Self-help or self-harm?

Dr Tung Vu, a Sydney-based doctor, is feeling good.

Despite training at Harvard and Sydney, the 46-year-old doctor was once racked with self-doubt. Then something magical happened: “I became more comfortable in my own skin with my decisions – both professionally and elsewhere. I gave up constantly second-guessing myself.”

There's an element of collective epiphanies to the long days: breakthroughs appear to be contagious.

Logistics and IT manager Scott James, 42, enjoyed a similar breakthrough. “I'd always been more comfortable in the engine room than steering the ship. I now find myself setting goals I wouldn't have dreamed of previously.”

The responsibility for these "transformations" lies with two high-profile yet controversial movements whose stated aim is to revolutionise the way their participants see themselves.

Landmark Education and Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) are credited by many participants with breaking habits that may have prevented a promotion, achieving elusive work-life balance or repairing broken relationships.

There may, however, be a darker side. Both movements have their detractors. They essentially capitalise on people who are mentally vulnerable. Their recruiting and upselling techniques can be quite robust. The word "cult" is even occasionally whispered.

But should we really be discouraging people from self-improvement – especially men, who are often stereotyped as emotionally illiterate? I went along to find out.

The Landmark Education Forum requires three 13-hour days and one evening and costs $650. Landmark's Dr Cathy Elliott describes it as “a leadership and development program which provides powerful tools for causing breakthroughs”. It's popular; 120 people were at the forum I attended in Sydney and it attracts this number monthly. Typically, 45 per cent are male and 57 per cent of those are university educated.

Dr Tung Vu was attracted to Landmark because his successful professional life led to a common plateau. “Once you achieve a certain level of success in your career, it's easy to become so caught up in day-to-day demands that you don't take time out to even consider ... relationships, family, or work-life balance," he says. "My advice to fellow professionals is to make that a priority.”

His participation led to what Landmark describes as a "breakthrough". “I bought my first investment property within a month. Before that, I'd already looked at well over 100 properties, felt I had not found the 'right' one and consequently taken no action. It turned out to be my best-ever investment decision.”

The course nurtures breakthroughs by teaching the difference between your interpretation of events and the reality, raising self-expectations far beyond perceived capability, enrolling others into your new world of possibilities and – controversially – instructing you to make calls to apologise to people with whom you have "incomplete" relationships and "give up being right".

Participants are invited to share their breakthroughs, leading to many tears – I witnessed grown, professional men sobbing – but also fascinating stories.

There's an element of collective epiphanies to the long days: breakthroughs appear to be contagious. Our course leader is infatuated with her own grand claims throughout, regularly comparing Landmark's methods to those of Ghandi and Luther-King. But if those are the worst evils, the cult-accusers are merely cynical passion-killers. It's apparent that Landmark's best intentions are being realised via the palpably powerful impact the course has on its enthusiastic participants.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming immediately feels more scientific and less intensely emotional at the course I attend through the Australasian Institute of NLP.

It's described as “understanding how the language of the mind creates the patterns we run in life”. Or, as participant Gerhard Diedericks puts it: “The ability to regularly self-detox the mind.”

The clearer the unconscious mind, the fewer interferences clog your conscious mind, allowing you to reprogram to your desired mental state (in Landmark language, this is called "being racket-free").

It's commonly used for smoking cessation, weight loss and professional/personal coaching. Based on the premise that we only use a fraction of our potential, it shares Landmark's inspiring "be unreasonable" aphorism that anything is possible. “Imagination is more powerful than you can imagine,” was my favourite soundbite.

It was more than a soundbite for Scott James, who says that NLP helped him step up into leadership roles in both his professional and personal life. “The last three years have seen me take on my current job as logistics and IT manager, and the presidency of my rugby union club; things I'd have never considered previously as it required me to assert myself in ways I wasn't comfortable with,” he says.

Laureli Blyth runs the course I attend and says: “Eighty per cent of the executives I coach feel like a fraud, and fear that people will discover they don't know what they're doing.”

Her business partner, Dr Heidi Heron, asserts that NLP alleviates this self-doubt: “I've seen many of my students change career, advance in their careers and create more work/life balance.”

Like Landmark, NLP sometimes speaks in inane metaphors to hammer home its points. Stale imagery aside, both movements chip away at characteristic male stubbornness to create exciting new possibilities in life. NLP is more modest in its approach - according to Dr Heron: “We're not claiming to change the world. Just give a person more choice and understanding about themselves and others.”

At worst, eccentric; at best, powerfully transformative. If either movement is a cult, then sign me up.