I don't see how if someone does something cruel to the other person,it could be considered as being the kind thing to do as well.Some examples would be a big help.

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    The most famous use of this exact phrase is probably this song, popular in the 1970s. In it, Nick Lowe asks his lover why she hurts him; she essentially tells him it's a sign of her love. This is NOT the conventional meaning of the phrase - essentially, she's just using it as an excuse to be a horrible person - and if this was your first exposure to the phrase, I can certainly understand your confusion. – MT_Head Sep 10 '15 at 23:35

It is an expression used when you do or say something to another person which you believe to be for their own good, and will be helpful for them in the future, although it might be painful or hurtful at this moment.

You have to be cruel to be kind:

  • something that you say when you do something to someone that will upset them now because you think it will help them in the future.

    • I told her she's just not good enough to be a professional dancer - sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. I know you have to be cruel to be kind, Sam, but telling Amy that she looks fat in her party dress was a bit harsh.

(Cambridge Idioms Dictionary)


  • From Hamlet Act 3; Scene 4. by William Shakespeare.


  • I do repent; but heaven hath pleas'd it so
  • To punish me with this, and this with me,
  • That I must be their scourge and minister.
  • I will bestow him, and will answer well
  • The death I gave him. So again good night.
  • I must be cruel only to be kind.
  • Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.

An atypical interpretation (the typical interpretation is the approved answer) might be that being morally good (or kind) has a precondition that the person must be capable of malevolence.

To expand on this idea, consider a person incapable of wrongdoing, harmless. Can such a person exercise morality? I would say no. Morality involves choosing between good and evil, and if one does not have the capacity for cruelty, one fundamentally understand cannot morality.

And so "one must be cruel to be kind".

Further expansion can be found wonderfully articulated by Dr. Jordan Peterson.


Other comparable idioms:

  • English: "spare the rod and spoil the child"

The phrase spare the rod and spoil the child (in which and implies a consequence) means that, if children are not punished when they do wrong, their personal development will suffer. The precise words are first found in the satirical poem Hudibras (1664), by the English writer Samuel Butler (1613-80):

If matrimony and hanging go
By dest’ny, why not whipping too?
What med’cine else can cure the fits
Of lovers, when they lose their wits?
Love is a boy by poets styl’d,
Then spare the rod, and spoil the child.
  • Latin : "Qui bene amat, bene castigat" (he who loves well, chastizes well)

  • The equivalent idiom frequently used by French native speakers: "Qui aime bien châtie bien".

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    It goes further back than that. It comes from the Bible. " Withhold not chastisement from a boy; if you beat him with a rod he will not die. Beat him with the rod, and you will save him from the nether world. (Proverbs 23:13-14 NAB)" – chasly from UK Oct 14 '15 at 10:18
  • @chaslyfromUK - Good finding! - According to the theological Dictionary of the New Testatament, this biblic proverb was borrowed from the teaching of Achiqar (Assyrian author, 7th century BC). – Graffito Oct 14 '15 at 14:39

I am not contributing anything necessarily in terms of citable material or something I can make reference to, but merely in terms of my intuition and perception of understanding of the topic.

For me, it means that there are often times where the actions you perform, and the things you say, can be misinterpreted as being negative in nature, as insulting or harsh, when in reality, the nature is just one of truth and compassion. Some people express themselves very passionately and energetically, for, and come across as yelling and being angry when really they are just speaking with the energy of knowledge and confidence, and they lose control of certain physical traits of their expression.

It's also very easy to let one's emotions and thoughts get in the way of rationally interpreting a statement and trying to learn from it when what someone is telling you sounds like it's supposed to be hurtful, from what you've learned and experienced living life.

Just my 2¢ :)


Love is what is needed to do what is for the greater good. Love and wisdom combined is the strength needed to right a situation causing initial pain but delivering somebody from much greater pain. Tough love takes more from the person because they will always appear to be the cruel one. They will feel the pain more because they are forced by love to inflict pain on the one they love for the greater good. That’s how great change can occur.

  • 1
    Hi Tracy, welcome to our site. Note that images are generally undesirable here - we are, after all, an English language site that celebrates the use of words to express what we mean. Also, what this question calls for is an explanation of the expression; the philosophical analysis is certainly valid, but it's a bit oblique to the main issue. – Chappo Says SE Dudded Monica Nov 13 '18 at 7:19

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