Shrink Rap: Tough Love or When to Give, When Not to Give

Shrink Rap: Tough Love or When to Give, When Not to Give

Most of us were raised to believe that giving to others is the generous and ethical thing to do. However, there are times when giving is not only inappropriate, it could be destructive for the recipient. Coming to someone’s aid is not always the best way to help. In fact, it could hurt.




The dynamics of “tough love” are among the most complex and confusing within family and friend systems. When do you bail someone out, when do you not? How do you know if your actions would help or cause harm?

We have to step back and look more globally at what has been happening, for how long, over what period of time. We also need to look at what has already been given, offered, said and done for the individual. If you have an adolescent, grown child, client, employee, or adult friend/relative who is continuously in trouble and needing help, then helping them is not necessarily actually helping them. Solutions most likely have been presented to him or her many times; you may be reinforcing a dependency. Where there is dependency, there is also resentment. Remember that each time you bail someone out, you are also telling them that they need help and are not capable of getting themselves out of the mess.

I don’t want to give the impression that helping is never the healthy choice. Many people get into dire straits and need support. Many people don’t have the funds to get an education they need, or get in a bind from medical expenses and need one-time assistance. When they receive help, they use it, and are thankful. They will usually pull themselves out of the difficult situation they are in and figure it out from there.

I’m talking about the people who know how to tap into others’ generosity, fears, and sympathy, and who are constantly in need of someone else’s help. If you have been giving and giving to someone, and they can’t seem to achieve self-sufficiency or independence, then something is wrong; it is not working – unless you want to be their financial, emotional, and problem solving backer forever. This, then, becomes an “enmeshed” relationship, which sort of feels like being caught in quicksand.

Codependent traits tend to foster dependent traits. Codependency is created when living within a dependent, abusive, alcoholic, or otherwise dysfunctional family system. (I will write my next article on codependency.) These family systems create children who become the adult and problem-solvers in the family. But for now, let’s focus on the codependent characteristics which allow this enmeshment: taking responsibility for everything; being easily manipulated out of guilt; taking on more and more and somehow getting it done by sacrificing your own health and needs; trying to help and save everyone; offering far too many solutions and suggestions; figuring everything out for yourself and everyone else; and constantly trying to help the other person “do the right thing, grow up, figure it out.”

Codependents also operate under the assumption that, if we just work harder at things, we can solve them. Doing by not doing was not learned as a way to approach a problem. With “tough love,” you have to stop giving; stop offering solutions; and stop bailing out. One of the most difficult parts of this is the feeling of helplessness, realizing you can’t solve their problems for them, and you can’t force them to make healthy choices.

But it is called “tough love” because, in many cases, it is the truly loving thing to do for someone. To allow them to find their own resources for help; allow them to seek the right kind of help.

Figuring out when, if, or how to help is perhaps one of the most complex situations I have encountered when working with clients and friends, and in my own parenting issues. This is not simple. It is rocket science. It requires a tremendous amount of circumspection and careful thought. Often, the easiest thing to do is to give money; offer solutions; solve the problem for someone else. The most difficult is to stand back and realize we truly cannot solve other’s problems for them.

Dr. Susannah Smith is a licensed practicing clinical psychologist and organizational development consultant, with offices in Telluride and Ridgway. If you would like to contact her, she can be reached at;; or 970-728-5234.  

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