The dark side of reassurance
Reassurance can have a powerful effect. It can wash away uncertainty, release you from your anguish, and bring much-needed relief from the dread in your mind and body. But there is a darker side to reassurance. It can leave you cursed, eternally helpless and dependent on others for peace of mind.
This post aims to give you some examples of reassurance and the impact it can have on a person’s life. I want to get you thinking about how you might use reassurance and assess its impact on you. And I want you to reflect on whether using reassurance will help you or hold you back in the weeks, months and years to come.
Reassurance is the act of trying to remove your doubts and fears.
We all have doubts and fears – did I lock all the doors and windows before leaving this morning? Will my children be ok at school? Is my relationship alright? Did I say something to upset them? What if they don’t like me? Will they leave me? Will I cope? What if it all comes tumbling down on me? The list can be endless. And this is because your mind will keep generating thoughts and concerns for you to be worried about.
Do you have these thoughts? Do you have others? What does having these thoughts feel like? Can you notice the feelings and sensations in your body right now?
When these thoughts show up, the urge to seek reassurance can follow. The mind attempts to fix or push away the unpleasantness of these imagined scenarios. You might seek reassurance from friends, family, professionals, the internet, or your own positive thinking and rationale arguments. When reassurance is given, it has the effect of neutralising anxieties. It shields you.
What are the costs of reassurance seeking?
There are many costs of reassuring yourself a lot, and compulsively, i.e. you have a strong urge to seek it out that you feel obliged to act out. Firstly, you don’t learn to tolerate uncertainty. You develop a habit of pushing it away or trying to make things seem more certain. This is because many of these doubts and fears hold uncertainty. Whether your relationship will be OK, your children safe and other people like you is inherently uncertain. Yes, you can take practical measures to nurture relationships and ensure your children are well taken care of, but a lot is outside your control. Peace of mind is often found when you learn to let go of your doubts and fears.
Secondly, people tend to build up a tolerance for uncertainty. Reassurance-seeking is a common coping style in many long-standing anxiety problems, e.g. OCD, worry, panic attacks etc. When reassurance patterns become engrained, it is as though the impact of the reassurance lessens. It ceases to provide the same level of relief that it did in the past. This is because reassurance functions to rescue you. And, if you are always looking to be rescued, then you are reinforcing the view that you are a victim, helpless and vulnerable. Over time, reassurance can exaggerate these beliefs; instead of learning to cope better, you learn to inhibit your own abilities.
Reassurance can seem like a helpful ally when faced with anxiety, but it can be a trap. By slowing down and noticing your thoughts, urges, and feelings in your body, you can learn to resist the automatic compulsion to get your hands on some temporary relief. Observing the doubts and fears allows you to choose rather than react. The challenge is to make space inside you for the anxiety, to allow it and accept it. This can be easier when you learn to hold it more lightly and soften it rather than to grip it firmly and refuse to have it.
If you prefer a more practical approach, you can start looking out for the ways you might seek reassurance. Writing it down on a worksheet with the day/time, doubt/fear in your mind, and the act of reassurance can help you develop your awareness of how much and how often you are doing it. It is a very important first step in learning to break the cycle of reassurance-seeking.