Let me reassure you: Reassurance seeking doesn’t work

“What if Eve doesn’t make the soccer team?”

“What if the other moms in the play group don’t like me?”

“What if this pain in my arm means that I have a serious illness?”

If you often find yourself asking “What If?” questions like these, you might be a “What If?” mom. “What If?” moms are anxious about uncertain future events. They play out worst-case-scenarios in their heads and worry that these scenarios will come true.

In an effort to manage their anxiety, “What If?” moms often ask for reassurance that the feared “What If?” is unlikely to occur. For example, Jen got a new job and wondered, “What if I can’t perform well in my new role?” She highly prioritized her role as a working woman and her role as a mother and worried that she would not be able to effectively balance the two. She found herself incessantly asking family, friends, and her co-workers whether they thought she would be able to manage it. She also went on the internet, seeking out chat rooms/message boards in which women in her industry spoke of their working experiences and work-life balance.

There are a number of problems with reassurance seeking:

  1. The person from whom you’re seeking reassurance might not be qualified to give it to you (i.e. random woman you’ve never met who posted on the internet).
  2. In many cases, reassurance is not possible. How would your friends or family be able to predict ahead of time how your new job is going to go? Searching for reassurance is just going to leave you frustrated, and probably cause you to keep searching more, in the hopes that you’ll find your answer. This can take up a lot of time and energy (thank you, endless internet).
  3. Constant requests for reassurance often begin to annoy loved ones.
  4. When you seek reassurance from others, you are relying on these people, rather than yourself, to manage your worry.
  5. Perhaps the biggest problem is that reassurance seeking doesn’t work. Even if your new boss reassured you that you would be successful at your new job, the reassurance would only last for a few moments. Anxiety has a way of coming back stronger after reassurance is provided, rendering the reassurance unhelpful.

So here’s an alternative: Use the tried-and-true cognitive-behavioral therapy technique of looking at the facts. Jen, for example, could ask herself if there is there actual, cold-hard-evidence to suggest that she will fail at her job. Has she ever failed at a job? Are there supports in place to keep her from failing at her job? What could she do if she started experiencing problems?

Bottom line: reassurance seeking doesn’t work. Examining factual evidence is much more effective. And examining evidence is something you can do on your own, without having to rely on others (or on the notoriously unreliable internet). When you next feel the impulse to reassurance-seek, examine the evidence instead.

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I’m Ilyse Dobrow DiMarco, Ph.D., aka DrCBTMom. DrCBTMom.com combines the expert advice of a self-help book with the warmth and readability of a mommy blog.
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