Many of us likely aim to protect friends and relatives from situations where they would be hurt or find ourselves making up for gaps that we see in our communities and in our workplaces. It’s inevitable that people we care about dearly will encounter situations where they will fail or experience hardship.

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However, in our process of wanting to protect those that we care about, are we actually inhibiting their growth and delaying their ability to learn deeply on their own? How do we love others in action, especially if we care to the point of not wanting them to be extremely grieved, embarrassed, or pained?

Tough love may actually be one of the best ways we can teach and nurture others. Many people, including ourselves, can learn clearly and most deeply from those personal experiences that occurred within a space where it was safe to fail. The growth from a situation where a friend shows us “tough love” by giving us space and independence in our struggle, while still not withholding support, can be so significant that it is worth the risk of any perceived hurt or slight discomfort.

Many of us can likely recall situations where we attempted to help, but ended up completely shouldering someone else’s burden. Can we love others better by giving them more space in these places? Take a moment to examine if you are enabling destructive behavior by solving others’ problems for them, or if you are helping to guide and empower them to move toward good goals. A desire to protect others’ feelings might be validly rooted in love and appear sacrificial, but we could be doing a disservice to those we love if we overcompensate for gaps in disagreements or too often give in to those who expect assistance. This has the potential to inhibit a friend’s growth in conquering difficult situations.

… allowing our friends to respond first can help produce character and resilience, allowing them to weather rougher experiences in the future.

How do we love others unconditionally while at the same time not supporting destructive behavior that we may disagree with? While tough love for those that we care about can be extremely difficult and may even be misinterpreted as withholding good-natured assistance, helping others to grow by allowing them to be challenged by real life and not softening difficult events for them is healthy. In times when we could selfishly intervene or take control, allowing our friends to respond first can help produce character and resilience, allowing them to weather rougher experiences in the future.

So, how do we know how to check our motives in times like these?

When deciding to give tough love, we must remember to be mindful and clear communicators. My colleague Ann is one of the most direct communicators that I know, and although she can come across to some as curt or brash, her actions are actually rooted in love because her clarity saves everyone the risk of ambiguity, inaction, miscommunication, and squandered time not only for herself but also for others.

While we may not all be extremely direct communicators like Ann, one question we could consider is: Are we willing to prioritize clear communication by not sugarcoating a truth or adding confusion? Are we aware of our tendencies to gloss over details or cater to the feelings or wishes of others, when what they may truly benefit from is an honest, yet caring, talking-to?

When stewarding a team or a friendship that is actively learning and growing, it’s useful to define our limits of how to help others weather a situation that may be out of their league. Occasionally, when volunteering, I’ve been tempted to alleviate a newer member from a momentary struggle. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in such a place is to allow others time to personally assess a situation and to respond accordingly before stepping in to correct or suggest improvements.

… let’s allow room for failure and prepare to assist within healthy capabilities.

Would personally stepping back be beneficial for you in a particular situation? For others to learn it’s likely that they will have to think critically, so let’s allow room for failure and prepare to assist within healthy capabilities. If (and when) a friend asks for help, we can do our best to steer them in the right direction.

By understanding that we have the freedom to make mistakes, we can be confident that reasonable withdrawal from a situation can be good and we are not expected to live others’ lives for them. Let’s remind each other of the freedom in failure, see the care behind tough love, and encourage others because we’re on their team.

Have you had to give tough love to a friend in a certain situation? What did you learn from it?

Images via Sarah Cabalka on Flickr

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