Do you know someone who needs to check in over and over again to make sure everything is okay?
Someone whose repetitive need for reassurance drives all of your interactions?
It’s totally exasperating when you’re on the receiving end of it. Particularly when someone’s level of distress is high.
People’s reassurance compulsion often goes up when their life is coming apart at the seams, so they work overtime to feel sure, abolish all doubts and establish certainty as a fact.
And as their friend or family member, you feel helpless. Like nothing you can do or say is going to pull them back from their trembling edge of insanity.
Now, that doesn’t suggest a lack of compassion for their fear for their struggle. A need for constant reassurance stems from a profound intolerance of uncertainty, which could stem from any number of causes.
If they had early trauma around abandonment, then of course they will need excessive reassurance.
If their life is chaotic right now, then of course they need to be certain something awful won’t happen to them.
If they’re suffering from depression or some other mental illness, then of course they believe that if they don’t act now, it will be their fault.
These are all very human reactions. They don’t make someone a bad person for feeling them.
The difficult part is accepting the reality that there will never be enough reassurance. We will never neutralize all the distress of confronting the uncertainty of living. There will never be enough proof. No amount of examples is ever going to convince any of us. Reassurance is futile.
The question is, what do you say to someone who is caught in their relentless quest for it? How do you free them from their constant demands for more and more reassurance?
A helpful first step is noticing our inclination to simply give people what they seemingly need to feel better. It’s the classic codependent move. Our efforts to deliver the reassurance someone seeks only hardens the hold the obsession has on them.
It’s enabling behavior. If we can train ourselves to notice and name it early and often, that’s a good start.
Another approach is to change our language when we respond to people’s reassurance requests. Rather than reflexively reminding them that everything is going to be okay, we make them feel seen and felt and heard. Perhaps saying something like this.
It seems like you’re looking for some reassurance, which I understand because life is stressful right now. But I know you can get through this. I know you can show up for yourself. I love you and I’m here with you, but I can’t tell you whether or not everything will be okay.
Now, that might sound too touchy feely for you. Or might backfire if comes off like too much like of a tactic.
You can always put on your therapist hat and call bullshit on the person with a few annoying but helpful reflective questions. If someone asks you for reassurance on a ridiculous issue, turn it back on them.
Is that you asking, or your fear asking?
Another good response is to ask:
That sounds like a reassurance question, and me answering it may feed your obsession, so what would you like for me to do?
Look, there’s no easy answer here. The repetitive need for reassurance often drives many of our relationships, and it’s a complicated, nuanced issue.
But what we have to remember as supporting and loving people is, it’s not our job to be someone’s external conscience when they can’t trust their own judgment about an experience.
We can make them feel seen and heard and felt. We can mirror their struggle back to them. And we stand at the edge and salute them as they troubleshoot on their own issues.
But we can’t walk the path for them.
LET ME ASK YA THIS…
Whose need for constant reassurance is exhausting you?