All You Need Is Love...Tough Love, That Is

By , SparkPeople Blogger
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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Carrots and sticks, depends on my mood. Report
NEPTUNE1939 7/7/2020
ty Report
RCLYKE 7/7/2020
Great stuff Report
LEANJEAN6 7/7/2020
Tough love helps Report
LEANJEAN6 7/7/2020
Tough love helps Report
SPINECCO 7/7/2020
Great article with really good information. Thanks. Report
CECTARR 7/7/2020
Thanks Report
AZMOMXTWO 7/7/2020
thank you Report
AZMOMXTWO 7/7/2020
thank you Report
AZMOMXTWO 7/7/2020
thank you Report
Be your own worst critic. Report
Thank you. Report
JANIEWWJD 7/7/2020
Awesome article!!!! Report
LIS193 7/7/2020
Great message Report
Honesty is the best way. Report
I have started my weight loss journey again. 11 days in feel great. This tough love article is great. I need this. Report
thanks Report
great. Report
Agreed Report
Tough love from myself, to myself. Report
Tough love from myself, to myself. Report
. Which one of those choices do you think will make you feel better after you’ve done it?”

Love this thought provoking question! Report
I have gotten much better at giving myself this type of toughlove when faced with a decision based on desires (and the habits of 20+ years trying to hang on for dear life). I am finding that it's easier to reason with myself and win when I pass by the McDonald's in Walmart and smell those delicious fries. I know by now that I'll be taking in extra calories but I'll be hungry again in another hour and that's no way to lose weight. Also, I'm beginning to resent the culture of encouraging "fatness" and low self-esteem in the US. We constantly tell and show people on TV that it's more desirable to be thinner, yet we're constantly pushing ads and recipes for super-processed or high-fat foods and unhealthy diet fad options in their faces. These days when I see a McDonald's and think of their fries I simply shake my head. True, they offer healthier options than they used to, but I have come to learn that it's all just a gimmick to get our money and get us hooked on salt and fat and excess. I mean, does a pumpkin spice latte really need to be 500 calories or more???

The more I think about things like this, and then think about the fact that some folks out there are trying to make it harder for people like me to get adequate healthcare, it becomes much easier to reason with myself or give that toughlove that helps me understand which is the better choice and the one I'll feel better about making. I don't like guilt. It adds to stress, and that causes weight gain. But I do like feeling accomplished at the end of a day, and when I can stick to plan I feel that accomplishment and a further drive to continue on the right path the next day. And the more I do it, the easier it becomes and the less I even find myself having these battles.

And when all else fails, there are ways to find healthier versions of things you like. I LOVE pizza, but was never good at managing my portions when I ordered a big one or popped a frozen one in the oven. So these days, I grab a lean cuisine pizza and drink juiced fruits & veggies along with it. It's a filling meal under 500 calories, it's not so crazy on sodium that I'll kill myself and it's already portioned out. I don't have to feel tempted to go for seconds because there are no seconds (unless I want to go through the whole microwave process again, which I usually don't). The most important thing I've learned is not to deny yourself everything you like. Find some healthier versions and work them into your plan in moderation. Be sure to track all of your calories, whether good or bad, and if you're contemplating eating something "bad," check in with your food tracker to see if there is a place for it today. That's what I do. If I want something not on plan, I look to see what my counts have been throughout the rest of the day. If they're good or well below the goal ranges, I'll allow myself to splurge a little. If eating off plan will send me way over goal ranges, I don't do it or plan it for another day.

