When it comes to feelings of vulnerability, fear, or distress, reassurance is one of the earliest forms of soothing our parents and caregivers provide.

From as early as infancy, our parents say comforting words to us when we cry, as they seemingly magically take away our distress at the same time (with concrete help), whether by feeding us, holding us, playing with us, etc. Their promises of safety become associated with actual concrete help and with the omnipotent power we invest in our caregivers when we are young and helpless and they seem strong, protective, and powerful.

As we grow, we internalize these assurances, either by telling ourselves everything will be okay just as they once told it to us, or as a felt sense of safety and mastery in a world full of threats, challenges, and frustrations, as well as uncertainties.

As we mature, we rely less on concrete forms of reassurance such as asking others for approval or validation, or to tell us things will be ok, and more on a sense of trust that whatever happens we can cope. In times of vulnerability we may regress to an earlier need for reassurance that we’re loved, protected, or safe, but mostly we know deep down that this is a symbolic act of comfort from an attachment figure, rather than an actual ticket to safety.

However, for some of us, a feeling of not being safe, or of being unable to cope, prevails, whether from traumas that teach us that the world is full of unmanageable threats, or from an internal sense of fear that wasn’t soothed or regulated enough by caregivers to provide an inner sense of calm. In such cases, the natural progression from external sources of reassurance to self-reliance can take a detour into the realm of compulsive reassurance seeking, a path that reinforces our sense of needing something external, concrete, or ritualized to manage anxiety and uncertainty.

Compulsive reassurance-seeking is a common theme in anxiety disorders and OCD, and can manifest as a relentless quest for validation from others or repeated attempts to reassure ourselves mentally (or through conditioned safety behaviors) that we’ll be “ok”.

Seeing our distress, friends and family may offer us the words we want to hear or even encourage us to tell ourselves reassuring mantras or statements, not realizing that reassurance in this case is reinforcing of anxiety. It is also based on a magical quality invested in the words; something an anxious person doesn’t really believe in deep down. In these situations, reassurance doesn’t really help, and the need for more and more of it takes on a life of its own.

Like a broken record, anxious individuals can find themselves trapped in a cycle of seeking reassurance or trying to reassure themselves, yet never feeling fully satisfied or at peace. Some of us have even learned that any time we notice any vulnerable emotion at all, we must immediately tell ourselves it’s “normal” or that “everything’s ok”, a habit so automatic we don’t even realize we’re avoiding our emotions in the first place.

At its core, compulsive reassurance-seeking is fueled by a fear of the unknown and a lack of inner trust and safety. No amount of reassurance can fill a void left by primal fears, for they stem not from external threats, but from within. Uncertainty is a part of life, and adults are as vulnerable as children (as we all soon learn), but healthy attachment experiences give us a felt sense of safety to carry around inside.

Healing comes when we start to let go of some of our reassurance seeking behaviors and take some risks. We learn that we can cope without our rituals and that deep down we’re ok even if we’re not telling it ourselves all the time. We learn to use others for actual feedback instead of to fulfill an anxiety regulating function for us.

Letting go of safety behaviors is especially effective when we feel emotionally supported by others who give us the message that they believe in us and in our ability to cope, and that they’re right there by our side as we take some scary risks. Instead of holding us back with momentary reassurances that make us feel better for a moment but don’t really help us in the long run, they stand in our corner as we step out of our comfort zones and learn to trust that things will ultimately be ok, and that deep down we are fundamentally ok too!