January 31, 2023

Beware the Cult of Personal Development.

My knees are shaking, and by the feel of my jeans, I guess I’ve lost five pounds—either a miraculous or horrifying feat for my 110-pound frame.

It’s day six. My eyes are on the ground and I have my attention on my breath, but I can’t contact an internal sense of safety.

My nervous system’s message is clear: Get Out

And I can get out. I haven’t been abducted, after all. I’m in personal development training.

It’s a personal development training that tells me, three days in, who I think I am is not who I really am. Because who I really am it says is a broken, manipulative, and insecure victim who isn’t worth a lifeboat raft.

Having spent days surrounded by 70 strangers in an artificially lit hotel conference room with no clocks, rigid rule enforcement, public humiliation as a penance, and limited, supervised contact with the outside world, I start to wonder if what I have signed up for is a human experiment. Like Lord of the Flies for grownup seekers wanting their next big breakthrough.

When I look back, I wish I hadn’t stayed.

Maybe if I’d read or heard about cults that dress up as personal development I would have left earlier or not signed up at all.

I’m not grateful for the experience, but maybe telling you about it could spare you harm. 

Let me back up a bit and tell you how I got to that room where I actually paid to be screamed at. My intention was simple: I wanted my small, private mentor practice to be a financially sustainable vocation.

I didn’t know much about business, so I hired a business coach who had experience. Once inside the community, I learned about a special training that for an additional cost. The training would turn me into the leader I needed to be to make my life work.

My life was working well enough, when I look back now. But I believed them when they said it wasn’t because I wanted certainty. Maybe if I transformed I could lose my insecurity. I was insecure because I couldn’t be sure I would make enough money every month from my business. I wanted peace of mind—the peace of mind I didn’t know I had when I had a salaried job and my financial needs were met. 

The problem, as presented by the trainers in this four-month program, was 100 percent personal. All of the other ingredients that contribute to business success or failure weren’t the real problem. It wasn’t the recession, the pandemic, or the market that was the problem, so they said. It was me.

I was the sole reason things weren’t working the way I wanted or needed. According to the trainers, who weren’t formally licensed or trained psychologists, I needed to “break through.”

Our “break throughs” were curated through group processes that stirred up fear and shame. Then, there was a sweet catharsis, which was engineered through intense praise (love bombing) and vulnerable group exercises. For me, this “break you down and build you up” kind of cycle elicited a euphoric sense of belonging to a true, like-minded community.

But, that belonging was created by shared trauma. The tear-down was front-loaded. The most intense abuse happened within the initial days of the seven-day intensive. Day four was the climax. The preamble to the climax was a full day of receiving “feedback.” Feedback was delivered in a scream, right to my face, in front of a room of my peers. Everyone had an opportunity to give feedback to everyone else, sometimes all at once. 

“My experience of you is as a pathetic, broken little girl! Your husband secretly wishes he never married you!”

This an example of  the “feedback” I received and the one I most remember getting from a trainer. The trainer happened to be married to the owner of the company. 

For months after the training, the voice of self-disgust condemned me anytime I didn’t feel like a “leader.” My softer tone of voice, my need for solitude, and my fear of conflict were signs of my weakness, so I was told. The solution? Get “back in the room.”

Getting “back in the room” meant working as a voluntary coach. This meant being back in the cold hotel conference space to support the folks who had paid to be participants. This meant not just hours of official training, but hours of coaching a small cohort assigned to me. This meant being connected to Voxer every day, commenting and contributing to the mountain of messages from the group. 

This meant working for free. It was called many other things, this donation of time and money. It was called being a “giver.” It was called being “generous.” It was called “saving lives.” Every time we’d enroll a new person into the training, we’d say they now had a chance to “live.”

Part of standing for ourselves, each other, and the world involved enrollment. We were expected to fill the next training. During our lunch breaks, after the initial seven days, we were a floor of folks pacing the grounds and making phone calls to family, friends, and clients. When we came back from our three and four-hour breaks, we’d share who we “saved.”

If we didn’t “save” anyone, they said, we were “playing small.” 

One of the participants enrolled her mother. Her mother paid thousands of dollars to join. When her sister found out, she was livid. She was angry because their mother was on a fixed income. I wonder how they’re doing now. I hope the sisters are speaking again.

Werner Erhard, founder of EST (also known as Erhard Seminars Training), is the man behind the content and philosophy of what became LGAT, or large group awareness training. Though EST disappeared with Erhard in the early 90s, it left behind a wake of controversy and allegations of abuse and tax fraud. Werner sold the curriculum and left the country for a time.

As I write this piece, the criticisms of Werner and his methodologies are harder to find than they were years ago when I was trying to make sense of what had happened to me. I wonder if it’s because he came out of hiding a few years back in an attempt to rebrand himself.

I realize there are folks whose lives have been enhanced by these large, group pseudo-psychological seminars. The benefits aren’t hidden—but the cost is. A waiver is signed when you join, a waiver that ensures you won’t share specifics and you won’t sue for the distress caused. I signed the waiver, which is why I won’t name the specific training or company that helped create my experience. But the harm is documented. 

As I sit with this experience I realize I did learn something. It’s the truth that would collapse most of the pseudo-psychological business coaching for entrepreneurs whose ads stream daily on my Instagram feed. Whose ads I now tag as irrelevant so I don’t have to see one more video about how to create a million-dollar business.

Now I realize that the ground of entrepreneurship is uncertainty. Risk is inherent. There’s no way to guarantee that monthly income goals will be met. The only way to feel safe and secure financially is to establish a trustworthy source of cash flow every month. So either you’re the kind of person who can stomach the risk or you get a job and then build your business on your off hours, if ease of being is a priority for you.

If we aren’t clear about this, our confusion can be used to hook us into paying large amounts of money to solve an unsolvable problem.

If we aren’t clear on this, we’ll believe all we need is a “break through” to get the results we want. 

If we aren’t clear on this, guilt and shame will keep driving us away from our birthright.

Our birthright is the ability to enjoy our good-enough life amidst the million things we face—right and wrong. 


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