Tough Love: The Upside and the Downside

We talk a lot about tough love these days.


Maybe you’ve had some tough love directed toward you by friends or family members, or your physician. You may have used some tough love with someone you care about. And you may even use tough love with yourself.


Sure, tough love can be beneficial. Like those times when you’ve let slide your self-care routine or your medication regimen. Words of tough love can help you stay on track and avoid further complications down the road.


But is tough love always so helpful?


What’s Behind All That Tough Love?


Here’s my definition of tough love: Laying out the facts. As you understand them. The evidence. As you see it. The truth. As you interpret it.


Sure, tough love can be an honest, straightforward way of showing concern. But there are a couple of potential downsides to tough love. It can feel like a hurtful criticism, a judgment, or as controlling. Here’s why:


First, the people who care about you may feel like they should be doing something to “fix” your chronic condition. That comes from fear. When they don’t know what to do, they start feeling helpless. So, to avoid their own helpless feelings, they may become controlling, telling you what you aren’t doing, and what you need to do. The more helpless the other person feels, the more tough love you might find coming at you.


Second, tough love can also be a way of expressing anger or disappointment about other things. The person delivering it may be feeling frustrated, for example, that you aren’t able to participate as fully as you would like to, or that your chronic condition is forcing unwanted changes in routine. But instead of saying directly how they feel, and talking it out, they may be using tough love as a way to let out their feelings.


Here are some ways to evaluate the tough love that gets sent in your direction:


Open yourself up to the message. We don’t always like what we hear, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn something. Does that mean you have to accept any tough love sent your way? Not at all. But be willing to listen and take the message into consideration.


Ask for clarification if you need it. If what you’re hearing doesn’t make sense to you, then let the other person know. Ask for examples: “When did you see me doing/not doing this?” Ask for sources of information: “I wasn’t aware of that fact. Where did you get your information?” And ask why the other person is concerned: “What’s bothering you about this?” You might get a better sense of why this tough love message is important for you to hear, or you may help the other person realize that their tough love isn’t very well thought out.


If you don’t appreciate the tone, say it. Nobody has a right to yell at you unless you grant them that right. If tough love is being delivered in a loud voice or an angry tone, it’s going to be hard for you to listen, as well as leave you feeling like you’ve been given a good scolding or, worse yet, used as a punching bag for someone else’s frustration. If you’re not feeling like the tough love is coming from a place of love, let the other person know: “If you want me to listen to what you have to say, you need to speak to me out of kindness, and in a calm voice. Otherwise, we can talk at a time when you can.”


You don’t have to react in the moment. Tough love can make perfect sense at the moment it is delivered. The message may even be one that you have been telling yourself. On the other hand, you might be a little thrown off by what you hear. If so, reserve the right to take the message under consideration. Say something like: “I appreciate your concern. I have to think about what you said. Maybe we’ll pick this discussion up again soon.”


And keep an eye on your own voice of tough love. Take a look at your self-talk. Don’t use tough love as an excuse to tear yourself down. Replace criticism with words of encouragement.


Tough love can be just what you need to get you back on the path. But it can also be more about the person delivering it than it is about you. Insist on kindness. Listen with an open mind. Look for the grain of truth. You’re in charge!