Reassurance seeking is a behavior or mental act aimed at clarifying or verifying something that is typically already known. It often emerges through an individual’s inability to tolerate uncertainty.
Most people can obtain information and feel relatively satisfied with being “sure enough” of a specific quandary. However, this “sure enough” part of the brain fails to kick into gear for certain individuals, particularly those with obsessive-compulsive disorder and other anxiety disorders.
For these people, the need for absolute certainty is urgent and extreme. They engage in reassurance-seeking by compulsively asking questions aimed at getting relief from the distressing “what ifs”.
Unfortunately, “absolute certainty” rarely exists in life and inevitably doubt begins to emerge again, increasing the demand to be reassured along with it. The person is often compelled to ask the same question in different ways and introduce new twists on the topic in attempt to get further information to ease anxiety.
The amount of energy that someone can invest in obtaining certainty can be high, and it is not uncommon for someone with significant anxiety to feel defeated following their attempts to find reassurance.
The Three Types of Reassurance
There various ways in which this reassurance seeking can manifest. The most obvious of such forms is when an individual seeks out a sense of reassurance from others. This person could be an authority figure, a caregiver, or perhaps simply an acquaintance who is perceived to have the knowledge to provide an answer.
Examples of seeking reassurance from others typically include questions such as:
- Will everything be okay?
- Are you sure this thought/behavior doesn’t make me a bad person?
- Did I do the right thing?
- Are you sure I did not offend you?
Another form of reassurance is that of self-reassurance, which is commonly performed through checking behaviors or mental acts.
Self-reassurance may look like:
- physically checking the lock repeatedly on her front door, seeking the reassurance that the door is indeed locked.
- someone who is socially anxious having a conversation with another individual, and afterwards replaying the interaction in their mind, searching for assurance that they said the ‘right’ things.
- body checking, they compulsively look at themselves in a mirror to get reassurance that they look OK.
When asking others for reassure loses it gratification, individuals with may scour the internet in an effort find the “perfect piece of evidence” that will to prove to themselves that things are okay.
Why is Reassurance-Seeking So Hard to Quit?
In severe cases, many characterize reassurance seeking as being almost an addiction, in which once an individual begins the process of confirming it can be difficult to stop. The reason why it can be so hard to resist reassurance seeking is due to the immediate gratification that is obtained in the moment. The sensation of ‘now I know for sure.’ is very alluring.
However, just like an addiction, this sense of satisfaction begins to lose its gratification over time, pushing the person to seek out more certainty. Depending on the severity of anxiety, an individual may only be satisfied with a reassuring answer for a matter of minutes or even seconds, before they are inclined to repeat the question or action once again. In other words, people who compulsively seek reassurance get a quick fix, but actually worsen their discomfort in the long term.
Why is it Important to Stop?
Seeking reassurance reinforces the false belief that whatever unwanted thought set these events into motion is of extreme importance and must be figured out right away. Receiving reassurance only serves to teach their brain and body that they are completely incapable of tolerating the discomfort that comes along with the sitting with uncertainty.
Think of it as giving a small child everything he wants in order to prevent a tantrum. The child is going to learn that his demands must always be met instantly because that is the only way he will be able to be calm. In reality, this is only serving to reward and increase his frantic need for instant gratification and taking away the opportunity for him to teach himself emotional regulation.
Managing Reassurance Seeking and Giving
Managing Reassurance Seeking
- Sometimes reassurance can be concealed in a way that makes it difficult for the person asking the question to even recognize it. Therefore, when you are unsure if it is reassurance, ask yourself if the goal of the question/behavior is to only eliminate anxiety or uncertainty. If yes, you now have an opportunity to begin practicing tolerating the discomfort mindfully.
- Practice seeking out uncertainty in your life, while making the decision to not try to control or influence any aspect of the situation. As you begin to realize just how uncertain life is, a state of acceptance will begin to emerge.
- Developing your ability to stay fully present will also help you to manage reassurance seeking. Since the focus of reassurance is typically in regards to ‘what if’ scenarios, it is essential that you practice moment to moment awareness – which can help you see reality more clearly.
Managing Reassurance Giving
It is important that family members and those closest to the individual are aware of the impact that reassurance has on anxiety. As reassurance seeking becomes compulsive or excessive, it is important that others resist providing answers that serve as reassurance. This can obviously be rather challenging, as the desire to reduce their loved ones discomfort immediately can be strong. You must consider at this time that by providing reassurance, you are helping to maintain the person’s anxiety in the long term. By not giving reassurance, you are helping the individual learn to cope with the anxiety and become independent.
Here are some alternative response to give to someone who is seeking reassurance:
- “Are you seeking reassurance?”
- “You asked me this question before. My answer hasn’t changed”
- “It sounds like you’re having a hard time with your anxiety. Do you want to take some time to yourself?”
- “I don’t know the answer. I can guess or make something up, but we’ll never know if it’s true”
- “We agreed that I’m not going to answer that.”
- “What would (therapist’s name) say to that?”
Whether in relation to not giving reassurance to another person, or your own commitment to not seek out reassurance – it is extremely important that you are consistent in your practice. Remaining steadfast as you continue toward reclaiming your life will take patience, but that patience leads to freedom from anxiety.
Seeking Mental Health Support
If you find yourself struggling with tolerating uncertainty and are unable to cope effectively, consider scheduling an appointment with Chicago Counseling Center. Our therapists can provide guidance, support, and strategies tailored to your specific needs. Meet our team to learn more!