It’s pretty clear that progress towards any important goal goes a lot better when you can maintain a positive state of mind. Positive goals, positive (but realistic) expectations, and positive self-talk all help us stay motivated and survive the inevitable setbacks and disappointments we experience.
But there are also plenty of times when “happy talk” just doesn’t get the job done. We all do things that are just plain...well, let’s just say they aren’t very well thought out. When that happens, it doesn’t always make a lot of sense to just pat yourself on the back and say, “Don’t worry, you’ll do better next time.”
In order to learn from our mistakes and avoid repeating them, we also need to take an honest look at what went wrong, and point out to ourselves exactly how and why we are contributing to our own problems. And we need to do it in a way that will help us remember this lesson before we act the next time the problem comes up.
In my line of work, we call this Toughlove, and there’s definitely an art to it, whether you’re delivering the toughlove to yourself (OK for amateurs) or to someone else (recommended only for seasoned experts with martial arts skills and/or a good lawyer). Done poorly, toughlove can and usually does cause more problems than it solves. But done well, it can be very effective, so it’s definitely worth learning how to do it to yourself the right way.
Probably the best way to illustrate the art of toughlove is by looking at a very common problem that often responds better to a little self-administered toughlove than to happy talk…
This problem is familiar to dieters everywhere. You run into some tempting food that isn’t on your diet plan, and that familiar inner struggle starts up. “I really shouldn’t.” “But it’s only one little treat, I’ll make up for it later.” You have the treat, but that’s not the end of the story. Later on, you’re tired and trying to decide whether to cook those steamed veggies you planned for dinner or order a pizza, and you find yourself thinking “Well, I’ve already blown it for today, might as well have the pizza and start over tomorrow.”
This is the point where a good healthy dose of toughlove can really save the day. But what, exactly, should you say to yourself?
Before you read on, take a moment to remember back to the last time you were actually in this situation. What did you say, and how did that work for you?
There are several things you could do in this kind of situation that would definitely qualify as tough, but not so many that would qualify as real toughlove. For example:
- You could mindlessly go with this blatant rationalization and then beat up on yourself mercilessly later on for being stupid or weak-willed enough to fall for it.
- You could reject the obviously irrational rationalization, and switch to a less dubious one, like “Well, I’ve been pretty good lately, and I really am too tired to cook a meal—so I’ll go ahead and have the pizza this once, and just make sure I get back on the wagon right away.”
- You could point out to yourself how dumb it is to think that making things worse by eating even more junk could ever be a good idea, and tell yourself to go cook your steamed vegetables because that’s the right thing to do.
- You could say something to yourself along these lines: “Alright, now hold on for a minute here, partner. We both know that bit of mental gymnastics is just a cop out, right? So why not just get honest and admit you don’t want the steamed veggies, and you do want the pizza. Then we can think about it for a minute, and decide what’s the best thing to do. Which one of those choices do you think will make you feel better after you’ve done it?”
Only one of these options—the last one—is authentic toughlove. The first one, obviously, gives you the worst of both worlds—you eat even more and can’t even enjoy it because you feel guilty. The second one could be a perfectly legitimate decision to make, but it’s not toughlove because it doesn’t really make you look at the situation from a different angle and think about it. The third one is definitely tough, but it’s not toughlove either—it doesn’t open any new doors, and may even make you feel resentful or deprived if it becomes a real habit.
The final statement, though, has all the ingredients of good toughlove:
- It forcefully points out that the thought/behavior in question isn’t a very good one, but it doesn’t attack the person (yourself) for having/doing it;
- It acknowledges that the person you’re speaking to (yourself, in this case) has good intentions and values (honesty) that can be used to come up with a better approach;
- It frames the problem as a conflict between different desires or needs, both of which can be legitimate, and rejects the idea that one choice is inherently “good” and the other one “bad.”
- It challenges the person to step outside the perspective or assumptions they’re currently using, and find a more helpful way to look at the situation, i.e., what’s going to make you feel better afterwards.
If you want to effectively challenge yourself to question your assumptions and attitudes, start thinking differently, and put some of your bad habits behind you once and for all, you’re probably going to want to get pretty good at the “dark art” of toughlove. This will enable you to criticize, question, and challenge yourself without being mean, perfectionistic, rude, condescending, or just plain cruel. Remember that you’re going to react to bad toughlove the same way you’d expect anyone else to react—by resisting, rejecting, not cooperating, or getting pretty passive aggressive—even if you’re the one giving it to yourself.
If you try to make sure that your self-talk includes all four of the ingredients above, you should get off to a good start.
How are you at giving yourself a little toughlove when you need it? Does it work?
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