Why Tough Love Doesn’t Work on Mental Illness 

As a very methodical person, I believe in sifting through the facts to reach a solution. Sometimes, this approach can lead to tough love. While I thought that tough love would help me break free from my anxiety and depression, I’ll tell you right now- it doesn’t work, and it’s not worth the stress of forcing yourself or your loved ones into.

The solution to any and all troublesome experiences is not tough love, its compassion. I wish I had understood this sooner.

My Original Tough Love Model

My typical thought process sounded something like this: You want something? Work for it. Your boyfriend broke up with you? I’m sorry for your loss, and I’m here for you, but get over it. Focus on yourself and move on.

While these scenarios may sound logical, it can also sometimes seem impossible, and I regret the times I used this approach in efforts to help those around me.

External Tough Love

Right before being diagnosed, I was helping my sister cope with a break up with her boyfriend of 5 years. I remember watching her cry numerous times and sitting by the lake to talk things out, but I also remember pushing her to get over it. When her emotions started to interfere with her responsibilities and she couldn’t get her school work done, I specifically remember telling her: “I know you’re upset, but sometimes you have to put your personal sh** aside to get stuff done.”After developing anxiety and depression while in treatment, I now know how impossible this can be at times.

One of the biggest struggles for people battling anxiety, or even for someone learning to cope with a significant life change, is the fight between what we know, and what we feel.

The worst feeling was knowing in my heart that my fears were irrational, but not being able to stop them from coming and affecting my decisions. This resulted in not being able to act on the solution that was evident to me, and because of that, feeling imprisoned by my anxiety. I was constantly beating my self up over this weakness.

External tough love leads to Internal tough love

My tough love model translated into personal tough love shaming–which does nothing to solve the problem. In following my model, internalizing tough love led me to believe that my fears and discomforts were not valid because they were not logical. I shouldn’t be terrified of going to family functions, seeing old friends, or going to the mall. What is there to be scared of?

I was constantly pushing myself into situations that made me uncomfortable in hopes that I would just “snap out of it.” In reality, I was only setting myself up for failure.

A year into treatment, I enrolled back into school with the idea that in forcing myself back into the academic arena, I would be prompted to step up to the plate. I bought new clothes, mapped out my courses, and spent month after month in sheer panic at the thought of returning to school, to only deregister last minute. I made commitments to friends about going to concerts and events only to bail when the anxiety reached its peak. With each push, I felt the repercussions- whether by feeling physically ill or having a mental breakdown. This constant cycle of pushing myself into situations in efforts to escape my anxiety only caused me to beat myself up after each failed attempt. I was missing the root of the problem.

Forget about tough love and all the logic and reason that come with it. Instead,

Reason with your emotionsshow yourself compassion.

Internalize Compassion.

Compassion is allowing yourself to feel the way you do without shame. Much like with everything in life, accepting my issues made life easier. I’d be lying if I said that acceptance was easy or even desirable when in reality, I had no choice. Although my close friends and family started to sense my anxiety develop through my changed behaviour, I remember how tough it was to verbally admit to struggling with a mental illness. While my fears may not have been valid, or even comprehensible, they were real. Denying or trying to mask my anxiety was not dealing with the problem.

Compassion allowed me to accept my situation for what it was, and forgive myself for feeling the way that I did. It helped me to understand that at that point in time, I was going through some drastic changes, and you’ve got to be superhuman not to be affected by them.

In showing myself compassion, I was able to adjust my life to better suit my current mental state, and ultimately better cope with my anxiety. I pushed myself gently, but not forcefully, and if I didn’t feel right, I didn’t do it. I pursued things at my comfort level, like taking a course online instead of going back to school in person. I was eventually able to take a small French class with an attendance of 10 as opposed to 200. The next year, I finished treatment and enrolled back in school full time. I took small steps- but valid steps. The choices I made were considerate of my situation. Where tough love forced myself to re-register and lose $50 dollars in exchange for fits of stress, nausea, and panic- compassion gave me the option to come to terms with my situation, understand myself, and put my mental health first to safely move forward at my own pace. Had I followed through with my tough love approach and dove into school head first, I am 100% sure that my physical and mental health would have suffered severely. After finding success in this approach, I did my best to apply it to all other obstacles I faced with my anxiety.

My New Model: Internalize Compassion to Externalize Compassion.

Looking back to my sister’s situation, how I addressed it, and how I later felt dealing with anxiety, I now understand the power of emotions. Sometimes your mind can be your worst enemy, and your emotions can seem to put you in a lock. With this, I understand how uncontrollable the symptoms of mental health can be.

I mainly surrounded myself with people who were compassionate about my mental health battles- those who didn’t make me feel stupid for my anxiety or pressure me to “snap out of it” through tough love. I have the utmost respect for people who sat through my overthinking rants, encouraged me to take risks, suggested alternatives to situations that scared the crap out of me, and ultimately helped me move past my anxiety at my own pace, in a way most comfortable for me.

I do believe that my will to keep moving forward helped me climb out of my anxiety, but the only tough love I learned to allow is to never let myself give up. I got better, but not through force, that only made things worse. Tough love turned out not only to be ineffective, but illogical.

Compassion is Logical.

Compassion will help you deal with the facts and find the solution in a much less stressful and pressured way. Use this compassion to understand yourself, and find a solution that is most suitable for your current mental and emotional state. Yes, you may be overthinking, and yes, your fears may sometimes be irrational, but that doesn’t stop them from coming, being real, and affecting you. It’s tough enough having to fight your own head every day, and trust me I still do, but the more you surround yourself with people who are compassionate to your situation, and the more compassionate you are to yourself, you eliminate half of the stress that comes with overthinking.

“Knowing and feeling are two different things, and feeling is what counts.”
― François LelordHector and the Search for Happiness

While it may not be the solution you want, the solution is there. Listen to yourself – not that voice that is yelling at you for feeling the way you do, but the one that is signaling you to find a safer space. Understand, learn, and adjust your situation to suit you better. But take a step- baby steps, just never give up.

As always, with love,


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4 thoughts on “Why Tough Love Doesn’t Work on Mental Illness 

  1. Ryan says:

    This is such a heartwarming piece, Marell. The amount of times where I’ve also tried to convince myself that tough self-love is the answer to combat my depressive thoughts is countless. So many people who misunderstand depression (and often the anxiety that accompanies it) believe that with enough conditioning, we’ll break out of our “funk” and go back to living a normal life. What they tend to overlook is that combating our mental illness is not done like boot camp. “Scold our mind when we do something bad so our mind learns not to do that anymore,” just isn’t logical. This is the human brain we’re talking about. We can’t be understood by logic alone. Like you say, though, compassion IS logical. The mental, emotional and physical benefits of compassion over tough love are numerous, and in the end, we’ll thank ourselves for cutting ourselves some slack. I wish you all the best of luck in your recovery journey. 🙂


    • MarellTomeh says:

      Thank you so much Ryan, I really appreciate your feedback. I couldn’t agree with you more. I think tough love can stem from desperation, but most times, it’s entirely ineffective- especially when dealing with a mental illness. I think our instinct to look to reason can cause us to miss the fact that there is reason in emotions, and their effect on our body. We can’t so readily control the way our body reacts to what we’re feeling, and you’re absolutely right, metal illness is not or never cured through bootcamp. Thank you again for your feed back and warm wishes!


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