I’ve noticed lately I’ve started using an expression that isn’t usually in a therapist’s vocabulary – “tough.” As in, “You don’t like that? Tough.”

I don’t use it about my behaviour – anything I do or say I am accountable for, and can be commented on, criticized or complained about.   So I wouldn’t say “tough” if a patient complained about my holidays or an interpretation. That would be cruel and an abuse of my position of power.

But when it comes to things people don’t like about life, other people, their parents, or their partners, I’m much more willing to say this. What I have in the back of my mind is Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.

The courage to change the things I can.

And wisdom to know the difference.

When I say “tough,” I’m saying “this is something you can’t change. You have to find a way to accept it.”

Our ability to change our thoughts, feelings and the world around us is largely based on our capacity to see things differently. This is the tiny lever with which we can change our world, and that of others.  Everything we know, or think we know, comes from a particular point of view. When that changes, so does our world.

Your pov is infinitely malleable. But reality isn’t. Some things you can’t change. You can’t change your mother’s postnatal depression, that depression that made her dead to your cries, smiles, need for her love, attention, and understanding. (Or your father’s alcoholism, or his preoccupation with work, sports, finances, his navel, etc.)

Some people spend their whole lives trying to do this, in their mothers, fathers, and her/his many subsequent substitutes.   You can be lively, pleasing, attentive, interested in football etc. It simply won’t work. You will always run aground on your mother/father’s deadness, which you will encounter again and again even as you try to escape.

You have to accept the original reality was just “tough.” Or, as my childhood friend Richie would say, “tough titties.” (I have to admit never understanding this as a child, and I am the first to acknowledge that my current, psychoanalytic understanding, was probably not what Richie had in mind…)

This doesn’t mean you are helpless, that you have to throw up your hands in despair. Your potential potency is not in changing her or him (whoever the particular her or him it might be at the moment). It is in altering how you understand her/his deadness to you.

You can appreciate now (in a way that was clearly impossible then) that it wasn’t personal. It wasn’t that she didn’t love you. It’s just that she couldn’t love. Or that she/he was so narcissistic that they could only love what they took to be a likeness of them. Etc. Etc.

This was a disaster for you then, and you have spent many years reeling from that awful truth. Which felt much more awful because of course you did think it was personal. You took it as a judgement on yourself. It is only, now, on reflection, that you can see how you were mistaken. And you can let yourself, and Her/Him, off the hook.

There is always a pleasure in saying “tough.” It puts you in the position of the One Who Knows, the One Who Can Face Reality. And there is a transgressive pleasure too – therapists are not supposed to say this!

So it has to be used sparingly. And in full awareness that you are not the one being called to face this particular painful reality.

But when used in this way, “tough” has its place. In our practice, and in our lives. It’s even become part of my interior dialogue, where a full stop is called for.

“Tough love” is a cliché, often used to justify cruelty and mistreatment. But that doesn’t mean the words “tough” and “love” can’t go together. I hope that’s the way they are used in my practice, and in my self-talk.

5 thoughts on “Tough

  1. Jay

    Hmm, I can see what you are trying to say here and I think you are brave for being honest enough to reveal what you are thinking, when many therapists would die before revealing something which could be interpreted as callous.

    I think you are in a special position since you have been witness to numerous people in the same position of battling to change what has happened in the past. Or changing things which cannot be changed, as you say. Despite some nuances in stories, it seems like a general theme which has really become familiar for you. And you’ve seen people journey along the path towards empowerment and know there is a way out. I find your attitude interesting then because being told you can’t change something is not enough to fix a problem. Quite often, people know on a practical level that it’s impossible. But the emotional reality is different. I agree that our world can change when we become empowered enough to make the changes ourselves.

    I just think that telling people it’s tough would not convey empathy when it’s most needed. What seems so obvious and surmountable to you is not for everyone, especially those who have a different filter which is not something of their own making. And saying tough would seem to be to be a way to close off the avenue for greater exploration. A way of saying, “Well thanks for sharing your innermost feelings and hopelessness but there’s really nothing you can change so stop moping and do something”. To me, using tough could even be seen as form of resistance by the therapist to avoid having to deal with the very painful feelings coming from the client.

    Before reading your “about” section, I was almost convinced you were speaking from a CBT perspective because your post seemed to focus centrally on changing patterns of thought. Imagine my surprise then to see you trained psychoanalytically! 🙂

    All of that said, I hope you have not taken offence. I am deeply curious to understand your approach and to debate what is therapeutic.

    Keep well.

    1. joefriedman Post author

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Part of what I was trying to say is that I believe one can (and I think I do) convey love and empathy when one says “tough.” And that because of this, it doesn’t close doors but rather opens them –one can explore one’s fears about life without attempting to change the other, and one’s feelings about confronting this particular implacable reality. And of course the clients I say this to know as well as I do that it’s not what I “should” be saying. Which has it’s own liberating affect. Joe

  2. bethbyrnes

    I am sure you match this sentiment to the situation. You wouldn’t say this indiscriminately to a patient who is suicidal, for example. But there are times when clients wallow in self deception and pity and some version of this word and the POV that comes with it will help them see they need to get out of their own way. I am glad you posted about this because I have used just this exact same approach when I think it is warranted. It often clears the way for real insight and growth.

    1. joefriedman Post author

      Thanks for your post. Of course it is a comment one uses sparingly and only in particular situations. For me, one of the indicators is when I feel a client is “enjoying” his/her complaint/moan too much.


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