Tough love vs. boundaries (Episode 69)

Tough love and boundaries. What’s the difference? Does it even matter? There’s room in relationships for both boundaries and tough love. It’s really about knowing what makes them different, and knowing which one to use when. As always, there’s no guilt and no judgment here!

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Transcript of episode is below.

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Transcript: Tough love vs. boundaries (episode 69)

Hi there. I’m your host Kay Coughlin. And you’re listening to From One Caregiver to Another. I am a life coach for family caregivers and sandwich family caregivers, like me, who want to get some rest and feel less lonely. I taught myself how to navigate all of my responsibilities and get into the mindset I need so that I can set boundaries, have self-compassion and prioritize myself so that my needs get met too. And that’s what I help my clients do also. And if we can do it, I know you can, too.

This is episode 69.

Today on the podcast, I am going to be talking about the difference between tough love and boundaries. And this is something that’s been on my mind for a while now. I think it’s because I do have two teenage sons and my mother lives next door to me. I am her primary caregiver.

And as a parent and as a caregiver, it is sometimes really hard to know when it’s appropriate to use a boundary and when I need to get into a little bit of tough love. And since it’s been on my mind, I thought I would just go ahead and do an episode about it.

So first, let me give you my definition of boundaries. And this is a two part definition. So the first part of this definition is that boundaries are decisions that you make about what you will do when certain situations come up. Just to repeat that it’s a decision about what you will do if something comes up and a boundary decision is literally about you. You don’t make a boundary decision in the hopes that you can change somebody else because boundaries don’t work that way.

And the second part of the definition of a boundary is that at some point you will have to communicate boundaries to people when it becomes appropriate. There are some boundaries that you never have to tell anybody about, but most of the time you do eventually have to tell somebody that you’ve got a boundary.

So an example of a boundary would be that if your uncle comes over to visit, but he’s been drinking. You can already have in place a boundary decision that you’re not going to let him into the house. So that’s about you and your response to the situation. And it’s not actually about him. It’s not about trying to change him.

So what is tough love then? Well, I think tough love is more about trying to change another person. So tough love is where you make a rule or you set a limit on something, in the hopes that somebody else is going to change. And of course you could be doing tough love in order to protect yourself too. But the motivation behind it is really wanting to change the other person because you think they have a problem.

So, let me give you an example here of the difference. And this is from my own life. We have a family member who has chosen not to get the COVID vaccine. And we decided as a family that this person can’t come into my house or my mom’s house unless they wear a mask. So they’re welcome to come in, to come visit us if they have a mask on, and that’s a boundary decision.

Now, if you don’t agree with me on this, I am not saying this to try to stir up an argument with you, but it is a good example of a boundary decision that’s intended to keep me and my family safe in our own home.

Now, if we wanted to go the tough love route with this person, instead, we would have told them that they can’t see us at all, unless they get vaccinated. And that would be coming from a place of trying to change them, sending them this tough love message that really says we’re not going to see you unless you’re vaccinated. But in this case, we really aren’t interested in trying to change this person. We love them very much. And so we just made a boundary decision that we think is right for our family.

Now speaking of families, there is a lot of overlap between boundaries and tough love in families. And I think that, especially if you’re a parent, every day we get to make so many choices about how we want to raise our kids and what to do when they make mistakes or what we want to do when we think they’ve made mistakes. You know, we aren’t necessarily always right about that.

And I, I think part of what makes parenting so hard, and even being a caregiver so hard, is that there’s really no hard and fast rules here. Sometimes you try setting a boundary and that doesn’t work out the way you wanted it. And sometimes you use tough love and that doesn’t work out the way you wanted it to. What’s really going on here is just that humans are complicated and our relationships are really complex and maybe something that works one day, isn’t going to work another day. And certainly things that work in one relationship won’t work in another relationship.

So here’s one way that you can tell the difference between boundaries, which are about you, and tough love. And this could be when it’s directed at you, so an action someone takes towards you or a decision somebody makes that affect you. Or this could be something that you’re doing in a relationship that you’re in.

If the thought behind what’s going on is something like, “well it’s for their own good,” or it sounds like, “I’m just doing what’s best for them.” Or maybe it sounds like, “I know they won’t like it now, but they’ll thank me later.” Or maybe it sounds like, “that will teach them a lesson.” Well, those are things that are coming from a place of tough love.

