Sufferers crave reassurance; Why you shouldn’t give it
When a person has OCD, asking for reassurance is a compulsion. It is a compulsion, as sure as checking, tapping, washing, cleaning or ruminating. And sufferers who seek reassurance will go to great lengths to get it. They, and those around them, need to learn that giving reassurance is not a good thing to do and will, in fact, prolong OCD suffering.
Assurance is a positive declaration intended to give confidence. Reassurance is doing the same thing, over and over again. So it could be okay to assure and OCD sufferer about something but giving that assurance repeatedly is not a good idea.
“Is the stove off?”
The above is an example of giving assurance. It happened one time. All people, from time to time, look for assurance about something that may be troubling them. But OCD sufferers get into trouble when they ask for reassurance:
“Are you sure the stove is off?”
That’s asking for reassurance. It’s an overt compulsion that sufferers do on online OCD forums and to mental health professionals, family members and friends. Reassurance seeking is actually a type of checking compulsion: Sufferers ‘check’ with others whether things are okay or if they are okay.
Why is it bad? Compulsions, all compulsions, don’t work. Obsessions cause distress and compulsions are done to try and alleviate that distress. In other words, compulsions are done by sufferers to feel better. But they don’t work, at least not for long. Once a compulsion has been performed, a sufferer may feel temporary relief, but soon enough doubt resurfaces, another obsession strikes, and the sufferer is is back to wanting to do another compulsion. The same thing holds true for reassurance seeking. Looking for reassurance just leads to more reassurance seeking. It can be an endless cycle that keeps a sufferer stuck.
Common types of reassurance seeking include wanting to know that the sufferer is not a sexual deviant or pedophile, seeking assistance in ensuring compulsions done have been done correctly (Is the stove off? Do you think my hands are clean enough?) asking if a person thinks the sufferer is gay/straight, asking someone if they think the sufferer is capable of committing a horrendous act or asking if the sufferer did not poison someone with a prepared meal.
One very common type of reassurance seeking is where a sufferer asks others if they are sure the sufferer has OCD. A sufferer can be diagnosed with OCD by a psychiatrist or other mental health professional but then OCD doubt comes into play and the sufferer can be left wondering if they actually have OCD or not. That can lead to the sufferer asking the same professionals or others, family members, friends or members of online forums if they are sure he/she has OCD. This can go on indefinitely as the sufferer gets stuck in a doubt/reassurance cycle that is not solved by getting more reassurance.
In a perfect world, a sufferer who performs reassurance seeking will be seen by a qualified OCD therapist, who will raise the issue of reassurance seeking and express how it is something that needs to end. That will be communicated to at least other family members and all involved will know that giving reassurance is the wrong thing to do and everyone works toward stopping the practice.
Everyone dealing with OCD, from mental health professionals to family and friends needs to understand that reassurance seeking and giving reassurance are conducive to recovery. The practice needs to stop. Talking together and setting boundaries is a good move.
Sufferers need to understand that they should not ask for reassurance and they should not expect it to be given. Rather, they should expect their anxiety to rise without reassurance but know that it should go away in due course without receiving reassurance. Like any other compulsion, it can be difficult to wean one’s self off reassurance seeking but it can be done over time. Sufferers learn to not ask for it and learn to live with increased anxiety in the short term for long term benefit.