The reassurance trap — careful what you ask for | Got Anxiety?
Mary B. Barmann, MFT
At our Center for Anxiety & Chronic Worry, we treat many individuals who, due to their anxiety conditions, have a very strong need to seek reassurance from others.
There is nothing wrong with asking people for reassurance concerning the need to perform a task in which we have limited information or knowledge.
Let’s begin by first discussing the difference between information seeking, and excessive reassurance seeking behaviors.
There are times when all of us need to ask questions for the purpose of becoming better informed.
Seeking information involves asking someone questions (once or twice) for the purpose of acquiring the knowledge needed to successfully complete a task.
The questions being asked are answerable, uncertain answers are accepted, and the information results in making the best possible conclusions with the attitude that there is no perfect solution to the problem at hand.
Final decisions are typically quick, and result in some type of behavior change or action.
Examples might include the need to gather information regarding the correct manner in which to write an essay when applying to college, or asking for information concerning various models of cars when in the process of purchasing a new vehicle.
Excessive reassurance seeking is a common behavior in people who experience chronic worry, or an anxiety disorder such as Social Anxiety, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Panic Disorder, Health Anxiety, etc.
Reassurance-seeking behaviors are habitual attempts to reduce doubt and uncertainty, and usually take the form of repeatedly asking questions, mentally reviewing an event or thought, and frequently looking for evidence that he or she is not going to make a mistake.
These behaviors are performed to artificially create a sense of certainty; 100 percent certainty, when the part of our brain responsible for making us feel “sure enough” fails to kick into gear on its own.
Reassurance seeking becomes a trap because it temporarily provides relief and confidence that one’s thoughts and actions are not dangerous, and then “whoosh,” it’s gone, replaced by an overwhelming feeling of doubt, and a powerful demand for more reassurance.
This cycle only serves to fuel higher levels of future worrying, decreases confidence, causes tension in relationships, and interferes with daily life.
We have often said that reassurance seeking has a half-life of around 4 hours. Let’s take a look at the various forms in which excessive reassurance is displayed.
THE FACES OF REASSURANCE
Reassurance seekers ask the same question many times, in a variety of ways. Sometimes the questions will change, but the theme stays the same: “So, nothing bad is going to happen, right?” “Our relationship is still strong, right?”
Questions asked are either unanswerable, or ones that others are not qualified to answer, such as, “Do you think this mole on my hand is skin cancer?”
The questions are driven by a sense of uncertainty, which then triggers the feeling of anxiety. Seen below, are several ways in which to excessively seek reassurance.
Self-Reassurance: Mentally reviewing an event or performance over and over again. For example, following a social interaction, those with Social Anxiety will typically question themselves with respect to how others viewed the interaction, focusing on every “mistake” they made, and sharply criticize themselves for not giving the “perfect” performance.
Reassurance From Others: Frequently asking friends or family the same question in various ways. They often already know the answer they want to hear, and have a difficult time tolerating uncertain or unclear answers.
Research Information Reassurance: Searching excessively on the internet or reading books for the purpose of being certain to have found the perfect answer to remove self-doubt regarding whatever issue he or she is worrying about.
Reassurance seeking results in short-term gain (emotional relief), along with long-term pain. These long-term consequences would include the following:
People will begin to get annoyed with your persistent questions.
You’ll get rigid about what forms of reassurance are “good enough.”
You’ll become more indecisive and paralyzed to act.
Believing you cannot handle things, and that others view you as incompetent.
Self-confidence levels will take a dive.
You will become addicted to reassurance, and need your dose on a daily basis — tolerance is constantly on the rise, and withdrawal hurts.
You will never learn how to tolerate uncertainty.
The bottom line is this — reassurance seeking is often seen as the solution, when in fact, it’s become the problem.
Barry C. Barmann, Ph.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Nevada and California. His wife, Mary B. Barmann, MFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. They own the Center for Anxiety & Chronic Worry in Incline Village. Barry may be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org; visit anxietytreatmentinclinevillage.com to learn more.