Tough Love Isn’t Really Love

Vanessa Torre

You can be honest and still be compassionate

We’ve all known someone who needs a little firmness. Maybe we’re the one who’s been that person. There’s always a time when the rubber needs to hit the proverbial road. This is when that big ugly bottle of tough love usually comes out of the medicine cabinet.

I don’t subscribe to the “be cruel to be kind” construct. I don’t deal well with tough love. I never have. I will shut down. Similarly, I don’t know many people that are a fan of brutal honesty. You can be honest and still be compassionate.

The path to growth, discovery and recovery is not paved with tough love. It is paved by gently placing down stones of human kindness.

Sometimes, what needs to happen in someone’s life is completely clear. They need out of a relationship. They need a new job. They are engaging in self-destructive behavior.

Even if everyone knows what that person is supposed to do, you can’t beat them into that place. You can’t shame them into that place either. You have to grab their hand and walk with them. Sit with them while they’re there and help them move on when they need to.

I have a wonderful friend I met through a mutual friend a year ago. I adored her immediately. She’s sweet and kind, smart and funny. She was also a little bit of a hot mess at that point in time. A lot of people saw it.

People have tough loved the crap out of her. She’s made mistakes and there was no shortage of people quick to point them out and make her feel horrible about them. All in the name of tough love.

But that’s not love. It’s not care. It never worked for her. She kept making the same mistakes. It led to more shaming.

When we met, I wasn’t really in a good place either. Okay, I was a bit of mess, too.

From the moment we met, there has been an understanding of honesty and openness. We tell it straight. We don’t hide.

Over the past year, we have guided each other through rough patches because the rough ones will always happen. I have her over for dinner or we go out for a drink and talk for a long time. We can tell each other what the other one doesn’t want to hear, but needs to. We do it with love.

I like to think it’s being emotionally responsible.

You can say that tough love is done for someone’s own good. But it’s not. It’s done for the good of the person delivering the tough love. It allows them to say, “Well, I tried to help.”

But, really, they didn’t help. Tough love is unnecessary. It’s obsolete. Even in the most dire situations that include self-destruction, psychologists are encouraging empathy over aggression. Empathy and compassion are long lasting. Ultimatums and directives are fleeting.

My friend is in a much better place now. She is more resilient and bounces back much faster. She has learned to set clear boundaries. She has learned her worth and demonstrates it.

Those that tried to tough love her tell me, “We’ve been trying to get through to her for a long time. We don’t know what you did.” I did nothing. It’s not my place. I can’t take credit for her doing well any more than she can take credit for the growth I’m made in my own life. We encourage, we hold accountable, we check in, we send books, we listen. It’s that simple.

We can’t tough love someone into submission. We’ve got to ask them the questions that get them to their own place. Help them learn to ask their own questions to find where they need to be. We can’t just tell them where that place is. They’ll never find it.

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Flaming pinball, nerd, music lover, wine snob, horrible violin player. No, she won’t stop taking pictures of her drinks. IG: vanessaltorre Twitter: @vanessaltorre

Phoenix, AZ

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