The Pros of Cons: Examining the Traps Veiled Inside the Self-Help Industry

IMG_0962“Be aware”. It seems so fundamental to living; it was uttered prolifically to each of us throughout our youth by our parents, teachers and athletic coaches. The etymological relationships with the words “beware” and “wary” stand as a testament to how critical such advice remains during our adulthood. Still, even when we vigilantly keep our guard up, we can fall victim to the increasingly clever cons, schemes and pitfalls devised by a new breed of motivational “gurus”. And as was confirmed by my good friend and WAC specialist Ginny Brown, the results can be deadly.

As part of last week’s WAC panel discussion Taken For A Ride, Ginny introduced our group of over 50 guests and members to a growing category of new-age con artistry that lurks within the self-help sector, the proliferation of which depends upon our lack of awareness. She developed the not-for-profit foundation SEEK Safely, which aims to educate and empower the public in regard to the ethical guidelines of this unregulated $11 billion industry. The discussion at hand focused on the red flags and warning signs that we may have encountered a disingenuous, even psychopathic leader on our personal journey toward self-improvement.

A Rogue RetreatIMG_0980

Although SEEK Safely’s message is universal, the story behind its conception is deeply personal. On October 8th, 2009, Ginny’s daughter Kirby Brown was led to her death in Sedona, AZ by a fraudulent celebrity motivational speaker/author whom she had entrusted with her physical and emotional safety, not to mention many thousands of her hard-earned dollars. The charismatic James Arthur Ray had been using outlandish psychological techniques on his retreat participants all week, without even the credentials to coach little league. The pursuit of spiritual renewal killed 3 that day, and injured dozens more. Although Ray eventually served marginal prison time in connection with the deaths (deemed negligent homicides), he remains absent of remorse for the victims and their families, having narcissistically reemerged in the industry with unpredictable objectives.

Set Up Like A Bowling Pin

In our panel discussion, Ginny stressed how important it is to stay in touch with our vulnerabilities. She was unashamed to use herself as an example, admitting that she noticed plenty of red flags in Ray’s behavior at one of his motivational events some months before the AZ tragedy, and decided to put them on the shelf. Ray’s charm combined with Kirby’s fondness of his message and Ginny’s self-pact not to be judgmental prompted her to “want to like him”. She and Kirby were now vulnerable to Ray’s set-up, which soon led to a large financial commitment by Kirby. And, as Ginny went on to indicate, once we make such commitments, we tend to brainwash ourselves not to walk away from the apparent scam.


Psychopathic scam artists like Ray are not uncommon in the self-help industry, and their tactics have existed for millennia. The new face of the charismatic leader, however, is a well-packaged, legitimately promoted, and socially-embraced “expert”, operating in an age when various forms of desperation entice us to latch on. Ginny points out that when we are emotionally distraught, for instance, we are more likely to make poor or irrational decisions about whom to trust. Furthermore, once we are under the spell of a psychopathic leader, the self-help aspect makes an about-face, the relationship begins to cater to the leader and their enterprise, and the perilous manipulation can begin.

Seeking With Awareness

At one pivotal moment in the panel discussion, Ginny reminded us of something that reframed the conversation brilliantly. Quite simply, in our current culture, we are told to be happy, think positively, accept others and judge not. Surely there are personality types that are drawn to this fair and noble mindset, and they are precisely the ones who are most vulnerable to scams and fraudulent leaders. For those who fall into this camp, and find themselves dabbling in the self-help event realm, Ginny provided an Empowerment Guide that details the warning signs to be aware of. For example, if the event itinerary is so jam-packed as to disallow time for tending to basic needs, proceed with caution. The guide also alerts us to sensory and IMG_0936emotional assault tactics like belittlement, isolation, and odd breathing techniques that can be used by leaders to diminish our decision-making capacity. And a general rule: if the leader is unable to be a team player and live their own teachings, it’s likely you’re about to be preyed upon. The entire guide can be found on the SEEK Safely website.

On behalf of Deborah and me, sincere thanks go out to Ginny Brown, the rest of September 9th’s panel, the attendees, and our host Dorsey & Whitney for making such an insightful evening possible. It was exactly the kind of event that I excitedly refer to when introducing people to WAC!