‘Tough love’ in the therapy room

‘Tough love’ in the therapy room

Therapy used to have an image problem; sometimes dismissed as just ‘a cosy chat and sympathy’ rather than anything more substantial.

But actually, whilst the ‘core conditions’ of therapy are about listening respectfully, and being empathic and non-judgemental, at times therapists need to be tough too.

The expression ‘tough love’ first appeared in a book of that name by Bill Milliken, a long-time supporter of campaigns to help troubled young people turn their lives around. The basic premise is that sometimes it’s not enough to simply love or care for someone in order for them to get better; sometimes, tough words or actions are required as well.

I read an article recently, written by a man who had attended the funeral of his old music teacher, a man given to exercising plenty of tough love with his pupils. Interestingly, this teacher’s ‘old-fashioned’ methods (firm boundaries, a careful use of praise, high expectations and pulling no punches in his feedback) had resulted in a set of very high-achieving pupils who had excelled in a wide range of careers.

And it turns out that some of the methods used by ‘old-fashioned’ teachers are supported by research into ‘what works’.

Tough love and the therapeutic relationship

So if ‘tough love’ works to help students do well at school, how might it work in the therapy room?

Therapists, by and large, don’t come into the profession to be tough, unkind or harsh towards their clients; we want to help people, not cause them further distress. So therapists try to be supportive towards their clients and to be careful in their choices of words.

But that doesn’t mean glossing over or going along with every statement, self-belief or behaviour; sometimes, by not ‘telling it how it is’ – questioning, challenging, exploring, offering alternatives – we can unintentionally collude with self-beliefs or actions that are actually damaging to the person concerned.

Sometimes, a therapist will say something that you, the client, doesn’t want to hear; but it may be something that needs to be brought out into the light and acknowledged before the person can move forward. Friends and family members sometimes find this difficult to do, and you may not be able to accept it when they tell you these things.

How is therapy different?

The therapeutic relationship is very different from family or friendship. I’ve written about that in Why your therapist can’t be your friend.

The ethical boundaries that form part of therapy allow you and your counsellor to build a supportive, non-judgemental relationship in which you feel safe and secure enough to open up about painful and difficult things; and to be able to hear what your therapist is saying to you even when it’s not what you want to hear.

It can be a powerful, liberating and life-changing process.

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