Reassurance seeking is a coping mechanism for avoiding uncertainty and the emotions that come with it.
- After “bombing” a job interview, you immediately call your spouse looking for “support.” But in reality, you’re unwilling to sit with the uncertainty and fear around how the interview went and what will come of it.
- You’re considering buying a home and find yourself compulsively calling your father or mother asking them for their “advice.” But in reality, you’re terrified of making a mistake and are using them to manage that fear.
Reassurance seeking means outsourcing the emotional labor of uncertainty management to other people.
And while it often brings relief in the short-term, the long-term consequences are increased anxiety, diminished confidence, and chronic self-doubt. Because when you constantly avoid managing your uncertainty, you communicate to your own mind that you can’t handle it, which creates a vicious self-fulfilling prophecy.
If you want to break your habit of reassurance seeking and improve your confidence, here are a few ways to get started…
1. Anticipate your reassurance seeking triggers
Despite how it may feel, it’s unlikely that you lack confidence and seek reassurance in every aspect of your life.
There are probably specific contexts or situations which tend to provoke an unusually strong need for reassurance seeking.
- You might be much more likely to seek reassurance at work compared to at home or with friends.
- Maybe you tend to seek a lot of reassurance when you’re stressed and tired?
- Maybe your reassurance seeking pattern tends to show up most around your family because it’s so easy to fall into old family dynamics.
Identifying your reassurance seeking triggers allows you to anticipate them and eliminate the element of surprise.
This is helpful because surprise is an emotional amplifier: take any difficult emotion, add surprise, and the emotional intensity becomes much greater. On the other hand, eliminate surprise, and many difficult emotions—including the ones behind your reassurance seeking—become much less intense.
Finally, the exercise of identifying your reassurance seeking triggers has the side-benefit of showing you that you don’t reassurance seek everywhere, and as a result, boosts your confidence in breaking the habit of reassurance seeking.
2. Confront the emotions behind your impulse to seek reassurance
Reassurance seeking is a behavior that’s motivated by strong emotions. More specifically, we’re motivated to seek reassurance because it gives us relief from an uncomfortable or painful emotion like fear or guilt.
Many people justify their reassurance seeking behavior by claiming that they’re just asking for advice. But if you’re really sincere about the motivation behind your reassurance seeking, what you’ll usually find is that you’re not primarily motivated by the desire to learn and gain new information—what you really want is to feel less bad.
- Did you immediately call your spouse after your interview to learn something new? Or were you feeling afraid that you wouldn’t get the job and looking for something to take away that fear?
- Do you really think that your mother is going to have some new information that will meaningfully change your mind about buying the house? Or are you worried about making a bad decision and hoping that she’ll ease that fear by encouraging you to do it (or not)?
Asking for advice is motivated by the desire to learn; reassurance seeking is motivated by the desire to feel better.
The problem is that if you’re constantly using other people to feel better, you’re teaching your mind that you can’t handle feeling bad, which only makes you feel more insecure and indecisive in the future.
If you want to become more confident handling these difficult emotions behind your reassurance seeking, you have to look for them, confront them, and most importantly, be willing to have them instead of trying to avoid them or make them go away.
A simple way to get started is to keep a feelings file—make a new notes file in your phone and, each time you find yourself reassurance seeking, write down A) the trigger, B) the reassurance seeking behavior, and C) what emotion is motivating that behavior.
The more awareness you bring to the emotions behind reassurance seeking the less of a prisoner you will be to them.
3. Validate the desire for reassurance seeking
Here’s the thing:
Seeking reassurance is a bad habit. But there’s nothing wrong with the desire for reassurance.
Nobody likes feeling anxious and indecisive. We all wish we knew the right thing to do. And everyone would prefer the comfort of reassurance to the pain of uncertainty.
This is important to acknowledge because a lot of people who struggle with anxiety and reassurance seeking also tend to beat themselves up for it with lots of self-criticism and judgment, which only makes them feel worse and less confident.
But you can counteract this habit by acknowledging your desire for reassurance and validating it, which is as simple as saying to yourself something like this:
Okay, I’m feeling really anxious about this decision. And even though I don’t like feeling anxious, it’s not bad. Most people would feel some anxiety in a situation like this. It’s okay to feel anxious and make the decision anyway.
