Greater than the Sum of our Parts: Tough Love

The Sonata, Irving Ramsay Wiles, 1889

Tough love is one of my fundamental core values.  Anecdotally, I was raised by it and trust in its power to help people grow with high confidence.  Frankly, it is respect and benevolence linked with expectations of reaching a higher standard.  A core concept of tough love is the idea of responsible freedom; the concept that freedom and personal responsibility go hand-in-hand.  When we take personal responsibility for our lives, we close our integrity gap by decreasing our hypocrisy.  We increase our decision-making skills and our confidence by becoming more outward focused (and less involved with ourselves).  We start to care for others outside of their relationships to ourselves.  When we genuinely care for others without underlying conditions we build trust.  This trust allows for cohesive and focused effort from each other.  They are no longer worried about what others think of them; they are psychologically safe.  The team becomes disciplined and capable of reaching greater standards of excellence.

As a leader, team member, or even a partner or parent, consider the balance between Tough and Love.  If you are too tough, you are obsessed with control and authority at the expense of the psychological safety of those around you.  This blunts the effectiveness of the group and dampers creativity.  If you are too loving, standards fall by the wayside as you have created a situation where people are without guidance due to your inability to be candid.  Furthermore, people are less inclined to grow if they are being held by the hand.  Use tough love to help people cope with themselves, each other, and uncertainty.  Empower them to rise above and become greater than the sum of their parts.

As I have in a prior post, and intend to continue to do so in the future, I will share a personal entry from my journal demonstrating my process of growth. 

“In the past, I have been able to model and establish tough love in my personal relationships.  I also used to be able to do so in the military.  I had very high standards for others and myself.  It worked well and lasted for about 10 years.  Then I left the military.  I failed miserably at making deep change the first time I went through graduate school.  As I progressed throughout my master’s program, the situation became dire and relationships were past repairable.  I had to quit and move on even though I had also started my PhD; I wasn’t going to suffer a slow death at the hands of people who refused to set clear standards or express care in their working relationships.* After leaving graduate school and taking a break from working, I readjusted my standards for civilian life.  The high standards I had for myself and others were making me miserable; although, looking back, I am not sure why.  I do not know if I gave up, or if it was the correct choice.  I do know now that in giving up my higher standards, I lost myself.  I realize now I did not replace them with anything else.  I became depressed and withdrawn.  My excuse was that I hated civilian life.  Then I realized I was “getting weird” and decided it was time to work again.  I needed to be with people.  I had to force myself to readjust to society and not let my fears of what would happen if I formed new relationships get to me.  Therefore, I worked, and I was absolutely fine.  The people around did not model some of my higher standards, but I did not let it get to me this time.  I simply decided to model fundamental good behavior – like dressing nicely, listening keenly, and being positive.  I started over with the basics.  I did a good job and people respected me.  I am proud of myself for coming through.  The journey from military to civilian life has taken me another 10 years to complete.  Today, I am past the past; I am rebuilding.”

“*Postscript: Although, in retrospect, part of that problem was I.  I withdrew and refused to connect with anyone.”

I invite you to think about your Tough Love balance. Let me know your thoughts. Please comment below.


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