to reach one’s goals/creating more problems that seem overwhelming (due to poor problem-solving ability) creates feelings of depression and despair (another problem).
  • Still not equipped with an effective strategy for dealing with problems or unpleasant emotions, the person doubles down on the original strategy since it at least worked temporarily to keep overwhelming emotions at bay.
  • Still unprepared, s/he fails again, causing more intense depression, despair, anxiety, etc.
  • Rinse and repeat.

Here we come to understand a looping program for spiraling depression, if not bipolar—built into the very framework of the cult of aggressive positivity found in Tony Robbins’ workshop, but also found in other popular self-help workshops, books, CDs, blogs, eBooks, coaching programs, etc. As with most chronic psychological problems, the attempted solution makes the problem worse. The alcoholic drinks to make his hangover go away. The sweet-tooth eats sugar to reward himself for going all day without sugar. The unsuccessful self-helper pushes away fear only to then be more unprepared and therefore more likely to fail, becoming even more depressed with each failure. By not thinking about negative potential problems or future scenarios, one never develops the skill of being able to handle them. Of course as soon as you teach your people to think critically, you’ve lost most of your potential money as a guru—both because they get better and thus aren’t as eager to buy more of the same, but also because they think critically about your sales messages too. One can still make a respectable living this way, but will probably not reach the same dizzying heights of fame and fortune.

Robbins claimed in his public TED talk—with now over 2.1 million views on YouTube alone—that he has never lost a client to suicide. Since his organization doesn’t do followups with all of his thousands of seminar attendees (only a select few that are used for video testimonials), this claim is totally corrupted by confirmation bias. There have been many reports of suicide and psychosis following intensive weekend workshops like Robbins’ on anti-cult forums like Rick Ross. Were these caused by the workshops themselves, or would they have happened anyway? The question of causation is tricky business, especially with lawyers under the employ of seminar organizations actively suppressing such negative information (note to such lawyers: while I can neither confirm nor deny any claims as to whether anyone has ever committed suicide as a result of attending a Tony Robbins event or any other workshop, I won’t be removing this post which merely states my opinions and is protected free speech—see also.) Regardless, the aggressive positivity taught in this and related workshops certainly does not adequately prepare participants to think effectively about life’s challenges. While Robbins does include a hodgepodge of other methods of personal change, his strong emphasis on emotional bodybuilding likely leads others to the emotional highs and lows I experienced as a devotee of his methods. Now we can clearly understand why.

Emotional Bodybuilding: All Show and No Go

Aggressively inducing states of happiness and overconfidence when you feel otherwise actively prevents you from becoming more resourceful and creative with personal problem-solving. Robbins and other Self Help gurus repeat the mantra that fear is the only thing stopping you from achieving your goals, and then encourage you to actively suppress fear by overwhelming it with aggressive positivity. While a little push may be a useful thing at times to get started, clearly what potentially depressed people need is to creatively think through rather than aggressively break through their fears.

Luckily the fear, sadness, anger, and other unwanted emotions contain the key to liberation from the emotions themselves….to be continued….

In part 3 I’ll cover some of the methods that actually do work in successfully dealing with life’s challenges. Spoiler alert: it involves courageous awareness of what’s actually happening without pushing it away, clear thinking and rational planning, compassion towards one’s self and one’s suffering, and looking for the positive in the negative (rather than instead of the negative) as in creative problem-solving and acting-as-if there is positive intent in unwanted experiences and behaviors. Oops, just gave away the secrets to happiness—should have monetized it first!



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38 responses to “Tony Robbins and the Cult of Aggressive Positivity, Part 2: How Positive Thinking Can Make You Depressed”

  1. […] Luckily the enthusiasm that I had displayed when running hard in the wrong direction was not all lost, for I was developing general skills that would be helpful once I finally turned around… (to be continued). Click here for part 2. […]

  2. Gina says:

    I wonder, Duff, about letting people "hit bottom" and then they have to creatively think through what is left nakedly right in front of them? I have seen in my life that the "Aggressive Positivity" thinking can create a diversion to the "bottom" and do nothing more than dangerously put more time between the challenge and the inevitable which is to finally see ones life with compassion and courage.
    My recent post DSM five- Binge Eating now a psychiatric diagnosis

    • The thing about hitting bottom is that it could always go lower, and the lower it goes the harder it is to feel resourced and creative about solving one's problems. Better to engage with one's life right now with courage and compassion, awareness and clear thinking.

