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Lynne S. Gots, Ph.D.
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Seeking Reassurance: an Often Unrecognized Compulsion

By Lynne Gots, posted on February 21st, 2014.

If you’re prone to anxiety, you know how shaky it can make you feel—not just physically (that’s why it’s called “the jitters”) but also emotionally. When you’re stuck in a cycle of worrying, you start to question everything.

One common way to respond to doubt is by looking for reassurance. A person with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), for instance, may lock the door and then return again and again to check it, or jiggle the knob five, ten, or twenty times to make sure it’s secure. Or she may leave but mentally reenact her departure on her way to work to convince herself she turned the key and heard the latch click.

In the case of repetitive door-checking or any other ritual involving actions you can observe, it’s easy to see how seeking reassurance can become a disruptive compulsion. But other forms of compulsive reassurance-seeking are less obvious, though no less problematic.

Many reassurance rituals take place internally, as with the OCD-sufferer who tries to picture locking the door after she’s left the house. Mental compulsions also occur frequently with the so-called “repugnant” obsessions—fears of being a pedophile or a murderer, say. While such obsessions are an extremely common manifestation of OCD, people who experience them usually feel intensely ashamed and will go to great lengths to keep them hidden.

Incessant questioning is another typical reassurance ritual aimed at minimizing anxiety about uncertainty. It might take the form of constantly polling friends for their opinions about a romantic partner or repeatedly asking a colleague if the boss seemed annoyed when you were five minutes late for the staff meeting. The key words here are “constantly” and “repeatedly.” Asking for others’ opinions and feedback isn’t necessarily an unhealthy practice. But when the need for reassurance is driven by anxiety, getting someone else’s take on a situation is never enough to quell the doubt and the feelings of dread accompanying it.

In our age of infinite information access, it’s especially easy to indulge the urge to question. Have your friends gotten sick of telling you they think your girlfriend is cool? No problem. Just google “How do I know if my partner is right for me?” and you’ll find countless answers*.

[Caution: Don’t read this if you’re prone to relationship anxiety.] *My own search turned up, just for starters: 31 Ways to Know You’re In the Right Relationship,     10 Ways to Know if the Relationship is “Right,” Courage to Know When a Relationship is Not Right for You, Should I Break Up with My Boyfriend Quiz,  How to Determine if You’ve Found Your Soulmate, and I’m Not Sure If I Want to Break Up with My Boyfriend.

For people with health anxiety, looking for reassurance online can be a particularly compelling ritual. Worrying about that suspicious lump? Ask WebMd! There are even sites where you can send photos of whatever ails you to be evaluated by a real doctor. (But, to be clear, I’m not recommending it.)

It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you’re only being thorough if you’re in the habit of doing endless research before making a major life decision or even just a minor purchase. But anxiety about a wrong choice is often the driving force behind such indecisiveness. For those perfectionistic types, selecting a course of graduate study might involve looking into countless degree programs; taking the GRE, LSAT, and GMAT to cover all the bases; comparing employment statistics for different careers; going on dozens of informational interviews; and asking friends and family for their recommendations and advice.

If you feel you need to know all the options before making a decision, even a low-risk commitment like buying a pair of rain boots might set off the process of exhaustive research and advice-seeking.

I can relate. Even though I usually can decide with only a little hesitation about where to stay on vacations and which kitchen appliances to buy, I’m less confident when it comes to interior decoration. I confess to having recently wasted an entire afternoon searching for an end table after having uncovered the “25 Best” online design sites and looking at all of them. And I still haven’t ordered any furniture.

Seeking reassurance, whether through compulsive checking, mental reviewing, or information gathering clearly can get in the way of decisive action. So how do you know if it’s a problem for you or just an occasional annoyance? I’ll explain in my next post.






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Posted in Anxiety, Health Anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Perfectionism |

4 thoughts on “Seeking Reassurance: an Often Unrecognized Compulsion

  1. Katie

    Hi, I’m currently going through some really anxious times. I was sexually assaulted this summer and I received the police report from all the witnesses and the perpetrator. That was a lot to take in, reading the account itself and the opinions others have of me. Within that document were statements that really upset me about how I am jealous, hold grudges and am an attention seeker. I can sometimes believe that I unintentionally seek reassurance from others and don’t prefer to be the odd one out. I’m a natural introvert but also, my father is an alcoholic and drug addict. I find myself looking up so many health things and cannot stop. I don’t have the best health so that is partly to blame but I could quite well be some what of a hypochondriac. I’m in counseling and I should probably bring all this up at my appointment this coming week. I’m not looking for attention so much right now or valodation, but a solution so I can get past these tendencies.

    • lgots

      Hi Katie,
      You seem to be dealing with a lot, and it sounds like you’re struggling. Please share what you’ve told me with your therapist, who can help you find better ways to cope.

  2. Anders

    I’m just commenting so that I will be notified of new posts by email!

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© 2008-2019 Lynne S. Gots, PhD. Photographs by Steven Marks Photography.