Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

Steps To Break the Reassurance-Seeking Pattern

By Stacy Quick, LPC

Oct 12, 20237 minute read

When you feel scared or uncertain, it’s understandable to seek reassurance. We learn from a very young age about the dangers of the world and most of us look to our caregivers to help us decide which decisions are safe. This behavior helps provide us with an internal compass as, over time, we learn what is acceptable and permissible behavior.

However, for a person with OCD, this behavior can become exaggerated and all-consuming, evolving into a compulsive need for validation, approval, and assurance from others. Individuals with OCD are seeking confirmation or assurance about unfounded concerns, and may turn to family, friends, medical professionals, or anyone in an effort to alleviate their anxiety. The problem is that any reassurance they receive only provides a very temporary relief from their onslaught of obsessive thoughts. It doesn’t take long for the distress to resurface. Seeking reassurance reinforces the cycle of OCD and soon, it becomes a compulsion.

What does reassurance-seeking look like in OCD?

Let’s look at Maddy, who has been in a relationship with her partner for three years now. Things have been going well, and she wonders if he is about to propose. Maddy has always struggled with insecurity in her personal relationships, feeling uncertain about what she wants and what characteristics in a partner would make her the happiest. Her tendency to question everything has been problematic in past relationships, often leading to a breakup. She worries incessantly that this may happen in her current relationship, but still feels compelled to keep asking questions that can infuriate her partner. Most of the time, she is able to recognize before asking that the questions will make her partner unhappy, but she feels that she must ask them anyway. 

Maddy repeatedly asks him about his views on topics of importance to her, worried that their core values and beliefs may not align. He seems aware that she is fishing for the “right” answer and has even made comments such as, “What do you need me to say, Maddy?” She feels incredibly sad and ashamed, and she wishes that she didn’t think so much about these things. She wants to just accept who her partner is, even if he thinks differently about some topics, but feels dependent on his answers for relief from the anxiety she feels. 

Another example is Thomas, who can spend hours awake at night, searching all over the internet for certainty or a correct answer for whatever is bothering him that day. Too often, he finds conflicting information, which sends him down a rabbit hole in search of more answers. He becomes exhausted, mentally and physically. 

When all else fails, and he cannot seem to find a good enough answer, he turns to a trusted friend he has known for many years. Recently, Thomas has noticed this friend growing distant and seeming annoyed whenever he asks a question. Part of him knows that his friend has no way of accurately knowing the answers to his questions, but Thomas just cannot seem to trust his own opinions or intuition on certain things. He feels dependent on others for their acceptance and reassurance of what is right.

How do I stop constantly seeking reassurance?     

Whether you relate to these examples or you’ve experienced reassurance-seeking in a different way, you may wonder how you can stop this behavior. There may be times when an individual with OCD genuinely wants advice about their questions or concerns. This is a normal experience of every human being. 

To identify whether what you’re experiencing is a genuine desire for another opinion or reassurance-seeking caused by OCD, there are a few questions you can ask yourself: Does the question you want answered come with a sense of urgency—a need to know, right now? Do you feel you need certainty about the answer? Is there a sense of nervousness or distress surrounding the outcome of the response? 

If you can answer any of these questions with a “yes,” it should serve as a red flag that OCD may be trying to get you to engage in the compulsion of reassurance-seeking.

Once you’ve determined that compulsive reassurance-seeking is taking place, there are steps that you can take to stop it.

1. Embrace uncertainty.

Uncertainty is natural and normal. In fact, we accept levels of it every day in many areas of our lives. When someone has OCD, they can feel an overwhelming need for certainty in specific areas of their lives—usually ones they feel strongly about, or value a great deal. The obsessions that drive this need for certainty are often ego-dystonic, meaning they go against the nature of the person. This is why they feel so distressful.

This distress makes the individual feel the need to know the answers to their obsessions with clarity and 100% certainty. The problem is that they will never feel certain enough. The cycle of OCD will keep repeating until they learn to accept the feeling of uncertainty. Allowing uncertainty to be present, without responding with compulsions, can lessen anxiety and the urge to ask for reassurance over time.

2. Focus on problem-solving.

Rather than looking for someone to give you a specific desired answer, notice if there is an actual problem that you want solved. This can be tricky when you experience OCD because OCD wants you to believe that every obsession is a real problem that needs to be solved. This is where the recognition of urgency comes into play.

Most problems that are real in nature do not come with the sense of anxiety and immediacy that is all too familiar to those who suffer from OCD. Once you determine there is a problem you want solved, you’ll know you are most likely seeking advice, not reassurance, and can proceed to ask a trusted individual for it.

3. Identify a trusted confidant.

Having someone you trust and feel comfortable sharing your OCD symptoms with can be incredibly helpful. This could be a family member, a partner, a close friend—or even a support group or therapist. Whoever it is, they should be someone to whom you can explain that reassurance-seeking is a compulsion and that they can help when you are engaging in it.

In order for them to be able to help you, it is important to communicate that your goal is to seek advice, not reassurance. They should know you are actively utilizing strategies to cope with OCD that do not include validation. Once you’ve educated your confidant on OCD and reassurance-seeking, they can be your go-to when you’re unsure whether you need advice or are looking for reassurance in a compulsive manner.

ERP can help you resist the urge to seek reassurance

Seeking advice without reassurance may feel uncomfortable initially, but it’s an important step towards managing OCD symptoms. Specialty-trained, qualified, and licensed OCD specialists can help you learn to tolerate uncertainty and resist the urge to seek reassurance. 

A successful therapist to help you manage OCD will be trained in exposure and response prevention (ERP) and will guide, support, and motivate you, while helping you become more self-aware of behaviors that perpetuate the OCD cycle. They will not only show you empathy and compassion but, more importantly, they will guide you to show yourself these things. Through ERP, you will learn that seeking reassurance only serves to reinforce anxiety and feeds the desire for more reassurance.

If you have any questions about starting ERP therapy or need more information about the treatment, please don’t hesitate to book a free 15-minute call with our team. On the call, we’ll assist you in either getting started with a licensed therapist at NOCD who has specialty training in OCD and ERP, or connect you to other resources that might be helpful.

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