A major hurdle in working with anxiety problems is the tendency to suppress anxiety with reassurance.
We seek to reassure ourselves that something negative will not happen or that something positive will happen, and only when we know for sure do we feel confident in moving on.
The problem is we never feel sure enough.
The mind creates more doubts and more questions that we never seem to be able to answer to its satisfaction. Psychologists Martin Seif and Sally Winston refer to this as the “reassurance trap” in their book “Needing to Know For Sure.” What follows is a brief overview of different ways in which we attempt to manage anxiety with reassurance.
Reassurance isn’t inherently a bad thing.
If it’s used well, it can help us resolve uncertainty in our lives or help us live with whatever uncertainty remains.
But it doesn’t eliminate all anxieties, doubts, and questions.
For it to be productive, we must be willing to accept the information we get from a credible source and move on with our lives. We don’t get hung up on further questions and can instead decide on an appropriate course of action, which may simply involve waiting out the feeling uncertainty without further reassurance.
You will know you’ve shifted into unhelpful reassurance-seeking when you continue trying to erase more doubts, even after knowing the facts.
It involves an attitude of non-acceptance of the natural ambiguity of the situation which keeps us futilely trying to eliminate all doubts with reason.
The problem with using reason as an antidote to anxiety is that it cannot reach the parts of the anxiety that are inherently unreasonable and not influenced by facts and logic. Attempts to apply rational thought to these unreasonable elements may temporarily address the symptom, but they don’t address the core human experience of uncertainty.
The unreasonableness of anxiety must be accepted without trying to make it reasonable. More facts simply won’t help the remaining feeling of uncertainty about a situation, and our pursuit of them often lead to more frustration.
We must practice accepting the inevitability of uncertainty rather than trying to get it to go away.
What maintains this anxiety trap?
There are three types of unhelpful reassurance to avoid that are often used when we’re unwilling to accept uncertainty in our lives.
1 ~ Asking others
This involves asking someone who doesn’t know any more than you do for reassurance on how likely something is to happen.
- The plane’s not going to crash, right?
- Will I be ok?
- Are you sure I won’t get sick?
- You think I’ll pass this test, don’t you?
By asking others, we seek to gain an answer to an unanswerable question. While it brings momentary relief from anxiety, it reinforces an intolerance of being with the natural ambiguity in a situation.
2 ~ Checking
We check on the things we’re uncertain about “just to be sure everything’s ok.”
It masquerades as being thoughtful, responsible, and prepared, but can quickly get out of hand as new worries emerge and require more and more checking.
- Making sure you didn’t forget something
- Repeatedly checking that the door is locked
- Rereading emails to make sure there are no mistakes before sending
- Checking online posts or texts to make sure everything is ok
- Repeatedly making sure someone isn’t upset with you
- Checking with a teacher, manager, or supervisor about your performance
Constant checking indicates difficulty tolerating any doubt in a situation and turns small tasks into overwhelming ones, keeping us from being able to move on.
3 ~ Hidden reassurance of anxiety
This involves private attempts to lower anxiety without other people knowing you’re looking for reassurance. Examples of these unhelpful strategies are listed below.
The intention here is to reach a positive conclusion that feels good. This isn’t necessarily bad, but becomes problematic when there’s the expectation that it can eliminate negative thoughts and overcome worries with sheer optimism.
It maintains a rigid unwillingness to allow for the possibility of any negative outcome and leaves us in an endless battle between “good” and “bad” thoughts.
Analyzing events over and over
The mind often recreates events in our imaginations to try to figure out something it thought was ambiguous. If it can’t come to a clear conclusion, it will replay the event over and over because it can’t tolerate not knowing for sure if something bad happened or could happen.
The trap is that the mind says you can figure it out by thinking about it more, but it rarely leads to the certainty we want.
Planning for “what ifs”
The rationale for continuously exploring “what if…” thoughts is that “If I’m actively thinking about this, I’ll have considered all my options, feel productive and involved, and won’t be caught off guard if a negative consequence arises.
In this case, we don’t trust in our ability to respond well in uncertain situations and cannot tolerate the possibility of unforeseen circumstances. This leaves us stuck in a trap of endless preparation, planning, and problem-solving for future scenarios that likely won’t even come to pass.
Pros and cons
Endlessly weighing pros and cons indicates a problem tolerating the possibility of making a bad decision.
The trap here is believing that we can reason out the pros and cons enough to eliminate the possibility of a negative outcome. This leads to indecision and decreased confidence in our ability to respond well to the consequences of our actions.
In fact, making a decision with this uncertainty is the only way to move us forward and collect the information we couldn’t have gathered beforehand with reason alone.
Here we keep asking ourselves “What are the chances that this bad thing will come true?”
This is reassurance in the form of repeating to yourself over and over that “it probably won’t happen.” The trap is that as long as there is the possibility that it could happen, the actual likelihood doesn’t matter to the anxious mind.
Analyzing others’ behavior
Here we attempt to read into facial expressions, body language, and verbal communication to alleviate anxiety about what others are thinking and feeling.
Since we can’t know this for certain unless they outright tell us, our minds can get creative with guesses that are often biased and missing crucial information. This tends to create more questions and increases the urge to continue analyzing people’s behavior in the hopes of disproving our own anxious assumptions.
This is running a private experiment in your mind to test something you’re uncertain about repeatedly.
This might include private questioning like, “Am I happy in this relationship?”, “Am I still attracted to this person?”, or “Might I actually gay?” These questions drive an anxious focus on one’s internal state to “test” their responses. Any uncertainty in the data collected from this test will fuel endless future tests to seek greater certainty that may never come.
Asking without asking
This involves making a statement that sounds confident and self-assured, but waiting for an implicit agreement from someone else.
It sounds like this, with the unspoken request for reassurance in parentheses:
- I did a good job. (Didn’t I?)
- I love you. (Do you love me, too?)
- Everything’s going to be alright. (Won’t it?)
As long as the other person doesn’t contradict or question the statement, the reassurance can be assumed.
This is reassuring yourself that there are opportunities to escape if something goes wrong, such as finding the restrooms or fire exits and coming up with possible excuses to leave.
Helpful self-talk for managing anxiety
Unlike the trap of positive thinking that tries to eliminate uncertainty, helpful self-talk moves you toward accepting the inevitability of uncertainty and getting on with your life anyway.
Helpful self-talk sounds like the following:
- It makes sense that I would feel uncertain about something right now
- I can move on from this even though I still feel uncertain
- These are my usual doubts. I know them well and can let them be
- I know my mind is just trying to help me right now by seeking more reassurance
- I’m in the reassurance trap right now. Good catch!
- I know how hard my mind tries to work for me, and I can give it break from this reassurance-seeking right now
- I can just be with this discomfort right now and wait it out
- I can choose to do what I would normally do if I wasn’t in the reassurance trap right now
- I’ll never get the feeling of certainty that I want and can move on now anyway
- It’s important for me to be the type of person who can carry on with uncertainty
Included in these statements is an offering of gentle acknowledgement and compassion for how your mind has been trying to serve you well with this anxiety, even if it’s ultimately not a helpful strategy. Unhelpful reassurance-seeking is simply an over-extension of a normal process of the mind in its attempts to figure things out. And we won’t help ourselves manage anxiety any better if we are self-critical.
Disclaimer: I am a licensed therapist, but I might not be your therapist and this article does not create a therapist-client relationship. This article contains mental health material for informational use only and should not be seen as therapeutic advice. You should consult with a therapist or other appropriate professional before you rely on this information. I reserve the right to change the information contained within this blog at any time and am not liable for any damages that may result from its use.