I go back and forth a lot on whether tough love is necessary or not. Growing up in a strict ballet background, many of the approaches my teachers used included tough love, especially for young black dancers. Our reality was that classical dance is automatically way more challenging for us to navigate than our white counterparts. So we have to work ten times harder and be exceptional. I naturally built what we call “thicker skin” and learned that it was better for someone to say something to you (even if you don’t like the tone or delivery) rather than have nothing said. It showed that your instructor or the person around you cared for your well-being and progression. If they didn’t, they’d ignore you, which would translate to not seeing it worthy of calling out how you can do better. Almost like you had been given up on.
I’ve seen “tough love” coming from a person with lived reality rooting their expression in love. I’ve also seen it come from a miserable person lacking self-awareness, intending to be mean-spirited and abuse any semblance of power. I’m biased due to my upbringing, and I feel tough love is a time and place kind of thing. It requires mindfulness, nuance, and understanding of the personality you are confronting. Tough love often gets a bad rap because it has become many people’s excuse to abuse others. There is no abuse in love and no love in abuse.
I was an empathetic kid with a lot of anxiety about being perceived as well-liked and “good.” If my mom didn’t let me know that not everyone will like you and it’s not worth crying over, I may have grown into my teenage and adult years with severe sensitives that could have held me back as an artist. If I didn’t have dance teachers telling me the step was wrong or that I could do better, I don’t think I would have the discipline, work ethic, and sense of accountability for my trajectory, success, and transformation. If I didn’t face rejection at dance auditions in my late teens and early twenties, I don’t think I would have the drive I do today as a creative, releasing my art on my own.
On the other hand, I have seen tough love used as a way to bully or an excuse to lack couth when engaging with others. In this context, it usually comes from someone projecting insecurities onto others and then using tough love or “just being real” as an excuse to hurt someone’s feelings. These people tend to know they are not rooting anything they say in compassion, care, truth, or empathy and say what they feel they can get away with. If they receive pushback or are called out, they tend to gaslight by saying one is too sensitive or can’t handle the “truth.” I can look back and see when “tough love” was supposedly used to motivate me but just embarrassed me and made me feel unloved and dumb.
I think if you are someone who leans on using tough love with people. You must be aware of yourself and your approach and understand how it may land for some, even if others respond positively. You have to be willing to take accountability. Some may not appreciate your expression nor care for it. It’s like choosing your battles. When you are empathetic and can read energy reasonably well, you know who might be able to receive your love in that manner and who may need a bit more guidance and extra compassion. It’s not a matter of walking on eggshells but more of being in tune with what the moment calls for and with the person you direct your affection towards.
If your go-to is tough love, I suggest introspection and self-reflection to ensure it comes from a kind place. Ask yourself a few questions:
Where does the need to use tough love come from?
How did you feel receiving tough love in the past? Did you think it was helpful?
Is it necessary in the situations you have chosen to extend it?
Is your tough love rooted in compassion, empathy, and a sincere attempt to help someone you care for?
If you are not in favor of tough love and use a gentler approach when expressing yourself towards others:
How do you make sure that you are not holding someone back or coddling them at a moment when they could use a push forward?
Did anyone use a gentle and loving approach with you? If so, did you find it helpful?
What makes the gentle approach to teaching hard lessons suitable for you?
In your experience, did gentle approaches others took with you still give a visceral “reality check” tough love can often give?
It’s a delicate balance, in my opinion. I don’t have the correct answer. Tough love prepared me for life and the ebbs and flows of it. The world doesn’t always handle me as a black woman so gently. Luckily, most people who have shown me that tough love meant no harm but wanted me to be great. It made me remember that I am loved and safe to explore and grow in specific spaces, but the world is not always so loving, accepting, and understanding outside these safe spaces. The people who showed me gentle and nurturing love knew I needed it and reminded me I was worthy of a softer love. Many don’t know what tough love means, which shows how they practice it. If I have ever felt shaky at the moment, I preface my feedback by letting the person know I care for them and where my thoughts and intentions are coming from. Tough love doesn’t mean we don’t handle people with care. No matter what, we can call in and support those we love in hopes they learn, grow, succeed, and evolve.