In this newsletter I’m going to talk about reassurance: what it is, what it does, and why it is so important to limit it. And you will get a few pointers on how to do that.
Reassurances are very common. Here’s why: Whenever you have an unwanted intrusive thought (UIT), your first impulse might be to say to yourself, “Oh no! I wouldn’t do that!…. Or would I?” Or, “Why did I think of something so disgusting (or weird, or violent, or blasphemous)…could I want to do that? I can’t be that type of person.” You challenge the thought because it seems so awful. The thought feels so unlike you. You might think of hurting children and yet you love children. In that case, challenging the thought is the most natural thing to do. This is a form of self-reassurance (“I would never do that.”)
Also, people with UITs often ask others for reassurance. (You have the UIT, “this dress makes me look fat,” you ask your boyfriend, “does this dress make me look fat?” You are jealous of your girlfriend. You have the UIT, “maybe she isn’t interested in me anymore.” You ask her if she still finds you attractive and interesting.) Each of these reassurances reduce the distress–but only for a short time. Then you want to be reassured again. Challenging your thought by asking others for reassurance seems like a natural thing to do.
But, when you are dealing with UITs, what is natural and makes common sense is often counter-productive. Reassurances are not a productive way to grapple with UTs. More bluntly, reassurances actually reinforce and vitalize the next one. Reassurances are part of the anxiety generating process because they provide a temporary relief of anxiety. This temporary relief fuels the engine that triggers the next anxious thought. In our book, Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts, Dr. Winston and I call this “false comfort.” It feels good for a while, but then generates even more of your worried voice.
I’m sure you know plenty about reassurance. You probably ask your friends and loved ones for reassurance (“Do you think I could possibly hurt myself?”) You might even be a “reassurance junkie.” If so, you run the risk of turning off and alienating your friends and family members.
Asking Dr. Google is a means of reassurance. Take a look at your search history. How many have to do with subjects related to your intrusive thoughts?
But reassurance can also be much more subtle. How many of you have explained to your therapist/friend/chaplin or someone else about thoughts of hurting your children, and then told yourself, “Well, my therapist (friend/chaplain isn’t hospitalizing me, so s/he must think that I’m not going to do it.” That’s a form a reassurance as well.
People with UIT’s also have “safety” people near them, and feel reassured that the person will watch them and make sure they don’t misbehave. How many of you need to be texted before, after, and during events? These also are reassurances.
So my message to all of you is this: Stop Reassuring! It just doesn’t help. It might reduce your anxiety temporarily, but it will definitely increase your suffering in the long run.
Easier said than done, you might think. The reality is that It’s extremely hard to stop reassurances, either from yourself or from others. Part of the difficulty is that you will have to sit with the anxiety while your brain and body calm down naturally, and not in response to the words of false comfort.
You also need to identify reassurances in order to stop doing them. Here’s a rule of thumb to help you clarify when you are getting involved in reassurances.
If you engage with the content of your UIT, then you are almost certainly getting involved in reassurance.
Getting involved in content is another way of saying that you are arguing with or rationalizing or trying to figure out why you are having those thoughts.You are taking the content of your UIT seriously enough to respond to it. That leads to a back and forth discussion inside your head that keeps the intrusive thoughts coming. You are alternating between the scary thought (the UIT) and the reassuring one. It’s a cycle that can go on indefinitely.
You know, you live it!
Here are five general principles to follow.
First, no matter how much you are involved in reassuring now, try to do it less frequently. Make a record for a week of how often you get reassurance. This is your baseline. Try to reduce it 10% each week.
Second, labelling a UIT as a thought is most likely not a reassurance. Labelling doesn’t refer to content, so you know you are not reassuring about the content of the thought. However, if labelling causes an immediate reduction of anxiety, then it does count as a reassurance.
I’ll talk more about labelling in the next newsletter, but proper labelling has three parts. (1) Label, (2) allow the feeling of anxiety (3) ignore what the feeling is telling you to do (mostly, it is telling you to avoid the feeling). Don’t worry if this seems unclear, I’ll get to it in the next newsletter.
Third, you are entitled to solid information about whatever is frightening you. If it’s a medical concern, go to one trusted medical person and follow her advice. Don’t look for someone else if you don’t like what he says. The same goes for legal or other professionally related areas.
Fourth, you will be able to make do with fewer reassurances if you can come to believe that you are being bullied by your thoughts. Thoughts don’t change outcomes, define who you are, or have consequences in the real world. So you can take the risk and let them be.
Fifth, lowering your reassurance means increasing your tolerance for reasonable risks. That is a great goal.
In the next newsletter, I’m going to talk about labelling.
Martin N. Seif, Ph.D., ABPP