And again, I’m not saying that this is wrong or that you shouldn’t ever do this. I think it’s just a matter of understanding what’s going on and what you want and what you want your motivation to be.

When it comes to relationships and you know, this is parenting and family caregiving, but it’s all close relationships that we’re in, I see tough love come up a lot in conversation when I’m talking to people about addictions or compulsions, and that could be drinking or drugs, or maybe hoarding. It comes up a lot when we talk about money decisions or going to college and getting an education, and making decisions about who to marry and where we’re going to live.

Those are the kinds of things where I see a lot of people really fall into that place of thinking that they’re wrong and that they need to teach us a lesson. And maybe tough love is being used there instead of trying to get to a place of understanding and unconditional love.

And again, I’m not saying it’s wrong. It is something that we do as humans. It’s something that we do in our culture. Sometimes it’s going to be the right thing, but sometimes it’s not. And this really is about learning to know when you want to make a different choice.

And here’s one of the reasons this is so important. There’s this big reality about being humans, and we just don’t talk about it very much. And it’s this, and you might want to sit down when I say this, here it is. You cannot actually change another person. I can’t change another person. That is not how humans work. Now we’ve got a lot of illusions that we use with one another to pretend that we’re changing other people, but it actually doesn’t work that way.


One thing that you can do is you can manipulate somebody into doing what you want, but that is not the same thing as change. You know, you can’t even really change a toddler. You can control a toddler, but it’s not the same thing as change. We really have this illusion that we can change a toddler, but it doesn’t work.

And I think we all know that you cannot change a teenager, even when it’s really tempting to try and think that you can.

And you definitely can’t change another adult. One of the things that’s different about adults is that they have more skillful language that they can use to tell you that you can’t change them. And they probably have a lot of experience, I think, fending off people who are trying to change them. I certainly feel like I have a lot of that experience in my life.

But basically just remember you can’t change somebody else.

So boundaries are extremely challenging for us because we set them to prioritize ourselves and our needs. Okay, so, since boundaries are about us and about what we need and want in the world, that’s hard because a lot of us have been taught not to do that. We have been taught to pay attention to other people first and always pay attention to other people before we prioritize anything about our own selves.

What that means is that tough love might actually be easier. It might be easier to consider and talk to your friends about. And I think that’s because tough love is focused on another person, not on yourself.

Now I’ve talked a lot in the podcast in other episodes about something called human giver syndrome. And I’ve also talked about emotional labor. And a lot of both of those are at play here when we talk about boundaries and tough love. And I’m going to really recommend that you go back and listen to those episodes to help you understand the belief systems and what’s really going on there.

And I want to talk here for just a second about emotional labor, because when it comes to emotional labor, from what I can see with boundaries, that means that we are doing emotional labor on our own behalf. So we are using boundaries to stand up for our own rights. To tell people what we want and need and to protect our own space. And as I just said, most of us have really been taught that that’s not okay to do, to put ourselves first in any situation.

Well with tough love, what we’re doing is, we’re doing emotional labor still, but it’s focused on somebody else. So we are still trying to manage their lives and take responsibility for their actions and for trying to change them. Even though that’s totally outside of our control, but because it’s emotional labor, that’s focused on somebody else, it’s probably going to be a little more acceptable and a little easier to talk about in your community.

One of the big differences between boundaries and tough love, I think, is the kind of energy that goes into them, the kind of energy that you put into it, and even have to use to sustain them.

Boundaries come from a place of self-love and self-compassion and unconditional love for yourself. And boundaries can also have a kind of energy that’s fierce and assertive, but it’s still loving and caring. It’s just got a lot more, I guess, energy behind making things happen for yourself. Even when boundaries don’t feel good, or when they’re very, very difficult, there’s still a kind of warmth and a deep caring for yourself in them. And as I’ve said many times before, taking such good loving care of ourselves just isn’t what we’re encouraged to do. We’re encouraged to take good loving care of other people instead. But even so, boundaries are based in love.

