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Being Aware of Self-Help Cults and Scams

Posted by Stephanie B.

I'm a huge fan of self-help but sometimes there is a dark side. Two huge movements in the personal development world have some skeletons in the closet.

The first is Landmark Education, which uses high-pressure sales tactics and psychological manipulation to turn people into brainwashed converts. Watch this video for more information:

Inside Landmark Forum Video

The Secret has been a big hit in 2007, but did you know one of its gurus is being investigated in Australia for investment fraud? He has allegedly taken money from students that he was supposed to invest on their behalf and instead pocketed it. Former employees also allege that he has not paid them back wages:

The Secret's David Schirmer: Guru or Con Man?

As always: Let the buyer beware. If any self-help organization or guru promises too much, it's probably because they are lying.

Comments (6)
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Stephanie, you know I'm a huge fan of your posts, and it's funny how on the same page we are. I was actually having a conversation with my mom this weekend--she's a big fan of The Secret, and we got into this big discussion regarding whether or not it's a scam (I think it's a clever marketing gimmick myself). I actually took a couple of Landmark classes in the past, and while I feel I got a lot from them, I was really uncomfortable with their high-pressure sales tactics and felt that they didn't respect people's personal spaces. Then, jargon is skillfully employed to make participants feel a range of emotions, from vulnerability to total empowerment, in short bouts of time. I've also read research studies on how the Landmark folks employ subtle mass hypnosis tactics, which is really scary. It makes me sad--there are a lot of well-meaning people out there, including myself, who are searching for clarity and answers. The danger is when we look too far outside ourselves, because you're right--there are definitely predators on the loose who are more than willing to take advantage of gullible people.
The trick with these sorts of movements is that they use partial truths or processes that they've gleaned from other sources and repackage them into powerful marketable packages. So if you can resist the lure of the "mass hypnosis tactics," you will probably learn a few useful things. It's sorting out the good stuff from the bad that becomes the problem.

The hope is that as human beings we are always on a path of development.  Unfortunately many are walking this world unconsciously and only take on personal development when they are in crisis.  Crisis creates urgency and the "scam" programs count on that fact.


Programs like "The Secret" were not meant to be the spiritual solution for all.  The program was developed not by the "experts" in the book/movie, but by someone who was a neophyte to the spiritual development movement.  The book/movied served its purpose which was to bring these ideas to the masses, after all Rhonda Byrnes is a marketing professional prior to "The Secret".  If you have a chance to hear individual interviews with the experts in the book, many will tell you that the book is not complete.  It wasn't intended to be the answer to all the questions, but an opportunity to begin asking questions and creating dialogues in the community.

I finally checked out The Secret last year. Overall, I think it can be useful for increasing your metacognition skills (thinking about how you are thinking). It is important, however, for people to retain their common sense with these movements/programs as you three mentioned. If you feel less certain of your own common sense or sense of self after getting into it, that's not a good sign.
Thank you for this.  If you offer a quality product and people can see the value, there is NO need for pressure!  I think that The Secret is no secret.  It's based on very classic psychology and 12-step philosophy.  I have heard lots of horror stories about Landmark and even met someone who went through it and was kept up all night.   If there's a pressure to sign up OR a sensory deprivation component, stay away! 
I would recomend viewing, if you can find it, a 2002 BBC documentary series called the "Century of Self".  It is about how the theories of Sigmund Freud have been used by governments and marketers to manipulate populations for the last 100 years.  It relates how the self help movement which includes Landmark Education is an outgrowth of all this manipulation.  It touches on how by focusing the individual on self it actually creates an anti social element in society.  It also implies that because these empowered people cut across a large cross section of society and self actuated people don't believe as a whole that they can be manipulated politicians and marketers have been very busy doing just that.  It is possible that these people are the most manipulated group in the last 100 years.
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