When Reassurance Seeking Becomes Compulsive

Avoid the "Reassurance Trap" and tame your inner reassurance junkie.

Posted Dec 23, 2019

The Digital Artist Coffee/Pixabay
Source: The Digital Artist Coffee/Pixabay

It is natural to seek some reassurance when confronted with uncertainty. We want some feedback that our solution or thoughts are reasonable, rational, or otherwise good enough, or that we aren’t missing something obvious. Reassurance can help to calm a doubt, allay a worry, solidify a plan of action, or guide a decision.

However, people with sticky minds sometimes get caught in what we call Reassurance Traps, unable to accept uncertainty in some particular context. 

This can take the form of endless internet “research,” repetitive checking behaviors, and, eventually, alienating friends and family with relentless reassurance-seeking conversations. They may try to cope with doubts through self-talk, but they become trapped in constant, looping internal “debates” in which “what ifs?” and “rational responses” alternate and never stop. 

Being stuck in reassurance-seeking can lead to paralysis in decision-making, haunting worries about making a mistake or causing harm, insecurity, and self-doubt.

It is a common belief that analyzing why you have become stuck will help you become unstuck, but there is very little evidence that this works. In fact, trying to “solve” too much thinking with even more thinking simply creates more internal debate and more elaborate loops. Freeing oneself from the trap of unproductive reassurance requires learning to tolerate uncertainty by interrupting the factors that initiate and maintain the process. 

There are three processes that make uncertainty feel so intolerable: 

  • Anxious thinking distorts risk assessment, making things feel more dangerous than they are.
  • Paradoxical effort makes attempts to control anxiety and eliminate uncertainty work backward.
  • Negative reinforcement  (the effect of temporary relief) drives the cycle.

Seeking reassurance may seem like a way to find new facts. But doubts that return relentlessly reveal something interesting: Certainty is a feeling and not a fact. If you think about it, no one can be absolutely sure about anything.

Here is an illustration: Think of someone you love who is not in the room with you. Now, ask yourself: Are they alive, right this minute? Are you absolutely sure? Maybe they just died, and no one has contacted you yet. An accident? An unexpected medical catastrophe? It could have happened, right? Maybe you feel sure, but you can’t actually be sure. It is a feeling.

Unproductive reassurance-seeking is an attempt to feel absolutely sure. Yet absolute certainty is unattainable — and unnecessary to make decisions, make judgments, or take actions.

People with sticky minds can get caught up in doubts about anything, including one’s own motives, identity, health, and sanity (as well as those of others). There are no guarantees possible for the future. 

A shift in attitude, a willingness to feel uncertainty, and the acceptance of doubt and its discomforts is needed to avoid becoming trapped in reassurance-seeking.

There are three distinct processes that make this so difficult:

First, the brain can make uncertainty look dangerous. When certain thoughts trigger brain fear circuitry, an altered form of consciousness that we call anxious thinking arises. The world seems more threatening, all risks seem unreasonable, and ambiguity looks like danger.  

A catastrophic thought can feel as dangerous as some catastrophic behaviors or events. Anxious thinkers get hijacked by their own imagination. Doubts seem like red flags or messages that seem to demand attention. The mind gets stickier.

Second, the paradoxical effort makes the attempt to control thoughts actually backfires. Unlike how effort works in the external world, an urgent effort to control your thoughts works backward. The more you try to stop an upsetting thought, the more it intrudes. (Try not to think of a pink elephant!) Efforts to distract, push away, argue with, reassure, or “get just one more bit of information” have the effect of strengthening doubts instead of resolving them. 

Finally, negative reinforcement is the engine that drives the process. Research psychologists have long demonstrated that positive reinforcement (in other words, a reward) can strengthen a targeted behavior, whether that reward is food, a kind “thank-you,” or a warm hug: An increase in pleasure defines a reward.

Similarly, decreasing unpleasure—examples are the reduction of pain, stress, or anxiety—works to reinforce responses in exactly the same way. Thus, the temporary reduction of anxiety provided by unproductive reassurance actually reinforces the worry thoughts that preceded it. The intense desire for certainty returns and the reassurance trap is tightly set. 

There are a multitude of reassurance-seeking forms, and many are quite subtle. These include hidden or covert checking, such as constant texting, analyzing the look on someone’s face to search for cues, or asking others for empty reassurance in the form of “tell me everything will be fine.”

Even more difficult to spot is intentional self-talk that may be perceived as coping, self-calming, or “rational” or positive thinking in the service of trying to banish doubts.

In Needing to Know for Sure, we introduce a four-step program we call DEAF for breaking out of this trap and learning to tolerate reasonable uncertainty. The four mindful steps are: 1) Distinguish doubts or distress from true danger, 2) Embrace the feeling of uncertainty, 3) Avoid reassurance, and 4) Float above the feeling while letting more time pass. 

These steps work independently of the content of the thoughts. They address the circular process maintaining the misery, regardless of what it is that has become stuck. They provide the mindful perspective that allows for including doubts while moving forward toward what matters.

Even people with sticky minds can learn to become DEAF to the beckonings of the anxiety-producing bullies of the mind, and can turn a DEAF ear to the false alarm signals crying, “Emergency! You need to check this out right now!” Any brain can learn that thoughts are just thoughts, that doubt is part of every decision, and that uncertainty—both inevitable and unavoidable—can be embraced.