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That time I spent $1000 to better myself

Taking a personal development course left me poorer, in more ways than one.

My father died in August 2016. I’d had my fourth reconstructive knee surgery a month earlier, so the painkillers inadvertently kept my grief at bay. By New Year's, I’d managed to singe my fake eyelashes trying to light the end of a dead cigarette. I’d hit rock bottom.

After what felt like a lifetime of yoga sessions, Les Mills subscriptions, acai bowls and other ‘wellness’ activities that are often exclusively available to white, middle class women, I decided to entertain my friend’s suggestion and go to a Landmark “personal and professional growth, training and development” introduction session. 

It was too much and too soon for me; it was six months since my dad died, I was on antidepressants and vulnerable. The audience was timid. A few people spoke about issues with their partners, or wanting to find love. We were taught about blind spots, or patterns of behaviour that we weren’t aware of but that could be limiting our quality of life. We were told we were perfect and complete just as we were, but the implication – at least for me – was that we could be “more” complete once we did a three-day course.

The session seemed useful, but I wasn’t ready for the pressure-heavy pitch at the end to do the next course. I didn’t want to sign up – the hefty $1000 fee and my suspicion induced by 13 years of Catholic schooling were red flags – and I felt like I had no time to think about it. Feeling overwhelmed, I broke into tears, which soon progressed into hysterical crying.

My friend and Landmark enthusiast – who genuinely felt like the course changed her life for the better – was called in to calm me down. I didn't sign up and we went home. Fast forward six months and I was desperate. I was still taking antidepressants but my dad’s death had ruptured my sense of being. I couldn’t shake the idea I could get to the heart of my problems in one course.

Landmark promised so much: The Forum is designed to bring about positive, permanent shifts in the quality of your life – in just three days... 94 percent of participants say Landmark had a profound and lasting difference in their lives.

I would do anything to get out of my funk.

With my friend’s encouraging testimony in mind, I paid the $1000, signed the terms and conditions without paying attention to the fine print, and locked in what would be three days of life in a conference room with only instant coffee on offer.

I was going to a counsellor at the time, who – although sceptical – said it might be interesting to give it a go. Embarrassed, I told my mother that I was going on a yoga retreat and took the Friday off work.

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 For the next three days, I arrived at a ho-hum central Auckland building at 9am and left at 10.15pm. The course was held in a dark conference room with fluorescent lighting and minimal embellishments. The chairs seemed a little dated. I remember the blinds drawn across each of the windows as a little odd. But I suppose it would be strange for members of the public to see a group of 150 people watching a person crying on the stage.

My group was from all backgrounds, ages, and economic status; we were connected by the desire to change our lives drastically, or told we needed to do so.

The teaching was simple enough: trauma wasn’t happening anymore, so why would one spend their life holding onto it? We were taught that, essentially, we live through lenses that have been shaped by past experiences, and there’s an overall bid to break those lenses, or constructs, down.

How was this teaching executed? You had to stand up in front of a microphone and essentially get broken down by the leader of the forum – in a Tony Robbins-esque fashion.

People stood up and talked about sexual abuse, being in violent relationships, having children with eating disorders, and addiction issues. There was a woman who had been sexually assaulted as a child, and after a series of leading questions, she discovered she had a belief she was not worthy of love as a result. This narrative had shaped the way she navigated life, but it seemed silly that she had been holding onto an idea she created as an adolescent. Her words – not mine. You could see her epiphany and sense of relief unfold. It was amazing to watch.

But it was worrying that vulnerable people were sharing these stories in a place where none of the people in authority had any specific training. Landmark mightn’t market itself as a mental health programme of any nature, but it sure as hell deals with people who’ve had traumatic experiences. I would say it would be virtually impossible to have a breakthrough of sorts without drawing on a distressing experience.

For every instance of sexual assault or extreme bullying I heard, I wondered whether it had a triggering effect on the audience members. Saying this, if you could relate to the trauma that was being described on the stage, you could equally transform, or so the Landmark theory goes. 

My time on the stage was relatively painless and arguably fickle in comparison. I was asked about my ‘quirky’ veneer – my clothes, glasses et cetera, and that I was a joke of a person for coming in late and leaving early – probably daddy issues or Catholic schooling, I guess. And fair point. But I’m not sure I needed to be publically humiliated to get the message. 

