The need for constant reassurance can show up like a persistent itch. Follow these steps for a more lasting peace of mind
‘Does this text message look OK?’ ‘I turned off the stove, right?’ ‘Should I be worried about this ache?’ ‘Do you think I’m doing the right thing?’ ‘Will you always love me?’ ‘Is everything going to be all right?’
People seek reassurance about all sorts of concerns and fears. Everyone does it some of the time, often for good reason. But, for many people, the seeking of reassurance becomes so frequent and fruitless that the behaviour morphs into what clinical psychologists call ‘excessive reassurance-seeking’, draining their wellbeing and, potentially, their relationships.
With typical, ‘productive’ reassurance-seeking, a person might ask someone a question about a perceived threat or risk – or, perhaps, consult an expert-written article on the internet – once or twice, after which the reassurance ‘sticks’, explains Martin Seif, a clinical psychologist and co-author of the book Needing to Know for Sure (2019). By contrast, excessive or unproductive reassurance-seeking is like a persistent itch. ‘Each time, a person feels that somehow, some reassurance is going to scratch the itch, but it doesn’t,’ Seif says. The discomfort or distress that prompts one’s questions may abate temporarily after reassurance is received, but the urge for further reassurance ‘comes back even more intensely very soon afterwards’.
Excessive reassurance-seeking is chasing the impossible
Part of the problem for those who struggle with this urge for reassurance is that they are seeking an elusive feeling of certainty (since actual, total certainty can never be achieved). Lacking that feeling can be deeply unpleasant, notes the clinical psychologist Sally Winston, co-author of the book with Seif. Someone may be flatly told that they don’t need to worry about something, but ‘because people have such great imaginations, they can always come up with a reason why that reassurance wasn’t good enough, and they need some more.’ Perhaps my friend only said he saw me lock the front door, but he wasn’t really paying attention? Maybe the article I read about that illness wasn’t the most authoritative one out there? When my spouse reassured me that I didn’t sound like an idiot at the party, was she just being nice?
The range of things about which one can feel a strong urge to be reassured – and then doubt whether the reassurance they received is sufficient – is vast. My own experience provides another example. Starting when I was a teenager, I was repeatedly struck by a fear that I was secretly a bad person – a result of deeply distressing thoughts and feelings related to various hypothetical misdeeds. These fears turned out to be symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but at the time I struggled to tolerate the feeling of not knowing, for sure, that I wasn’t some kind of deviant. And so I spilled my thoughts and fears to people I was close with – over and over again – seeking the (short-lived) relief I felt when they reassured me that, no, really, the thoughts I was having didn’t make me a bad person, and everything would be OK. After a while, this habit started to grate on them, even though they genuinely wanted to help.
This pattern is typical in excessive reassurance-seeking. Even when the people on the receiving end are supportive and generally understanding, ‘it can lead to frustration and anger in relationships’, says Judith Laposa, a clinical psychologist who has conducted research on reassurance-seeking. ‘It can be annoying, at times, to be asked the same thing repeatedly when you’ve already answered the question.’
Reassurance-seeking can show up in different contexts
Excessive reassurance-seeking is not only a feature of OCD, but can also play a role in anxiety disorders, phobias and depression. The topics about which one seeks reassurance may depend on this broader context. For a person with illness anxiety, for instance, the reassurance might centre on health-related fears; for someone with generalised anxiety disorder, it could be worries about personal decisions or other day-to-day concerns; someone with depression might be more inclined to seek reassurance related to social attachment, such as asking whether someone really cares about them. Many reassurance-seekers also engage in ineffectual self-talk to try to completely reassure themselves, or practise compulsive behaviours such as checking that they didn’t leave the oven on or court danger in some other way.
Learning to seek reassurance less often can, counterintuitively, contribute to a more lasting peace of mind
Even those with no mental health diagnosis can still struggle with excessive reassurance-seeking and benefit by taking steps to reduce it. So Laposa advises you to ask: ‘Is it getting in the way of my life in any way?’
If you find yourself answering ‘yes’ to this question, consider the following expert-recommended approaches to reassurance-seeking. You can think of these as starting points, helping you to recognise the problem as it appears in your life and to begin the work of reeling it in. I’ve found that learning to seek reassurance less often can, counterintuitively, contribute to a more lasting peace of mind.
Recognise whether you have a problem
One basic measure of whether reassurance-seeking is excessive is frequency: asking someone for reassurance once or twice might be reasonable, but if you ask about the same sort of concern several times or more, even using slight variations on the question, then it is more likely to be excessive. It might look like peppering the same person with a question throughout the day or week, or going to a number of different people with the same question.
‘I would also be looking at: are you asking about things you already have the information about? Is it actually a knowledge gap?’ Laposa says. ‘Or is this something where you’re pretty sure you know what the answer is, and you just want someone to confirm that for you?’ If you tend to do the latter, it’s more likely that you’re engaged in excessive reassurance-seeking. And if you feel unable to take action or make decisions without repeated reassurance, that’s another possible sign.
Reassurance-seeking may not always take the form of explicit questions. Winston notes that ‘it can be very subtle – even just looking at somebody’s face very intently while you’re talking, to try to see if they’re grasping or approving or disapproving, or whatever.’ Winston and Seif also highlight as problematic something they call ‘empty reassurance’, sought from a person who is no better able to answer the question than you are. (For example, asking someone to assure you that you’ll never get into a deadly accident.)