The better you are at validating the emotion behind your reassurance seeking, the easier it will be to resist the pull to act on that emotion. And the more you practice tolerating rather than acting on those emotions, the less intense they will become over time.
4. Find a self-assurance role model
One of the reasons it’s so easy to fall into and stay stuck in reassurance seeking behavior is because we’re surrounded by it…
- Maybe you grew up with a parent who was highly dependent and constantly seeking reassurance?
- Maybe your best friend uses you all the time for reassurance seeking
- Maybe your therapist unwittingly encourages it in your therapy sessions?
Examples of and opportunities for reassurance seeking are pervasive, which makes it surprisingly easy to fall into.
On the other hand, people who struggle with reassurance often idolize (or envy) people who seem to be supremely confident and never struggle with reassurance. And they very often fall into the trap of comparing themselves disparagingly to those folks.
Luckily, there’s a middle way that is much more conducive to managing anxiety and uncertainty in a healthy way: You can seek out and cultivate self-assurance role models.
These are people you can look up to in their resistance to reassurance seeking but also relate with.
- Let’s say you tend to seek a lot of reassurance at work… Maybe you have a coworker who is similar to you along a number of factors—works on the same project, is your same gender and age, etc.
- But they also seem pretty good at being decisive when faced with uncertainty.
- So start studying this person and watching for how they respond to difficult circumstances.
- Then, when you’re faced with anxiety and uncertainty and feel the pull toward reassurance seeking, ask yourself: What would (self-assurance role model) do?
It might seem a little silly at first blush, but having a model for specific alternatives to reassurance seeking behavior is extremely helpful for building better habits in response to anxiety and uncertainty.
5. Take action using the 3Ms
At this point, you might be saying to yourself…
Okay, sure, all that other stuff about anticipating triggers and validating emotions sounds great. But when I’m feeling anxious and want reassurance, but what am I supposed to DO instead?!
To be honest, if you actually committed to and consistently followed through all that “other stuff”—identifying and anticipating your reassurance seeking triggers, confronting the emotions being reassurance seeking, validating the desire to seek reassurance, and patiently cultivating self-assuredness role models—I think you’d find that you don’t actually need anything else.
That said, when you’re early on in the process of breaking out out of your reassurance seeking habit, it can be helpful to have some alternative healthy actions you can take when you feel the pull to seek reassurance.
Here’s a little framework I developed called The 3 Ms.
It’s a good way to think about how to move on from difficult emotions generally—for example, what to do when you’re sad instead of ruminating; or what to do when you’re feeling angry rather than criticizing. But I’ve found it to be really helpful as a way to generate alternative behaviors for reassurance seeking.
The 3Ms are: Move, Make, and Meet
The basic idea is that moving your body physically, making something, or connecting with someone meaningfully all tend to be healthy behaviors that can outcompete the desire to seek reassurance.
Here’s how it works…
When you find yourself wanting to seek reassurance, remind yourself that it’s okay to feel uncertain and anxious and get on with your life anyway. Then ask yourself these questions:
- How can I move my body? Can I go for a 15-minute walk around the block? Or get a 30-minute workout in on my lunch break?
- Is there something small I can make, create, or fix? Could I bake some scones? Maybe replace those old light bulbs in the garage? Or perhaps just tidy up my office.
- Can I connect with someone in a meaningful way? Can I send a text to an old friend telling them one thing I really appreciate about our friendship? Or maybe I can invite a new coworker to grab lunch?
Ultimately, the antidote to reassurance seeking is simply to consistently resist the impulse to do it. And this can be a lot easier if you have a compelling and healthy set of alternative behaviors to choose from.
All you need to know
Remember that when you habitually seek reassurance you are essentially outsourcing the emotional labor of uncertainty management to other people. And even though this can feel relieving in the short-term, in the end it only makes you more anxious, more indecisive, and less confident.
To break the cycle and stop seeking reassurance so much, here are 5 tips:
- Anticipate your reassurance seeking triggers
- Confront the emotions behind your impulse to seek reassurance
- Validate the desire for reassurance seeking
- Find a self-assurance role model
- Take action using the 3Ms: Move, Make, Meet
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