Benjamin Franklin once observed, “In this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.” While we can all agree about death, there are some places without taxes. But the question remains: What can you actually be certain of? Can you know for sure that some catastrophic accident or illness won’t ruin your life in the next day? Can you know for sure that you have not at some time overlooked some careless mistake that will cause harm? Can you absolutely guarantee that you will love your partner forever?
Actually, no! We can’t guarantee certainty about anything, really. So most of us just carry on as if we could, allowing the illusion of certainty to prevail.
Some of us, however, become haunted by needing to know for sure. You might check things, ask others for feedback or opinions, and try to reassure yourself over and over, which helps for a while but never lasts. You might become hypervigilant about something. Or a doubt arises and it feels compelling; you can’t let it go. You become hooked on the checking and reassurance.
If you tend to automatically imagine the worst possible consequence and then spend an inordinate amount of time and effort trying to convince yourself that it won’t happen, or mull over your past actions, wondering whether your motives were pure enough, while scrutinizing your thoughts, behaviors, and attitudes to make sure you did the right thing or did it for the right reason, then uncertainty has become your enemy. The reassurance you get from others or from the things you say to yourself—“That will never happen,” “I’m sure I took care of that,” “That didn’t happen that way,” or “It won’t be so bad”—makes that feeling of dread go away for a bit, and you experience a moment of relative calmness. But only a moment. Because then that sense of “Am I sure?” roars back; your anxiety, guilt, and distress spike; you have new urgent questions and look for further reassurance. The cycle repeats. You are stuck.
We call this compulsive, driven, unrelenting need for reassurance the reassurance trap. It’s driven and maintained by two of voices of the mind: Worried Voice and False Comfort. A third voice, Wise Mind, observes without judgment, offers commentary, and leads the way out of the trap.
Worried Voice is the one who comes up with the doubts, “what ifs,” and “yes, buts.” It’s the voice of anxiety-provoking thoughts and feelings. It’s incredibly creative and imaginative, and it leaps automatically and continuously toward awful possibilities and catastrophes. It wants to know for sure that everything is going to be okay. It begs for reassurance; it rebels when asked to accept any uncertainty or ambiguity. Worried Voice is an all-or-nothing thinker. It has a hard time waiting. Everything feels urgent and important in the moment. Worried Voice begs for relief from anxiety, demands attention and comfort, wails and escalates when left on its own.
False Comfort is the voice that issues reassurance at the drop of a hat—at any hint of anxiety or doubts. It follows immediately after the “what ifs?” of Worried Voice. The mission of False Comfort is to give Worried Voice immediate relief from anxiety. It argues, suppresses, reasons with, and tries to distract from the messages of Worried Voice. It offers avoidance suggestions. The problem is that False Comfort provides unproductive reassurance. It therefore has no staying power and automatically retriggers another concern from Worried Voice. That requires False Comfort to step back in, and Worried Voice is triggered once again. Worried Voice always seems to have the last word: anxiety goes up, while tolerance for uncertainty goes down.
Wise Mind is the third inner voice. It’s able to rise above and separate itself from the unhelpful interplay between Worried Voice and False Comfort. Wise Mind has learned that doubts are a natural production of the human mind, that some thoughts aren’t worth considering or reacting to, and that nothing can be guaranteed. It can see that any quest for ultimate certainty is hopeless and produces more distress in the long run. It understands that most thoughts—even horrible “what if?” thoughts—are not danger signals. It also understands that the mind can issue false alarms, and it knows how best to react to a probable false alarm: not with immediate, urgent action, but by simply letting time pass. Wise Mind is mindful; it knows how to observe the mind without judgment, and it doesn’t get entangled in the argument between Worried Voice and False Comfort.
Wise Mind’s ability to observe the internal dialogue in real time is an essential component of breaking out of the reassurance trap. In particular, Wise Mind has the ability to discern, in a nonjudgmental and noncritical manner, the interplay of Worried Voice and False Comfort.
When Worried Voice and False Comfort Argue
Here’s a typical dialogue between Worried Voice and False Comfort when you’re stuck in the reassurance trap.
Worried Voice: I’m worrying that I left the stove on.
False Comfort: Don’t be silly! Of course you turned it off. You’re an extremely safe and responsible person.
Worried Voice: Yeah, but two years ago I was about to leave the house and I realized one of the burners was still on.
False Comfort: Well, no one is perfect. Don’t be hard on your¬self for one time.
Worried Voice: But I might have burned down the whole house! I would be homeless.
False Comfort: Seriously, what do you think the chances are of that happening? Highly unlikely!
Worried Voice: But it only has to happen one time! I need to make absolutely sure the burner is off.
False Comfort: Well, maybe you should leave work and check it just to make 100-percent sure.
Worried Voice: Okay, but last time I left work to check on it, I got in trouble. And anyway, when I got back to work, I was worried that I’d accidentally turned it back on because I was so upset with myself. Maybe I have a memory problem.
It seems clear that False Comfort can’t get Worried Voice to stop asking for more and more reassurance. In fact, Worried Voice actually thinks of new things to worry about in response to False Comfort’s efforts to help. They’re stuck together in the reassurance trap. This is the worry-reassure-worry again cycle that maintains and reinforces the trap. When you’re in it, you lose perspective and develop emotional tunnel vision, focusing only on your goal of needing to be absolutely, positively, 100-percent sure.
Wise Mind Steps In
Here’s where Wise Mind can make a difference.
Wise Mind: Okay, give me an example of something in life that’s risk-free.
(Both Worried Voice and False Comfort are silent…)
Wise Mind: That’s right, you can’t think of anything, because nothing exists that’s risk-free. So why are you trying to be absolutely, 100-percent sure that you didn’t leave the stove on? A guarantee is not possible.
Worried Voice: But I can’t stand not knowing.
Wise Mind: Worried Voice, you have trouble seeing that you are taking your thoughts too seriously. Thoughts are just thoughts, even if their content is fright¬ening. You tolerate not knowing for sure all kinds of other terrible things all the time. You just had this particular thought pop up, and it scared you.
False Comfort: He gets so upset. I am just trying to help.
Wise Mind: I understand. You think that you have to reas¬sure him every time he brings up something to worry about. But it hasn’t worked so far, so why would it work in the future? You’re making him think he just can’t handle any anxiety or doubt. And you’re reinforcing the idea that such thoughts are valid warnings. Let’s allow one check and then deal with the uncertainty that remains. In the long run, this is how you bypass the misery.
In this dialogue, Wise Mind has shown Worried Voice and False Comfort a path out of the reassurance trap. This might be a difficult path, involving tolerating some uncomfortable feelings, but Wise Mind has pointed in the right direction.
Excerpted from Needing to Know for Sure: A CBT-based Guide to Overcoming Compulsive Checking & Reassurance Seeking. Reprinted with permission: New Harbinger Publications, Inc. copyright © 2019 Martin Seif, PhD and Sally Winston, PsyD
Image © iStock/Feodora Chiosea
Martin Seif, PhD, is coauthor of What Every Therapist Needs to Know About Anxiety Disorders, Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts, and The Reassurance Trap.
Sally Winston, PsyD, is coauthor of What Every Therapist Needs to Know About Anxiety Disorders, Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts, and The Reassurance Trap.