Plan to scale back your reassurance-seeking
Your next step could be deciding to reduce the number of times you’re allowed to seek reassurance on any given topic. (If it feels appropriate, consider sharing your plans with those close to you.) In her therapeutic work, Laposa says: ‘We usually try to do [this scaling back] in a slow, tapered way. Where I have seen it backfire is in going from 100 to zero.’ So, you don’t have to decide that you will no longer seek any reassurance at all. Instead, you could set a limit that is slightly below the number of times you might usually seek reassurance about something, and then gradually lower that limit as you become habituated. You could also consider starting with a topic that causes you less distress, and working your way up to reducing reassurance-seeking about more difficult topics.
Allow difficult feelings and thoughts to happen ‘while refusing to do what the feelings and thoughts are telling you’ to do
If you do involve close others in your plans, you might talk to them about where you – and they – should draw the line. You could say: ‘I’m wondering if, this week, the first four times that I ask you, you could answer me. But if I ask a fifth time, please don’t answer me,’ Laposa says. ‘As [you] become more comfortable with that, then you would drop it to three times, to two times, to one time.’ The other person needn’t ignore you after you reach your limit but, rather than dispensing the form of reassurance you crave, they might instead offer gentle encouragement to stick with your plan and show compassion for any distress that’s arising for you.
Practise tolerating the discomfort
In Needing to Know for Sure, Seif and Winston propose a series of steps that reflect an attitude of ‘therapeutic surrender’. The objective in tackling a reassurance-seeking habit is not to make anxiety or doubt go away entirely, they explain. It is about allowing difficult feelings and thoughts to happen ‘while refusing to do what the feelings and thoughts are telling you’ to do, which is to seek reassurance. In the immediate future, that means having to sit with discomfort – that’s the ‘surrender’ part. But with practice, putting limits on reassurance-seeking – and noticing that its absence doesn’t tend to have any practical consequences – can convince you that you don’t need it after all.
One approach to increasing your tolerance, recommended by Seif and Winston, is what therapists call floating. Essentially, it involves continuing to go about your day without focusing on the thoughts or feelings that are troubling you, and letting time pass – you might imagine your thoughts moving past you like clouds in the sky, or an object in a stream – until you eventually start to feel better.
A complementary approach is to take a mindful stance toward something you’re doing that is not related to your reassurance-seeking, which may help you get through the temporary discomfort. When a reassurance-seeking urge or thought arises, you can briefly acknowledge to yourself what you are experiencing, and then consciously decide to shift your focus to something else. ‘So, if I’m washing the dishes and have a thought that I need to ask someone about X,’ Laposa says, a mindful response would involve ‘redirecting back to the dishes. What does the water feel like? What does the soap smell like? Putting your attention back toward the activity that you were originally doing.’ Before long, you might find that the urge for reassurance has diminished, and/or that you are able to tolerate its presence.
It could also help steel your resolve to remind yourself why you’ve opted not to seek reassurance an excessive number of times, Laposa says – whether that is to get a handle on anxiety that reassurance-seeking has only reinforced, to build confidence in your own choices, or for other reasons. I’ve dialled back my own reassurance-seeking partly because I realise that, while it can offer some relief in the short term, in the longer term, my close relationships are stronger if I minimise it.
Confront uncertainty head on
The therapeutic technique called ‘exposure and response prevention’ – which involves confronting what you fear while avoiding your typical, counterproductive responses to it – may sound counterintuitive and even scary if you’ve never tried it before. But it could be a key tool for powering-down the urge for excessive reassurance-seeking. And it’s something you may be able to start doing on your own.
With exposure, the experts advise picking out a situation or thought that is likely to make you want to seek reassurance, and which you will then deliberately sit with, without actually seeking reassurance. The goal isn’t to throw yourself into the deep end: you don’t have to start with the most distressing situation you can think of, but might begin with something that will likely cause you moderate discomfort. In this manageable situation, no reassurance is sought, some time passes, and the discomfort may decrease noticeably – or, at least, you might notice that you feel better able to handle the discomfort.
In their book, Seif and Winston suggest various possible exposure exercises, such as saying to yourself (or writing down) an ‘unthinkable thought’. For instance, if you’re worried and tend to excessively seek reassurance about your children’s safety, it could be the thought ‘I cannot guarantee the safety of my own children.’ Then, you practise avoiding reassurance and tolerating the discomfort. Or say you often triple-check with someone whether you’ve locked a door; you might choose to deliberately leave the door (or a window) unlocked for a while.
As the initial exposure exercise starts to cause milder levels of discomfort, you might take on a somewhat bigger challenge. For example, someone whose starting exercise involves writing down an ‘unthinkable thought’ about loved ones’ safety might next practise saying the thought out loud (if that is more distressing for them), and perhaps eventually graduate to setting time windows during which they are prohibited from texting or calling to make sure the loved one is safe. Laposa suggests having a go at the exposure process on your own, ‘and if it’s not working very well, then it would be time to seek some assistance from a mental health professional.’
Indeed, working directly with a clinical psychologist on changing reassurance-seeking behaviour is worth considering if you’d like hands-on guidance and support with any part of it. This may be especially true if you’re experiencing other symptoms of an anxiety or mood problem, of which reassurance-seeking might be just one component. For me, working with a therapist was an important factor in coming to realise that the concerns I craved reassurance about were not as urgent as I’d believed. Deciding to start reining in reassurance-seeking requires a ‘leap of faith’, Laposa says. You can take the first steps on your own, and with practice – and potentially some outside support – you may eventually find that going without that additional reassuring comment or glance is easier than you thought possible.