I remember also mentioning that I had a self-deprecating image of myself. The leader guessed I’d probably gone to counsellors and psychologists or taken medication – only to be told I didn’t have a mental illness diagnosis. He was correct.

While I wasn’t explicitly told by the leader that I should stop taking antidepressants, the implication was that I didn’t need them. Another chap who was taking a cocktail of prescription drugs for his chronic back pain was effectively told the same thing.

The leader went on to say it was sad that my views of myself were so low, and all of these lenses meant that it was hard for me to be loved. Jesus Christ. Hilarious then, that a man came up to me after the session to say that at first I wasn’t likeable, but after the 30-minute roasting I seemed cool, so he gave me his number.

Then there were the phone calls. That old chestnut. During breaks, we were encouraged to call our grudges, our nemeses, or our loved ones, to get to the bottom of any unresolved issues. I still shudder thinking of the ex-boyfriends from all those years ago that I called.

To be fair, I did patch things up with a good friend after what was a six-month hiatus that stemmed from an argument over my poor rendition of Julie London’s ‘Cry Me a River’. But, to this day I still don’t understand the use of these phone calls insofar as sure, it’s good to clear the air but for whose benefit? It seemed pretty self-indulgent and unfair to call various people out of the blue.

Overall, I felt stripped of my identity, and confused about what to do next. But guidance never came; I’d have to pay another $1000 for that. I graduated that weekend sure that I had to do the next course to find enlightenment, instead, I went home with a panic attack. 

The messaging throughout the course was valuable, but the existential crisis I had after was not. I found myself trying to pretend to be this transformed person I was meant to be. And when I didn’t feel different, I felt I had failed in some way. And strangely, friends praised this new, confused and affected person. I imagine this was because friends could finally feel comfortable telling me what they disliked about my former self.

For more than $1000, I got to examine my behaviours and question my belief system. Was it worth it? I just don’t know. I suppose it had a profound and lasting difference – I’m writing about it now – but if you're at a crossroads in your life, heed the fine print: You and you alone are responsible for your choice to participate in the [p]rogram and for your own health and well-being at all times prior to, during and after your participation…

A response from Landmark

The writer sought a response from Landmark about her experience before publication:

Landmark is an international personal and professional growth, training and development company. Landmark lawyer, Maurice Mitts, said more than 2.4 million people internationally have participated in the educational – not health – programs, “which are designed to empower people in being effective in a range of areas, such as personal productivity, leadership and communication”.

Mitts said Landmark had and continues to go out of its way to be supportive of people to make an informed choice about participating. 

The contract signed by the writer at the beginning of the course reads: “if you have any history of mental illness or emotional problems personally or in your immediate family, whether temporary, occasional or intermittent, and whether treated or not, or have concerns about your ability to handle stress, our advisors strongly recommend that you do not participate in the [p]rogram. If you are uncertain about whether this applies to you, we advise you to discuss this with a mental health professional before participating...

“It is not therapeutic in design, intent or methodology and is not to be used as a substitute for medical treatment, psychotherapy or health program of any nature, regardless of what you may believe or have heard from anyone.”

“We advise you that the Program Leaders, staff and people who assist at the [p]rogram are not mental health professionals and there will not be any mental health professionals in attendance”.

Mitt said Landmark’s programmes had been independently observed and declared to be safe and effective by preeminent experts in the mental health field. Over 40,000 health professionals and educators had participated in Landmark’s programs.

The leader of the forum the writer took part in, was contacted via Landmark’s media team. He said: “While I do not remember this person in particular, I did not say and would never say anything along the lines that someone should stop taking their medications.”

On the issue of being pressured to sign up, there were and are no financial benefits for any participants who register others into the course, Mitts said.

Landmark is a for-profit company wholly owned by its more than 550 employees through an Employee Stock Ownership Plan. In 2018, Landmark’s revenues were US$106 million and its after-tax profit was US$2.9 million. Its subsidiary, Vanto Group, has worked with companies like Apple,, the US Pentagon, NASA, the US Navy, Mercedes Benz USA and more, he said.

“Like many businesses, Landmark’s business is dependent on word of mouth. There is nothing related to a pyramid scheme in Landmark’s design or business mode.

“Landmark takes its reputation very seriously and does not tolerate being cast in a false light nor any other kind of defamation, and will take all necessary and appropriate legal action to protect its reputation.”

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