      • Gina says:

        And with out going to the extreme of "aggressive positivity" how does one help another engage their life with compassion, awareness and clear thinking?
        My recent post DSM five- Binge Eating now a psychiatric diagnosis

      • gertrude says:

        Maybe life is not about solving ones problems. And i do not mean the paying the rent, or finding a job problems. It takes work at being a better, healthier person. Repetition, as Bruce Lipton says, of methods that work, to be more and better than negative, automatic, early childhood imprints. Solving seems to be brainrelated, while it comes down, to regulating ones emotions, becoming resilient in bearing the sometimes unbearable.

  3. @ericnormand says:

    Can't wait for the third installment, Duff.

    This may be jumping the gun, but I find it hard communicating to people how useful it is to perceive someone acting in positive self-interest instead of acting negatively against you. Are people really out to get you? Did he really say that just to make me upset? Probably not, get over yourself.

    But this has to go for thieves, murderers, and assholes as well. I'm not saying they're good people, but maybe if you see them as having a smidge of positive aspects, they wouldn't haunt you so much.

    The other thing I wanted to say was that negative emotions are there to tell you something is wrong. They are signs, not what is wrong itself. If people would just listen to their emotions, instead of ignoring them/powering through them . . .

    Keep it coming, Duff!
    My recent post French politeness is the new black

  4. yaelgrauer says:

    This is pretty interesting. I always thought the opposite of aggressive positivity was interesting. Not that I'm advocating negative self-talk, but for me it can be helpful… just a tiny dose of it can kind of make me laugh and stop taking myself so seriously and get back to reality. But when you look at things like EFT, where people say the thing their monsters are saying over and over again while tapping… it seems to kind of take some of the power out of those fears in a way that ignoring/suppressing them through affirmations (etc.) just wouldn't.

    • EFT and related techniques (EMDR, Eye Movement Integration, Integral Eye Movement Therapy, various "pattern interrupts") can be helpful to drain off emotional intensity and keep reactive emotions from spiraling. I find this stuff especially helpful for on the spot interventions like for a panic attack, or for siphoning off the emotional intensity from intrusive traumatic memories.

      On the other hand, EFT doesn't involve any actual thinking, so you get a kind of EFT obsessive personality disorder that "tries it on everything" without considering whether a screw is like a nail and thus amenable to hammering.

      And yes, negative self-talk can be a wonderful thing in the right context!

      • yaelgrauer says:

        I'm actually really interested in Heilkunst (sequential homeopathy), which actually is said to cure disease (not just symptoms but the emotional precursor) by the concept of like treats like–sort of like a very tiny dose of negative self-talk on the energetic level. Hard to wrap my brain around, but I liken it to treating frostbite with mildly cool water instead of hot water, which causes further damage.
        My recent post My Vibram FiveFingers

  5. courtknee says:

    Amazing series. I could kiss you Duff. This is exactly what I've been through – albeit I didn't go to the firewalk thing. the process of trying to plaster over failure with more positivity – been through that. I got so warped by this thinking that I blamed myself for not "succeeding." That you for so succinctly describing this process and why it fails. Can't wait for part three.

    • This is the reason I write this stuff. 🙂 I'm glad you are finding it helpful.

      By the way, gurus like Robbins explicitly accuse their victims–er, customers–of being the reason for their failure. During his 4-hour extreme hard sell sales pitch for "Mastery University," Robbins said that if you don't impulsively put down a $500 non-refundable deposit right then and there in the workshop, then it is because of your limiting beliefs about money which will keep you financially unsuccessful for life.

      It's not your fault for blaming yourself for not succeeding–it's all an integral part of the philosophy of aggressive positivity.

  6. Frank Schoenburg says:

    clearly what potentially depressed people need is to creatively think through rather than aggressively break through their fears.

    I’m not sure I agree with this. It depends on what you mean by “think through”. The problem I have is that the more I self ruminate, the more depressed I get. Exercising, engaging in a task (especially one I’ve procrastinated on,) and listening to music all get me out of a funk better than thinking and strategizing.

    • Self-focused rumination is a kind of thinking strategy that accompanies depression that is very unhelpful, as you point out. Certainly exercising and courageous engagement in a task can be a strategy that can work in the moment to deal with such experiences—and often that's all that is needed. Sometimes such activities help one to become resourced which then allows for clear thinking about real problems.

