WHEN REASSURANCE IS HARMFUL
By Paul R. Munford, Ph.D.
Anxiety Treatment Center of Northern California
Published by The OC Foundation, Inc.
People with OCD worry that their obsessional fears will come true. To ease this distress they ask other
people, usually family members or close friends, over and over again to reassure them that it won’t happen.
Because obsessional fears are always unrealistic, the family members or friends (and even therapists) tell
them there is no need to worry; nothing bad is going to happen. For instance, it is quite common for
people with fears of hurting others to seek reassurance that they are harmless; for people with fears of
engaging in inappropriate sexual acts that they will not lose control; and for fears of committing blasphemy
that they will not be punished. Typically, they get the reassurance that they want but its effects don’t last
because the fear returns with the next obsession. These repeated reassurance requests are actually
compulsions because they provide only temporary relief from the obsessions. And, like other compulsions,
they prevent exposure to the fear which is necessary for recovery. Even though offering only temporary
relief, the reassurance is rewarding enough to keep the person repeatedly seeking more of it. Here’s the
first paradox: the more reassurance received, the more reassurance wanted.
It eventually becomes apparent to those in the reassurance exchange that their efforts are not only useless
for managing fear but also lead to interpersonal strife. Reassurance is not helpful; it’s harmful. For
example, I worked with a woman who feared that her three-year old daughter was not her biological
offspring but someone else’s; her baby had been switched in the hospital. During the early stages of fear,
she called the hospital requesting confirmation that the child was hers, and was assured that indeed she was.
This satisfied her for a few days; but as the doubt returned, she called again, and again, and again until the
hospital refused to take any further calls. When she couldn’t get reassurance from the hospital, she turned
to her husband. “Does the child look like us? Did you see any other Asian babies in the hospital? How can
we be sure the blood tests and medical records prove we are the parents?” Realizing that his attempts to
comfort her were futile, the father tried to ignore her. This only caused her to redouble her efforts; she
followed him from room to room demanding that he answer her questions. Her demands became so
frequent and intense that he eventually moved out of the house and rented an apartment of his own. At that
point, the mother entered an intensive treatment program where they both received help.
Reassurance requests can become reassurance demands. This happens when the person threatens emotional
outburst or has temper tantrums if his demands are not met. The person may insist on hearing certain
words, words said in a certain way, or repeated in a ritualized fashion. Whenn this is not enough, he or she
may demand that others actually perform rituals for the person. For example, I worked with a woman who
was afraid that she was touching children inappropriately, touching them in a sexual way even though she
was unaware of actually doing it. These fears would frequently occur whenever she was close to lots of
children in public places. On the way home, she would question her spouse about any misdeed; and, once
home, she worried that someone saw her touch a child and reported her to the police. From then on,
sounds from the outside were interpreted as the police descending on her home and pounding on her door
at any minute. Again she repeatedly sought confirmation that she wasn’t about to be arrested. Also, she
compulsively opened her apartment door and surveyed the street to see if the police had arrived. When she
went to bed she had to routinely repeatedly check all the locks on all windows and doors. However, this
wasn’t enough. She would then ask her husband to assure that she had done the checking. When his
reassurances eventually failed to comfort her, she then demanded that he repeat her checking routine.
As you can see, trying to satisfy demands for reassurance is like trying to fill a bottomless pit. Now, the
second paradox: once reassurance elimination is underway, the reassured finds his desire for it vanishing
until eventually he feels no need for it at all.
There is also a corresponding decrease in the strength of his obsessions
and other compulsions. But all of this is only realized after reassurance has stopped. How, then, should
one respond to reassurance requests from an OCD sufferer?
First, the person and his significant others are educated about the harmful effects of reassurance. They are
given the explanation that providing reassurance interferers with recovery from the disorder. It does so by
blocking exposure to the fear, which is necessary for the elimination of fear. Remember, exposure is key to
Second, the person is instructed to abstain from asking for reassurance. A reassurance-seeker’s most
frequent questions are identified and she/he is told not to ask these questions. Frequently, there are subtle,
indirect ways that the person obtains reassurance. There may be unknown to the reassurers, but knowingly
practiced by the reassure. For example, one client I worked with would abruptly stop doing whatever she
was doing, sit down and space out. Her husband learned that these behaviors signaled that she was caught
up in obsessions; and unbeknownst to him, they became a nonverbal request for reassurance that he would
immediately provide by telling her not to worry, that her fears were irrational, that it was only her OCD.
So, in addition to attending to the obvious requests, subtle, indirect ones also need to be stopped. The
statement “I love you” seems caring, but is it when stated by a person who has violent obsessions? Most
likely not, if said repeatedly, because it commonly elicits the response “I love you too,” which can be
comforting to a person, guilt ridden by images and thoughts of stabbing the reassurer.
Third, it can be expected that some requests for reassurance will continue despite the person’s efforts to
abstain from them. Therefore, those providing reassurance need to work out expressions that are
acceptable to the person for refusing to offer it. One way of doing this is to say. “I think you’re asking for
reassurance. Remember, reassurance is not helpful it’s harmful. Therefore I’m not going to answer.”
However, if this method does not result in the elimination of reassurance request, it could be possible that
the agreed upon statement itself has become reassuring or that the client believes that no harm can occur
because the reassurer would warn him. In this case, the best way to prevent continued reassurance is for
the parties to stop talking about OCD entirely.
Now this elimination of reassurance is to be restricted only to OCD fears. By all means, the comfort and
support that are given for realistic worries and concerns of life should continue in the reciprocal way that
one finds among people who mutually care for each other. In the case of OCD, however, this comfort and
support comes from the absence of harmful reassurances.
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