Do you find yourself running on adrenaline? Always second-guessing yourself – terrified of getting things “wrong”… Do you worry a lot about doing – or saying – the wrong thing and losing the people you care about?
And to counteract these anxious feelings, do you find yourself seeking reassurance to make sure things are “OK”? Perhaps you’re always checking in with your partner or the people closest to you…
The need for validation and reassurance from time-to-time is normal and healthy… We all have moments when we question ourselves, and it takes courage to reach out for support when we need it. That said, constantly needing reassurance is not. When it becomes a coping mechanism for anxiety it can lead to a self-perpetuating cycle that can feel hard to break out of.
Constant reassurance and anxiety – what’s the link?
When we dig a little deeper, we usually find that this need for constant reassurance is driven by anxiety. And when this is the case, it can easily become part of a pattern.
Whilst reassurance may relieve our anxiety in the moment, it’s likely to make it worse longer term.
Every time we seek out reassurance, we teach the brain that we only survived the “threat” because of that behaviour. Thus, the behaviour itself gets reinforced.
In this sense, reassurance can become addictive. We feel anxious, and so we seek out reassurance. Our anxiety dissipates for a while but soon enough, we feel anxious again – and the cycle continues…
Why do I need constant reassurance in a relationship?
This vulnerability most often shows up in our closest relationships. The reason for this is that – more often than not – this is also where it began.
Reassurance-seeking is perhaps best understood through the lens of attachment theory. Attachment theory centres around the idea that our earliest bonds (with our caregivers) set the precedent for how we respond to our relationships in later life.
There are four different attachment styles, each of which can be traced back to the kind of connections we had in our earliest relationships:
If our parents were available and responsible to us growing up, we’re likely to develop a natural sense of security in our relationships (secure attachment style). If our parents respond consistently to our needs, we learn that people are to be trusted and that we can depend on them.
If, on the other hand, our parents were emotionally unresponsive or, for example, criticised us when we cried or expressed emotions, we may develop an avoidant attachment style. We might become overly self-sufficient and fearful of getting too close, “learning” that people aren’t to be relied upon or trusted.
But if you’re the kind of person who needs a lot of reassurance in your relationships, you likely have an anxious attachment style. A parent may have been unavailable to you growing up, or perhaps they were inconsistent in their parenting style, giving mixed signals – one moment, supportive and reliable, and the next, cold and disengaged.
You might find that you’re completely preoccupied with your relationships. You spend a lot of time thinking about them – and worrying about them. Because the anxiety feels so overwhelming, you seek reassurance to make sure everything’s OK.
How to stop seeking reassurance
If you can relate to any of the above, it’s important to remember that attachment styles can be changed. They’re not something we’re stuck with forever. By realising our patterns, gaining insight into their roots and taking conscious steps to act differently, we can heal our anxious wounds and develop a sense of safety in our relationships.
Next time you feel the pull to seek reassurance, here are some steps you can take:
Stand up to it – the only way to overcome this kind of behaviour is to stop responding to it. Try to acknowledge what you’re feeling and simply sit with it, without responding in the usual way. You’ll notice that the anxiety dissipates in its own time. If this feels difficult, it can help to work alongside a therapist who will be able to support you.
Breathe – slow, deep breathing kick-starts the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of our nervous system that is responsible for promoting a sense of calm in the mind and body. Try the following exercise:
- Breathe in for 4 secs
- Hold your breath for 7 secs
- Exhale breath for 8 secs
- Repeat over several times, until you feel a greater sense of calm.
Challenge your thoughts – the anxious thoughts that lead you to seek out reassurance are likely to be unrealistic and unhelpful. Try questioning the validity of these thoughts. Ask yourself questions like, “Am I catastrophising?” “If this happens, what’s the worst case scenario?” “What’s the best case scenario?” “Would I be able to cope if X actually happened?” The answer is usually yes.
Reassure yourself – ask yourself what kinds of reassuring words you’re looking for from others and try giving them to yourself. They may be things like, “You’re safe”, “I love you”, “I will always be here for you”, “Things are going to be OK”, “Whatever happens, I can deal with it”.
Practice self-soothing – self-soothing is an important skill you can turn to whenever you feel stressed or overwhelmed. You can practise self-soothing by engaging the five senses. Here are some ideas:
Touch – run a warm bubble bath with epsom salts.
Smell – make a nice soothing herbal tea.
Taste – mindfully eat your favourite food, taking note of all the different flavours.
Sound – listen to your favourite soothing song.
Sight – watch a comforting, nostalgic movie.
There’s no getting around it: we live in an uncertain world. As Pliny the elder once wrote, “the only certainty is that nothing is certain”.
And actually, that’s part of the joy of it! Because of this, we need to find a way of becoming OK with uncertainty… To know that we will never have all the answers – and neither will anyone else, in fact. With time, we might even find that we start to embrace uncertainty and the magic of everything it holds.