Tough Love Ain't Love

"Sometimes you gotta show clients tough love so that they'll get their act together."

That is a direct quote in a community I was just in, and the third time in just over a week I had heard a similar sentiment. 

Tough love ain't love. It's being a coercive, power-hungry jerk and convincing yourself that it is love. Tough love is so far from love that it is like saying your socks are a portable napkin stuck in your shoe.

It is appropriate to set and socialize expectations with people. But denying people access to service unless they conform to a certain way of responding is akin to telling people to change who they are so that you can give them what they need. I don't subscribe to any belief of service delivery that uses housing as a reward instead of a right.

I get it - it can be frustrating to try and help people change that are resistant to the idea or actions of changing. This is why we have tools like Motivational Interviewing and Assertive Engagement. This is why we try to find strengths and assets to create a truly person-centred approach to service delivery. This is why effort (on the part of the service provider) is the siamese twin of success.

If we truly work from a place of compassion, then we embrace that it is a relationship between equals; not a relationship between healer and wounded. Tough love has a horrible power differential where the service provider deals in absolutes. I say it is like the person that wants to race home even though it is rush hour. Our work is more about moving slowly forward...but still moving. It is not about creating expectations that cannot or will not be met and then see it as a failure of the person on the journey for not getting to the destination quick enough.

A tough love approach is antithetical to understanding and practicing a recovery orientation in our work. Adding more pain is not going to stimulate more growth. Tough love increases feelings of shame, especially if the person does not measure up to the expectations that are laid out to them. Tough love does not appreciate that recovery is non-linear, and instead often circular and incremental. Tough love tries to force a one-size-fits-all approach rather than working through individual nuances.

While tough love continues to be very present in the substance use recovery industry - and that many practitioners in homeless services try to borrow the "logic" and apply it so homeless services - we must also remember that the substance use recovery industry is largely unregulated and many treatment programs institute programs and approaches that are not supported by solid, or any, evidence. Harsh rules and brutal confrontation rarely produce the desired outcome of the person enforcing the rules or engaging in the confrontation. And what is the message we are giving people with this? If you break the rules or do not respond the way that I want you to when I confront you then you are a failure. 

Those who want to practice tough love give us insight into their view of homelessness as well. Essentially, if you want to practice a tough love approach you are suggesting that homelessness is a choice, that the person is lazy, or that their homelessness is immoral. In other words, your approach is to try and break them of this bad habit. So no wonder tough love rarely works, especially over the long term, because homelessness is not a choice, a sign of laziness, or immoral. 

Let us instead radically practice kind love, not tough love. Let us begin by embracing where people are truly at, and that whatever place people are at when we engage with them is the right place for them at that moment. Let us avoid punishment or shaming if people do not change on a timeline we establish for them. Let us challenge ourselves to be more creative in our problem solving. Let us truly see and accept the dignity and worthiness of each person rather than seeing them as less than worthy of what we have to offer - and demanding that they change in order to get it.

About Iain De Jong

Iain is a playful nerd, hellbent on ending homelessness, increasing affordable housing, creating vibrant communities, and expanding the knowledge amongst leaders that influence social issues. Having held senior management and professional positions in government, non-profits, and the private sector, Iain has a wealth of experience and has garnered dozens of awards for his work across Canada and internationally. His work has taken him across Canada, the United States, and to Australia. In 2009, Iain joined OrgCode as its President & CEO, and in 2014 assumed full ownership of the firm. In addition to his work with OrgCode, Iain holds a part-time faculty position in the Graduate Urban Planning Programme at York University.


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