Just one more time- I’ll just check my schedule just one more time. “Mom, are you still downstairs?” “Are you sure I am not sick with something more serious than a cold?” Will you always love me? What if I hurt my friend’s feelings?
We all need reassurance in some form or another. But what about when reassurance isn’t ENOUGH or when it doesn’t actually make us feel better? Reassurance can be a good thing, or it can be unproductive and feed the need for more of it.
Unproductive reassurance does not help or eliminate worry; despite attempting to reduce your anxiety, discomfort, and distress. Sure, you may feel relief momentarily, but that feeling crawls back into your body and thoughts surge while overtaking reason in your brain. We can’t always know for sure about ALL the things. We may be more comfortable with the uncertainty in some areas of our lives, but not all areas. We may attempt rational self-talk to no avail and the “yes, but…” takes back over before too long. Phrases like “Everything will be okay” or “Stop thinking that negative thing; think this positive thought instead” may temporarily alleviate the discomfort, or it may feel disingenuous.
When you seek false comfort, or find yourself providing it- it’s time to approach feelings of anxiety differently. Whether we realize it or not, the person we speak to most in our lives is ourselves. We govern the internal monologue and must recognize the level of control we play in this constant conversation. When it comes to anxiety, we may need to consider which of our voices is talking. We have three voices: Worried Voice, False Comfort, and Wise Mind. The trick is to be able to identify who is doing the talking. We need to train ourselves to consider whether we are providing False Comfort to our Worried Voice or whether we are allowing the Wise Mind to do the talking. Let’s meet the characters of our mind:
Worried Voice: This voice expresses the doubts, “what ifs” and “yes, buts”, and is our danger signal.
False Comfort: provides that temporary relief that we think we need and argues with or tries to distract us from the messaging from Worried Voice.
Wise Mind: Remember, a thought is just that… a thought. It may not be true or as intense as it initially appears. This voice knows that doubts are natural and that some thoughts aren’t worth reacting to. It also knows that nothing can be guaranteed, that the quest for ultimate certainty is distressing.
How do we build our Wise Mind and relearn to avoid reassurance traps that perpetuate feelings of anxiety?
We have to remember that our brain is sending false alarms that make us THINK we are in danger, when really we are uncomfortable. So, we try to de-sensitize ourselves to discomfort. I know what you’re thinking- “WHY would I want to make myself feel uncomfortable? That is exactly what I’m trying to avoid!” Remember, certainty is a feeling, not a fact; certainty is not possible. “Anxious thinking makes the consequences of something you fear feel so significant that the probability feels irrelevant” (Seif & Winston, 2019, p. 102). Fear sets off chemicals from your brain that get confused as “bad”; however, the same chemicals are released when you are excited. It’s our interpretation of the arousal that determines whether we feel positively or negatively.
So, we must engage our Wise Mind. It’s job is to allow you to recognize something as a false alarm, but it doesn’t STOP the alarm from sounding and end the discomfort; it just allows you to respond differently while the alarm goes off.
For a moment, imagine that a terrible or anxious thought crossed your mind. Maybe you’re thinking “My child is in danger”. Add the phrase “I’m having the thought that…” to the beginning. As in “I’m having the thought that my child is in danger”. The phrase “I’m having the thought that..” helps you observe your thoughts instead of becoming entangled in them. As you allow thoughts and urges to just “be there”, you are growing your ability to tolerate discomfort. We must engage in “therapeutic surrender”. This means, we allow the anxious thoughts and feelings while refusing to do what the feeling and thought are telling you to do. We acknowledge the worry bully without falling prey to seeking unproductive reassurance.
So, how do we adapt this new attitude towards our anxiety? One way is to be DEAF to it. Doing these steps will not give you immediate relief, but it means that the long-term goal is settling down Worried Voice.
Distinguish the trap from a real emergency
Is the conversation an argument between Worried Voice and False Comfort or is it an actual emergency?
Embrace the feeling of uncertainty
Recognize that you feel uncertain and uncomfortable, and work towards embracing the nature of the discomfort. Recognize that you are addressing the content of your worries rather than dealing with the overriding experience of uncertainty.
Allow the false alarms to ring until the feeling subsides on its own. This requires a willingness to be uncomfortable and not do anything. Remind yourself that you can’t know for sure, and that certain questions have no “for sure” answers.
Float above the feeling of discomfort and let more time pass
Let time pass and learn to tolerate waiting. Think of a cork floating in water: No matter how rough or tranquil the water, the cork exerts no effort; it allows the force of the water to propel it wherever it may. This metaphor allows you to go on with your activities while feeling discomfort. For other helpful metaphors, see pages 130-131 (Seif & Winston, 2019).
Going DEAF takes practice. Try it when you aren’t activated and continue to engage in regular practice of questioning your internal dialogue. Have grace for yourself when you realize that you let Worried Voice and False Comfort take over and try again.