Tough love, from what I can see, has a kind of controlling energy. And that’s very different from a loving energy. And I’m not saying this is wrong. I’m just saying it’s something to understand. So the energy of tough love is the energy of trying to change somebody other than yourself. And I think that I’d even go so far as to say that tough love has a kind of violent energy about it. There’s a kind of feeling that you’re going to be pushing and pulling and maybe manipulating and trying to force someone to do something that you want them to do. So it’s something that you have to really keep putting energy into if you want to sustain it. And that’s whether you’re telling your neighbor about some kind of tough love thing that you’ve done. Or even just thinking about it in your own head.

Boundaries, though, don’t take much energy to sustain once you’ve set them. So since they’re decisions that you make ahead of time about how you’re going to react in certain situations, that’s where you’re putting the energy in. You’re putting the energy in upfront when you make the decisions. And then if those situations come up, you can act according to the decisions that you already made.

And because those decisions are about you and your life and about what you want, you don’t have to justify them or rationalize them or try to convince anybody else that you’re right. Now, sometimes we’re going to fall into the trap of doing that anyway, because we’re humans and we try to do things like rationalize our decisions and that’s okay. But please know, it’s not something that you have to do with a boundary.

And that’s why I say they take less energy to sustain over time. Because once you can learn the very hard lesson that a boundary is a decision that you make and then all you have to do is remember it, you don’t have to constantly be feeding that meter and constantly making a new decision every time that comes up. It’s kind of like, you know, make the decision, dust your hands off and step back, and then just act according to that, when the situation comes up.

If you want to talk about boundaries in a safe community with other people who also want to talk about boundaries and who aren’t going to tell you that you’re wrong for wanting to talk about boundaries. And if you are not already a member of my free Boundaries Community, I’d like to invite you to please join us over there in that community. I will put a link to that in the show notes. Now that community is open to everybody and you do not have to be a family caregiver or a sandwich family caregiver, or even a parent to join us over there.

And that’s because I really believe that this idea that our rising tide lifts all boats is true for boundaries too. If more people can learn about and understand what’s really going on with boundaries, well, that’s going to help family caregivers who need to set boundaries too.

I want you to know that I don’t think that it’s supposed to be easy to figure out when you need a boundary and when you should try a little tough love, most things about being human aren’t easy anyway. I think there’s a lot of beauty in knowing the difference and in giving yourself permission to just try something another way, or look at something with fresh eyes. And honestly, there’s so much love when you can give yourself a second chance to try something again. To try a new approach and give yourself a second chance as many times as you need to.

If you don’t remember anything else about this episode, please remember that you actually can’t change somebody else. Human beings just don’t work that way. So if your motivation for any action that you’re taking is to try to change somebody, and that’s what I’ve described today as tough love, so that’s what’s usually going on there.

What if you can learn to notice that and then ask if that’s really what you want to do, if that’s really what you want in that relationship. And if it’s not, nothing has gone wrong, you’re totally fine. You’re just being a human being. And you always have the opportunity to learn more about setting boundaries, which really comes more from that place of love. And then you can practice doing that and see how it works out.

If you liked this episode, you have to go check out my monthly membership for family caregivers, and that includes parents, who want to get some rest and feel less lonely. It’s the place for emotionally-safe community, brave self-development and self-compassion. You’ll find the link to it in the show notes and over in my Boundaries Community. I can’t wait to be with you again in the next episode, From One Caregiver to Another.

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your guide

Kay Coughlin, CEO of Facilitator On Fire, is a business coach for the non-profit sector and social justice businesses. She is also well-known for being an advocate for family caregivers.

In every forum she can find, she shouts that it's OK for every human to earn a living, set and enforce boundaries around their bodies, thoughts, feelings and actions. You can join Kay's free, private online community to talk about boundaries here.

Kay also teaches about emotional labor, how to rest, and Human Giver Syndrome, and is the host of the "From One Caregiver to Another" podcast and author of "From One Caregiver to Another - Overcoming Your Emotional Grind."

Kay is well-known for her public speaking on boundaries and self-care. 

Facilitator on Fire is a subsidiary of Donor Relations Mindset LLC, which Kay founded in 2015. She lives with her husband and children in central Ohio, and is the primary caregiver for her own mother, who lives right next door. Kay can be found on LinkedIn and Instagram.

Copyright 2022. All rights reserved, Julia Kay Coughlin and Facilitator On Fire.

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