What Is Reassurance, and What Exactly Is Wrong With It?

Reassurance. It has such a nice ring to it. And in many ways it is nice. If you feel lonely, your best friend might reassure you that she’ll always be there for you. If you think you’re doing poorly in a class, your teacher might reassure you that you’re doing well and that trying your hardest matters, too.

Getting reassurance can give us the boost we need to keep going–to keep studying, to keep practicing, to keep trying. But reassurance in the OCD universe is a little different. It’s not a hug or a pat on the back or a shoulder to cry on. Seeking reassurance–not just once, not just assurance–can be as much a compulsive behavior as anything else.

I’ve been immersed in the topic of OCD for a few years now, and I’ve learned a lot. When I was at the OCD Conference, almost everybody knew how reassurance seeking can hamper recovery. In one of the sessions I attended, the presenter, Lee Baer, said, “I’m only going to say this once, so it’s not reassurance: I’ve never met someone with OCD who has acted on his obsessions.”

What’s the message here–and what’s with Dr. Baer specifying that he wasn’t reassuring anyone in the audience? Those of us with OCD need to know we’re not alone. We need to know, first and foremost, that we have OCD and that the disorder does not and should not define us. We need to know the facts, and asking questions is definitely encouraged. If I hadn’t learned that I wasn’t the only person to have the intrusive sexual obsessions I’d been struggling with, it would have been really hard for me to feel better and tackle my OCD symptoms. Dr. Baer wanted us to know the truth, that it is very unlikely that any of us would ever act on our obsessions, and that is a powerful truth. But once we hear that, we have to learn to trust it.

The relief we feel from getting reassurance from others is temporary, and it can become a crutch. We can’t ask our psychiatrist over and over and over again if he’s really, truly, super-duper, positively sure that we’ll never act on our obsessions. We can’t simply ask our parents to check the stove for us, or reassure us that we’re not really gay, we just have HOCD. In order to overcome OCD, we have to learn to live with our anxiety, and, yes, it’s very uncomfortable to do so. Feeling uncomfortable doesn’t, well, feel right. It doesn’t seem to be the right decision–but it is!

When I got back from the OCD Conference, I was chatting with a friend who also has OCD. I had presented to a group of teens, and I was worried I hadn’t done well. Instead of saying, “Hey, I’m sure you did great!” he said, “And you know the remedy for that.” I said, “I know I shouldn’t seek reassurance,” and he said, “You nailed it. Sitting in the fire.”

He was right. What would I gain from trying to remember every last detail of the presentation, trying to recapture people’s facial expressions and everything I said and did? It was over, I was done. And if it had truly gone terribly, I’d hear about it from the International OCD Foundation. Of course, I couldn’t quite stop there, so I told another friend with OCD the same thing, that I wasn’t sure that I’d done okay or if my material had been appropriate for the group. She did say, “I’m sure you did great!” but then she quickly said, “Oh, right, I’m not supposed to reassure you. Uh, I’m sure you did mediocre.”

Those of us on “this” side of OCD get it. We know we shouldn’t seek reassurance from others, and we know we shouldn’t give it, either. If someone with pedophilia OCD reaches out to me and asks whether I think he’s really a pedophile, at first I can tell him what I think–that his incredibly unpleasant reactions to his intrusive thoughts tell me that he has OCD. I can let him know he’s not alone, and we can talk through some things. But if I really want to help him through this, I can’t tell him again and again that he’s not a pedophile. If he writes to me multiple times a day asking whether his terrible thoughts really mean something, I can’t write to him every time to tell them they don’t, even if that’s what I truly believe based on everything’s he’s told me.

It can become an unhealthy cycle: You have an upsetting intrusive thought. You text your friend to say, “Oh my god I just pictured my dog naked.” (Are you one of those people who dresses your dog?!) “Do you think I’m going to hell?” Your friend, wanting to make you feel better, says, “No! Of course not! I picture my cat in lingerie all the time!” And you do feel better. But only for a while. And then it happens again, and you text your friend again. And you feel relief. But only for a while. And again and again. Now, your friend’s reaction is great–she’s telling you there’s really nothing wrong with your unpleasant intrusive thought, and there’s not. But that’s not the point. The point is that while we can all benefit from support and friendship, we need to learn how to get ourselves through anxious moments and uncomfortable thoughts. If you go to your friend for reassurance every single time you need it, it may become the only way you feel relief.

Learn to rely on yourself and to talk yourself through obsessions, and let your loved ones know that if you seek reassurance from them they shouldn’t give it. Will it be hard? Yes! And you’ll have moments, just like I do, when you seek reassurance anyway–and your loved ones will give it. We’re human. Just do your best to stop the cycle OCD causes.