      What I mean will hopefully become more clear in my next post, but one distinction is between momentary affect and ongoing patterns of emotion and how to deal with the latter. It's one thing to treat self-focused rumination as a sign that I've spent too long sitting and doing nothing productive and another to never allow a negative thought to cross my mind. And something all together different to repress fears through aggressive affirmations instead of thinking intelligently about how to confront one's situation creatively.

  7. Chris Edgar says:

    Thanks for raising these important issues Duff. One observation I'd make about the study you cited in the beginning is that it doesn't appear to discuss what the *cause* of the students' inability to think of solutions was. If we assumed the cause was *prior failures* they had experienced, then perhaps it makes sense to say that telling people they can overcome challenges will lead to depression — because they will inevitably experience failures in the course of trying to overcome their challenges, and thus feel more and more "solutionless."
    My recent post Do Thoughts Create Things- Part 1- Yes- Unless You’re A Robot

    • Chris Edgar says:


      But perhaps the cause of people's "solutionless" feeling is a general lack of belief in their "efficacy" — in other words, a sense that what they do won't have any impact on the world, which is known as an "external locus of control" in psychology. If that is the case, perhaps teaching people that they do have the power to impact their circumstances — moving them more toward an "internal locus of control" — would in fact reduce the solutionless feeling. Not that I know whether Robbins' or anyone else's methods are effective for doing this.
      My recent post Do Thoughts Create Things- Part 1- Yes- Unless You’re A Robot

      • Good thoughts, Edgar. I do think that Robbins and other personal development gurus attempt to convince customers to shift from external to internal locus of control as part of what they do. But I don't think that breaking through fear has much to do with successfully gaining an internal locus of control. This does pose an interesting additional challenge to any potential solutions to getting this cohort of students to think of solutions to possible personal threats, but I think this probably could be taught with just sheer practice.

  8. jacqjolie says:

    I believed in the guru thing for more years than I care to think about – and was pretty depressed the entire time. Even firewalking depressed me since it didn't seem to impact me in the way it did others. 🙂
    A radical shift due to disillusionment with self-help and moving from introspection to effective action was the best thing that ever happened to me.
    I really enjoyed Steven Sashen's blog as well when he used to write on the anti-guru stuff:
    My recent post Kanban – what a simple concept!

    • Thanks for commenting, jacqjolie!

      Glad to hear you moved beyond guru following and into effective action. I do think gurus can have a place even in effective, reality-based growth and spiritual life, but depends on the guru and the relationship between student and guru. I also am also still a fan of introspection (when in balance with effective action), but useful introspection should be differentiated from repetitive self-focused rumination which is not at all useful.

  9. Don Quixote says:

    Awaken the Giant Within: break things and scare people. Rawr!

  10. Rollz says:

    II think tony robbins is the man, taught me to take action on my goals and showed me a way out of my
    chronic lack of motivation. I don’t see the harm in what he does and he has the track record to prove his stuff works. its doing what it says for me, i like it : )

  11. Mary Miller says:

    Sigh, thank you. After watching Breakthrough, and seeing NO arguement that the man should jump out a plane because he injuried himself jumping into water (drunk), play BasherBall (the most dangerous sport out there for disabled people with NO helmet), and building a truck to race in the desert (no previous training for adaptive equipment mind you, is going to make a “Man” out of him.

    Truth: he may get out of his house more, his wife, if they can afford a care attendent would be given free time away from him to learn about self seficiency (sp), and drum roll: will he get his dignity by driving a truck once in the desert? Maybe a grin. He’ll still need a daily activity for him to feel a true sense of dignity…not a vacation in Fuji…We all could use one.

    I was so angry, I could spit, and the Robbin’s machine has kept every neigh sayer from coming out and saying anything other than praise (what an inspiration to watch that quad man go…). I am sorry as a disabled person myself, that is tokenism and what Robbin’s did was dangerous. At any point in a free fall he could have had a PTSD experience, he’s lungs could have colasped (happens in quads), and he could have gotten heat stroke in the desert due to sweating problems. Did I mention a Brain Injury if he had fallen in the chair doing Basher Ball without an helmet??? Geez.
    Someone mentioned how happy he looked, well great. Until he gets home, things settle down and he is back to a routine without having any assistance…that’s when truly one gets the chops of getting over a disablity, day by date, inch by inch.

