We all do it. A lot of the time we’re not even paying attention as we say it. “I’m sure it’s fine that you swore at your boss” we mumble as we tap furiously on our phone. “Yes that perm’s a great look” as we flick TV channels. You get the picture, but so why do we do it? I’d be happy to bet it’s because we want the other person to feel OK, we want them to be happy. That’s normal, it’s human, in fact I’d probably be a little concerned if you didn’t want those things! So when does reassurance become a problem? The answer (you may be there already) is in OCD and I’d argue in Anxiety disorders in general.
I suppose I’m writing this blog post both for the person with OCD but also for family members/friends who struggle with this. A family member recently said to me “why is it such a big deal?” and went on to argue that they seek reassurance for things in their life and it’s not a problem. It was hard to put into words what I wanted to say so I will try here… I suppose the basic answer is that they don’t have OCD so reassurance for them is a harmless exercise to make them feel better from time to time whereas it is so much more for someone with OCD.
So here are my 5 basic facts about reassurance seeking in OCD.
1) Reassurance seeking in OCD is a compulsion – it is something that is used to alleviate the anxiety and to make the sufferer feel better. It may seem like a small thing, fairly insignificant to most, but in my experience it often forms a large part of the compulsive behaviour. Reassurance can include things such as verbally reassuring the person that they don’t need to worry about whatever their obsession is e.g. I’m sure you didn’t hit anybody with your car you would have felt it/I’m sure you’re not a paedophile you don’t even like children/Don’t worry that’s not blood it’s just dried jam. Be aware though that it can also include getting sucked into active reassurance seeking behaviour. Checking that windows and doors are locked for the person with OCD may seem like a quick way of getting them out of the house but ultimately it’s just giving reassurance to that person and also I’d argue creating more stress for the family member that’s now having to undertake the reassurance behaviours.
2) Why is reassurance a problem? I read in a great article here at the blog written by OCD centre of LA that reassurance is essentially addictive for an OCD sufferer. When I read this it was like something finally clicked. For me reassurance does feel like I imagine the hit of a drug. I’m agitated and restless until I get it, then when I receive it I feel slightly elated, like a huge load has been taken off my shoulders but then gradually as time creeps on (and sometimes this may only be minutes, sometimes it will be hours) I decide it wasn’t enough. I just need that little bit more to take the edge off again. It’s a problem because every time we get reassurance it reinforces in our brain that the worry/obsession is significant, that it is something to worry about and something that we need certainty on. Whereas in fact we need to be able to tolerate ‘maybe’. The OCD centre of LA writes “If reassurance were a substance, it would be considered right up there with crack cocaine” That’s pretty powerful isn’t it? Put in that context I’d stake a pretty high bet that you wouldn’t willingly give a family member crack cocaine and so it must be the same with reassurance.
3) So what can family members/well meaning friends do? – Handy hint if your sentences are starting with “Don’t worry” or “I’m sure….” then you are likely offering reassurance. It’s difficult because it’s often automatic so don’t beat yourself up if you do happen to slip up but come to an agreement with that person about what you will and won’t do. If you just suddenly stop reassurance with no prior discussion there could be some sulking from the person with OCD. From tips we picked up from other websites (list at the bottom of this post) we agreed that my family would just say something along the lines of “I’m sorry it’s hard but we agreed I wouldn’t reassure you”. That doesn’t mean I like it or thank them but it works and gradually I’ve stopped asking.
4) What does the person with OCD need to do? – Yep we have a role to play too. Sorry to say it but we have to be honest (if we can) with people about what we’re worrying about. I know from personal experience that we can be a little clever in that regard. I might not tell anyone what I”m worrying about and then start (not so subtly) conversations about that topic in order to gain some unwitting reassurance from the other person. Be honest it’ll only benefit you in the long run.
5) So does this mean someone with OCD can never have reassurance in their life -ever? I put this out on twitter recently because a family member went to reassure me about something completely unrelated to OCD and then stopped in a panic and said “oh no I’m sorry I’m not meant to reassure you”. I’m not an expert so I can’t provide absolute advice on this but my instinct is that reassurance is a problem in relation to OCD worries. If you’re just reassuring someone with OCD that their hair cut looks nice or that some mistake at work will right itself then I think this is OK. This is where the honesty thing comes in though, people won’t know what they can and can’t reassure you on if they don’t know what your obsessions/worries are. It’s also fine to offer non-specific reassurance such as “you’re doing really well” and “we’re really proud of you”.
So these are my thoughts on and experiences with reassurance. I’d be interested whether anyone has any other tips for OCD sufferers and family members/friends/supporters?