Oh, and take some time (maybe on Saturday or Sunday) to prepare and cook your meals for the week. I juice the first Saturday of the month, and make / freeze enough to last all month. So at least I know the fruit & veggie portion of my meals is already planned and ready to drink. Just need to poor it in a cup. That way I have NO excuses for not getting in the recommended amounts of fruits & veggies each day! Report
Super Awesome Tips of ToughLove..!!
You know this tips isnt just for the body workout regime or something.
Discipline is what matters.
And most people like Me too are layed away from there commitment and focus.
Focus 100% takes too much toughness.
And Your Concept of Tough Love really is Super Awesome..!!
Thanks a Ton for such a awesome knowledge.
I will change thru Tough Love..!!
Haha Bad luck to all my adjustable preferences.
Thank you once again..!!! Report
I never thought of using toughlove like this before. I like it. Now to put it in practice Report
How did you see my lunch dilemma today: steamed veggies and turkey breast, or pizza or a sub sandwich? I chose the steamed veg and turkey, and promised myself that if I was still hungry afterward I would order the other. It's amazing how satisfied a healthy, filling lunch can make me feel. Report
Fabulous blog. Thanks for spelling out all the components of toughlove. That makes the technique actually USEFUL for us -- and we can use it in many areas of life. I appreciate what you've done for me! Report
This is so helpful. I now feel like I have a good tool for dealing with those late night eating attacks. Thanks for sharing! Report
I have to give myself a talking to lately now that I'm actually TRYING to watch my weight (hopefully, right out the window!) and old habits die hard, when I would grab that pizza or whatever and eat it without a thought. Now, I try to think of the consequences. I do have to be tough on myself some times. Report
Well stated !! Report
I like this. There is truly LOVE in your toughlove. Many people associate "tough love" with someone putting down a harsh consequence as a way of solving (or washing their hands) of a problem (like their kid being on drugs). What you describe is very thoughtful and considerate of self and of others. Report
This is so true! I am quite the perfectionist and often will give up on an entire day if I make a single mistake. I love the concept of training myself to think how I will feel after a decision instead of focusing on what's causing me to make a decision. Report
Wow, great article. I needed this at exactly this moment. I will be printing this and putting it in my kitchen! Report
I need to post the four ingredients of tough love inside my kitchen cabinet so I can have easy access next time I need them. I am excellent at rationalizing myself into the wrong decision and beating myself up later. I can, at times, bully myself into a better decision but then I feel deprived and bullied. I never really use a non-condemning strategy to analyze and make a healthy decision but I'm going to start. VERY HELPFUL BLOG!!!! Report
Now THAT's useful! Report
I have not been so great in the "tough love" category, but at times when I do eat stuff that I know I shouldn't, I don't beat myself up over it. I do get myself on track the very next day! If you want to reward yourself, eating what you want for an evening isn't always the best option because you may not be able to get back on track, but every now and then I don't think it's harmful to have a little treat, but you don't have to go over board! Report
Thank you for this blog. Until now, I've either been a perfectionist or gave in to temptation far too easily in times of stress. I've only recently started learning to practice toughlove, but this blog spells out the components of it very clearly.

Thanks again. Report
Great Blog Report
I love it when I'm successful at the tough love talk. When I ask myself "Is this worth the price I'll have to pay?" and then make the healthier choice because I want the long term good more than the short term satisfaction.

work in progress. Report
I love it when I'm successful at the tough love talk. When I ask myself "Is this worth the price I'll have to pay?" and then make the healthier choice because I want the long term good more than the short term satisfaction.

work in progress. Report
I think allowing for the calories to enjoy that pizza in proper portion size is better than arguing with one's self. Report
Very nicely put! As a former martial artist ... well once one always one to me :) but still ... your article really clicked with me! Thanks so much! Report
I like this version of tough love! Sometimes it's easier said than done! Report
I love this version of Toughlove, it gave me a lot to think about. Report
My "tough=love" was never starting smoking when everyone was doing it in the 60s. Now I'm glad I didn't. Report
I had a problem with mindless afternoon snacking... usually sweets. So in the afternoons I would always be thinking "hmmm, I'm hungry.... what do I feel like?" or "What do I want?". Now I say to myself "Hmm I feel like losing weight" or "I feel like sticking to my goals" "What do I want? I want to accomplish my weight-loss" and those thoughts make it pretty easy to skip the cookies or the coffee or whatever it is that is tempting me. Report
Thanks for sharing! Report
I like this blog. Is there a way to save it to favorites like spark articles? Report
"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."

This was the biggest takeaway for me - I think stepping outside of my own head and realizing how stubborn I'm being is going to be the biggest challenge. I'm doing pretty well at the moment, but I know that temptation is sure to come, like it always does. But I always, ALWAYS feel worse afterwards. I just need to slow down and think before I shove that candy bar in my mouth. Report
Really helpful to see a post explaining toughlove and how it can be used positively rather than as an excuse to beat myself up. Report