Tough love - being hard on yourself vs self abuse

TOUGH LOVE: Does it make you or break you? Being hard on yourself vs self-abuse.

Is being hard on yourself a good way to push yourself, or does it do more damage than good? 

In this article, I’ll share my best thoughts on this topic, all based on my own experience as well as years of working with clients who were “very good” at self tough love. 

Being hard on yourself. It is just you? 

Let’s put this question to sleep right away.

We all are hard on ourselves. Whether a successful CEO, business owner, athlete, stay-at-home mum, hobbyist, or yogi (I’ve worked with all of these), they all hiss some harsh words and thoughts at themselves every so often. 

“Why didn’t you think of that? What’s wrong with you?”

“Come on, you can do better than this!”

“Why don’t you try harder?” 

The list is as long and colourful as language allows. 

Tough love: Whip or Carrot

Have you ever thought about why we say mean and depreciating things to ourselves if we know it makes us feel horrible? 

Well, it’s because it works.
At least in the short term. 

There are two forces/motivations that get us to take action: Pain and Pleasure (whether physical or emotional). 

Pain is generally a much more powerful motivator than pleasure because survival is our primary instinct. When we’re in pain, our brain perceives it as a threat to our survival and is highly motivated to escape the pain. This is not a logical process. It’s an instinct. And so it doesn’t matter whether the pain really threatens your survival or not. 

‘Away from pain’ is an instinct that overrides almost everything else. 

A pleasure (reward or feeling good), on the other hand, is a ‘desirable extra’ that we would love to have but we don’t need to have (certainly not for survival). Think of all the things you’d love to have… great body, a solid daily routine, speaking several languages, dream house/car or whatever else may be on your wish list…

How long has it been on the list?
How motivated and consistent have you been with pursuing it? 

Don’t feel bad. It’s because it’s a want, not a (survival) necessity. 

If you’re hard on yourself, it’s most likely with the intention to get you to do something, to take action. 

Tough love, the proverbial whip, is thus way more effective than a carrot. 

Deep inside, we know it, and that’s why we use it.  

There is a problem, though…

Tough Love vs Self-abuse

There is a big difference between tough love (being hard on yourself) and self-abuse. And, it’s not necessarily in the words you say to yourself.  

Compare those two scenarios. 

Imagine a group of bullies surrounding a young person, yelling:

“Come on, you sissy! Is this all you’ve got?? Shall we call your mum to help you? Show me what you’ve got, sissy!”

How do you think these words feel. What are these bullies’ intentions? 

Now, imagine a different scenario. A rugby coach is clapping and yelling across the field at a young athlete who’s training hard:

“Come on, you sissy! Is this all you’ve got?? Shall we call your mum to help you? Show me what you’ve got, sissy!”

How do you think these words feel now? What is the coach’s intention?

The two scenarios and how the words feel are quite different, aren’t they? 

What changed, though? 

The Intention

The difference between tough love and self-abuse is the intention with which we’re saying it. 

With (Self-)abuse, the intention is to hurt! It’s when we mean what we say. When were are bullies, we punish ourselves and say things with malice, hatred, and despise. It’s emotional self-harming. 

I don’t need to tell you that this is very unhealthy and can be very dangerous because every time you do it, it chips away from your self-confidence and self-worth. I’ve seen the impact of years of such self-talk. It may have got people to push themselves and climb through the ranks and often become very successful, but on the inside, they were full of self-doubt, with a very unhealthy relationship with themselves (often of disapproval, despise or even hatred), struggling with imposter syndrome because who they were being on the outside did not match with how they saw themselves. All this results in even more self-abuse.  

Tough love, on the other hand, has a very different intention

This shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s in the name: tough LOVE. 

Just as the coach may be yelling seemingly harsh lines across the field, he knows as well as the athlete that it’s coming from the place of love, desire to help, encouragement, and support. 

I admit I don’t follow sports very closely, but I’ve never seen a player complaining about the coach saying mean things. It’s because they know their intention. 

I personally am a big fan of tough love (on myself) because I know it gets the best out of me. 

I don’t even dare to share with you what I yell at myself in my head at times when I’m pushing myself, for example, to beat my running PBs or when I feel like quitting while running an Ultramarathon because every bit of me wants to stop. I go to the extent of my vocabulary (and as a foreigner, bad words are the first thing one usually learns, haha). 

But, it never hurts me because I know my intentions. 
I’m saying these things to get the best out of myself. 
I mean well. I want the best for myself. I want the best out of myself.

Because when it’s all over, I want to know I’ve tried my best. 

PracticING Tough Love

You probably already got the gist that I’m not going to suggest building yourself a shrine, laying fresh flowers at the base of it every day and reciting poems about how unearthly amazing you are. Not that you’re not worth it. By all means, if you feel it would make you and your life better, build away. Make it taller! 

What I am going to suggest, though, is to practice tough love.

Learn and practice how to push yourself or give yourself a verbal slap or even kick up the ass, knowing it’s coming from a good place, with good intentions, from a place of care, support, encouragement and love.

Think of what a best friend would tell you to tease you or (perhaps sarcastically) encourage you to get the best out of yourself, to do the right thing. A best friend who knows what you’re capable of, who believes in you, who wants the best for you, and who you know would never hurt you. 

This is the kind of friend you want to be to yourself. 


Do it to push yourself just a little further. 

Then, soak it in. You did it. 

Celebrate the marginal gains. 

Celebrate and appreciate being a little better version of yourself. 

Celebrate and appreciate that you did not slack or quit when you wanted to. 

Practice this, and you’ll see its impact on your productivity, confidence, self-worth, self-love and life in general. 

PS: If you’d like to discuss how I could help you develop the right Tough Love, you CAN contact me HERE and let’s see what can be done.



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