  12. […] 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 […]

  13. Alexander says:

    Hi Duff,

    I question your framing of Tony Robbins as advocating "breaking through fear". I've never heard him say anything that can be construed that way. What I HAVE heard him say repeatedly is that our experience and the state we are in (emotional, mental and physical) is determined by what we are focussing on. I am certain that he would not advocate someone doing something they are certain they will fail at, for the simple reason that they're probably right – focussing on failing at something makes it way more likely that you will behave in ways that cause you to fail, or to see failure where truthfully there was none.
    So he would not talk about "breaking through fear", or breaking through unhappiness, like they are obstacles put in our way by something or someone else, but would ask "what are you focussing on that's making you scared or unhappy, and what could you focus on that's going to be more helpful/fulfilling?". This is simply taking responsibility for where you're at and what you're doing.

    The other option is to assume that our emotions, including fear, are done TO us, and move through life at the mercy of whatever we're feeling/experiencing. This is what children do, and people only masquerading as adults. I know that in the past this is not something you would've advocated – how can you and still be interested in NLP? Has this changed?

  14. Here's a quote from one person:
    "My sister, who had no mental problems at all, went psychotic at a Tony Robbins Seminar in 2000.",769

    That was one example of Tony Robbins' seminar specifically. Robbins' workshop is a typical LGAT, and the reports of suicide and psychosis from LGATs generally are all over if you do a little searching of Rick Ross and other forums (which have successfully defended their right to free speech from aggressive LGAT lawyers).

    Of course anyone with any psychotherapeutic background at all can immediately pick out the obvious fact that recent attendees from such workshops often appear to be exhibiting manic episodes, have many delusional beliefs, etc.

  15. Alexander says:

    Okay, that's cool, so you do have one example specific to Robbins, and the rest are related to other people's seminars that fit into a category that Robbins' can be put into.

  16. Kay says:

    Hi your post is awesome and very well thought out. As someone who both worked for the Robbins organization as well as attended the programs and read his books, I can really identify with what you experienced and have written. You have done an excellent job articulating the issues and laying them out in a logical fashion. The biggest danger with Robbins type programs, in my opinion, is that it gives people powerful psychological tools that can cause more damage than good when underlying issues are not addressed. For folks with solid critical thinking abilities and healthy emotional balance, I think it can be great! However, during my employ, I was personally disgusted when witnessing unqualified and uneducated colleagues in the sales process advocate that seminars would help a person overcome deep seated issues such as childhood sexual abuse rather than refer the person to a qualified psychologist. Sure perhaps seminars could be helpful in conjunction with other methods, but it is just irresponsible to say it will cure them. if the person has deep seated negative beliefs and mental/emotional struggles, they need guidance by a professional to help them sort through, identify and process emotions and limiting beliefs …Not just a series of big pump up sessions that leave them being extremely motivated but fundamentally flawed in their ability to think about and process the events in their lives.

    • Thank you for your comment, Kay. I agree that some of Robbins' methods can be useful to someone basically healthy emotionally but not appropriate for solving deep-seated psychological problems. In addition, I'd say that most people have deep-seated problems they aren't aware of and think of themselves as basically healthy, and that the cultivation of mania (Robbins' "peak state") can be very dangerous for someone (like me) who has the genetic potential for bipolar or other mood disturbances.

  17. gertrude says:

    When debating this video, get your reaction clear. Tony Robbins is not saying noone ever committed suicide, who went to his seminars. He says this, following his statement about his work, that often he is called to do an intervention for someone who is, or plans to commit suicide.

  18. gertrude says:

    He is using NLP techniques. Get people to say yes multiple times, and they will say yes to everything you say, without contemplation. He fosters sympathy by playing jokes, making people have 'feel good'' moments, laughing and then hits home with his theories/methods.Watch all his special handmovements, anchoring certain things, maybe even hypnotizing his audience.

  19. fxgeorges says:

    Tony is a very complex character. Some of his stuff is useful, other stuff, not so much…

  20. You have done an excellent job articulating the issues and laying them out in a logical fashion. The biggest danger with Robbins type programs, in my opinion, is that it gives people powerful psychological tools that can cause more damage than good when underlying issues are not addressed. For folks with solid critical thinking abilities and healthy emotional balance, I think it can be great! However, during my employ, I was personally disgusted when witnessing unqualified and uneducated colleagues in the sales process advocate that seminars would help a person overcome deep seated issues such as childhood sexual abuse rather than refer the person to a qualified psychologist.

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