A few years ago, a friend and a coworker of mine was leaving the country for an indefinite period, and held a modest going-away gathering at a bar in Durham. My social anxiety compelled me to arrive early. My friend was there already, as was one of her friends: a writer and filmmaker who was from Los Angeles — a fact she managed, somehow, to work into her salutation.

This cosmopolitan artiste asked me what I did for a living, and I told her I wanted to be a professional television actor. She fitted me with the condescending smile that I have become used to, at this point, whenever I tell someone I want to be an actor. It’s a smile that says, “Oh really? You? And what makes you so special?”

And in fact, she more or less paraphrased that sentiment by going, “That’s very ambitious. And difficult.” “I know,” I said.

Then she gave me a quick once-over, declared, “Well, I suppose you could play, like, the good-natured next-door-neighbor,” and turned away from me to talk to our mutual friend again. That was it. No follow up questions about my training, my experience. She heard me articulate a goal, made sure I knew it would be difficult to achieve, and then relegated me to an oddly specific bit part forever. Nothing wrong with playing a “good-natured neighbor” or two, but the premise that no casting director in their right mind would ever cast me in a large role in anything seemed bizarre to me. She had only known me for three seconds, but based merely on appearance and — I don’t know, is there a negative je ne sais quoi? — she had summarily dismissed my dreams as belonging in the pipe.

woman laughing

Oh, she said one other thing to me, just before she turned away. She actually laughed and said, “Just some tough love!” That was her explanation of why she felt compelled to tell me that my dream job was essentially impossible to achieve: tough love. “Tough love” — defined by Merriam-Webster as “love or affectionate concern expressed in a stern or unsentimental manner” — is always the excuse for the exceedingly annoying and sometimes demoralizing attempt on the part of some person to instruct you in the harsh realities of the world. It’s a phrase that your parents might employ when raking you across the coals for that “B” on your math test, or that your significant other might use to convince you not to leave your miserable day job behind the counter at Wells Fargo to pursue other opportunities, or that a stranger in a bar might say to explain why they’re being a jerk for no reason. I have never forgotten how I felt sitting at that bar, having just had my worst fears verbalized by this self-appointed expert. It was destabilizing. “Maybe she’s right,” I thought. “Maybe it’s stupid for me to be trying.”

Sometimes tough love comes from a genuinely well-meaning place, but more often than not, it is a tactic that people in your life — even people who don’t know and certainly don’t love you — will use to justify a “put-down,” which is defined as “a humiliating remark.” The justification of put-downs and cutting remarks as being “for your own good” is a tool that abusers often use to deflect from their terribly mean behavior. In less extreme cases, it can be a manifestation of that person’s own insecurities and negativity: in my experience, if someone tells you that you can’t do something, it usually means that they don’t believe that they could do it, coming back to that implicit challenge of “What makes you so special?” And the most pernicious part is that you are seemingly expected to thank these people for tearing you apart, for proverbially grabbing you by the shoulders and shaking you like a rag doll.

Keep away from those who try to belittle your ambitions.

Sometimes, “tough love” will be cited by an actual loved one, such as a parent or particularly invested teacher. In most of these cases, their criticism of you might be coming from a good place, but I would still question the wisdom of using straight criticism as a teaching tool in the first place. Sometimes a few blunt words might be called for, but most of the time, there is a better way to get through to someone than to reprimand them outright, without empathy. Increasingly we are seeing evidence pouring in from psychologists and sociologists denouncing the practice of corporal punishment and yelling as a good parenting technique. We are seeing motivation studies that show the benefits of being positive, nurturing, and empathetic if you want to see someone change their behavior. Left unchecked over time, endless criticism becomes crippling to self-esteem. That’s one reason that students who are told from an early age that they’re too stupid to do anything usually stop trying very hard to achieve academically. That’s one reason why people decide not to pursue creative careers out of the certainty that they can’t possibly succeed. At some point, if enough people tell you “this is how the world is,” you believe it.


parent sitting with sad child

So if “tough love” really is about love, maybe it’s time to rethink how that love is being expressed. In so many cases, however, “tough love” is an empty phrase used by bitter and/or condescending people — even strangers! — to gaslight you into accepting their bitterness and/or condescension without argument. In these instances, it might be helpful to view the phrase “tough love” as a signal that you absolutely do not need to pay attention to what is about to be said to you. Don’t let mean people instruct you in the ways of the world, or dictate how to feel about yourself.

Do you feel like you could use some guidance in communicating? Our therapists offer individual, family, and marital counseling that can help you learn how to encourage your friends and family in a positive way.


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