Tough love and holding space are terms and methods that are two sides of the same coin. They are distinctly different approaches to aiding others that require two entirely different skill sets. If we desire to help those who are suffering, they both need to be explored and practiced. To begin, let’s define tough love.


The Merriam Webster definition of tough love is: love or affectionate concern expressed in a stern or unsentimental manner (as through discipline) especially to promote responsible behavior.


Wikipedia says that tough love is an expression used when someone treats another person harshly or sternly with the intent to help them in the long run.


The Urban Dictionary defines tough love as follows: To show somebody some tough love today will save them heartache in the future but may cause a small amount of upset for the receiver immediately after the "Tough Love" has been dispensed. They would suffer more if you let them get on with their life with no interference from third parties.


Tough love was how I was saved from the depths of depression and addiction. My sponsor, Gerry H., used it. And like many alcoholics, I needed it. The Alcoholics Anonymous approach to recovery, as I see it, is tough love. When we are dealing with people in dire situations, this type of intervention is often necessary. If a person is in a desperate state, there is no time to sit back and listen in the hopes that they will soon find their way. One needs to take drastic measures with a person who needs immediate attention. The risks are high. Unreasonable and unstable people cannot be reasoned with, they need more than hand-holding, they need prompt instruction and guidance.

In any event, there must be a component of compassion when expressing tough love. Tough love is never domineering or abusive. We must always have the sufferer’s best interest at heart. This means putting our ego aside. In A.A. meetings, Gerry would say to me on occasion, “I’m here to help others, this is not a popularity contest.” He would often remind me that we are doing God’s work.

Not the less, generally, people don’t like being told what to do (or what not to do). Human beings are defiant. The founders of A.A. knew this, and they knew that they were dealing with drunks with fragile egos that could easily turn defensive or become overwhelmed. This is why A.A. presents itself as a suggestive program. The spiritual principles, the Twelve Steps, and the instructions in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous are presented as “suggestions” by the Fellowship. In some meeting rooms the Twelve Steps are even displayed as the Suggestive Steps. Be that as it may, there comes a time when we must be strong with a sponcee, sometimes sooner than later, depending on how pressing our prospect’s situation is. Holding space, on the other hand, is quite a different approach.


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