Tough Love – [noun] – promotion of another person’s welfare, especially that of an addict or criminal, by requiring them to take responsibility for their own actions.
Love and fear can never co-exist in the same space.
I’ve heard many parents in the rooms express their frustration with tough love and how they tried it and gave up. It’s no surprise that these parents seem to be the ones who are hurting the most. As I listened, it became clear that what they were describing as tough love was actually a response to their own fear.
I know because I’ve been there in my own journey. I remember the first time tough love was introduced to me over 20 years ago. After exhausting every resource I knew with no results, I welcomed it as another possible solution to the chaos that had overtaken my life. It wasn’t long before I realized that it was just another way of me reacting to my own fears and that abandoning my child only added to those fears.
Love is only tough when we ask our brains do the heart’s job.
Although I believe that, at our essence, we are spiritual beings consisting of nothing but pure love, we all have this thing called the human condition going on which means we share a very basic need with every other animal in nature; our need to survive as a species. In order to do that we must feel safe and when we don’t, we shut down all other parts of our brains and function from the amygdala or reptilian brain. This is sometimes referred to as the amygdala hijack. From there, we can only respond to our outside world in one of three ways, FIGHT, FLEE, or FREEZE, none of which allows space for love.
This is not to say that you don’t love your child.
I believe that every parent of an addict who has come to me for support loves their child deeply. The problem is, when they’re coming from a place of fear it’s impossible to create acts of love. The operative word there is create. When we’re in fear mode, the part of our brain that produces creativity [neo-cortex] is shut down. In order for us to access the love needed to help our children we must first access the part of our brain that creates it. This can only be done by moving to safety and removing the threat.
Finding safety in the heat of battle when we are under heavy fire from the enemy [addiction] is not easy. In order to do this we must become peaceful warriors and find it within ourselves. In my case, as a father of an addict, I had no clue how to do that so I started looking at the great peaceful warriors who came before me. There are a few men in history who I define as great fathers and those are the men I turn to for guidance in almost any situation that has me stuck.
Men like Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and the Nelson Mandela were peaceful warriors who all launched their battles from a position of love. From my perspective, these men created the best results in each of their missions with the least amount of human casualties. I figured this gave me and my child the best chance of survival in mine. I began researching them and looking at the things they all had in common. From there, I developed a new battle strategy and replaced my old ineffective one that I had naively called tough love.
Here are some of the key elements to that strategy.
- Remove the immediate threat by finding a safe place. This may seem difficult or impossible on the surface so it’s necessary to look deeper. All three of those men had the enemy all around them at all times just like I did. The only safe haven was inside themselves. Nelson Mandela created his safe haven from a prison cell where he developed his inner strength and strengthened his army while being held captive with the help of men like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others. The other two men had similar stories of arrests and hardships but never wavered to outside resistance because they had built strong internal fortresses. For me that began with the 12 steps and evolved into other ways of going within and strengthening my own fortress.
- Create Strength (not weakness) in Numbers. None of these men would even be remembered today had it not been for the huge number of like minded, powerful people they brought together. Any group, no matter what size is always greater than the sum of its individual parts. This is true for both ends of the spectrum. If you have a group of loving, strong people the love and strength will compound exponentially. Conversely, if a group is made up of fearful victims the fear will compound. Stick with the winners. If the conversations in your support group predominantly consist of focus on what the addicted child is or is not doing and not on your personal recovery, find another group. If you can’t find one, start one.
- Create a Positive Vision and Act Accordingly Imagine if King’s famous speech was “I had a nightmare” instead of “I had a dream” and all he focused on were worst case scenarios? It’s a fact that your child might die and it’s a terrible thing to think about so why are you spending so much time thinking about it. The truth is, it hasn’t happened yet and if it does you will not be prepared for it no matter what you do today. Putting your focus on that fear will take away from all the things you could be doing to minimize the chances of that happening. Easy to say, hard to do. That’s why you need #2 first. Once you’ve done that start by changing the questions. Instead of asking “what if my child dies?” you may want to ask “what if my child recovers?” Will you still be a hot mess from worrying yourself sick or will you be the source of strength they need? The answer will be determined by the actions you take today.
- Find a Confidante. In addition to the many supporters, these men had they each had one or two confidante’s who they shared an even deeper connection with. Parenting with love doesn’t mean you will always be without fear. Fear is a necessary piece of our lives and we all need an outlet for it. Having a confidante gives you that outlet so you can show up for your child as the strong mentor he or she needs.
- Continuing to Learn more about Yourself and your Enemy will enable you to expand your boundaries. My journey as a father to addicted children spans many years and over those years I have changed. As I continue to grow and become stronger my boundaries expand, allowing more room for everyone to heal. By continuing to work on my own recovery I’ve created a larger space to hold for my children’s recovery while still maintaining a safe place for myself.
Love isn’t tough and love isn’t easy…it’s just love.
Each of these great men had to differentiate their love for their own country from their contempt for the things within it that caused their loved ones to suffer. As I see it, it was their love that saved their people and changed the world forever in the process. It’s still far from perfect but a lot more people can sleep tonight because of them. At the end of the day, I guess that’s all I’m looking for as a dad.
Previously published on Life Beyond Clean