THE BLOG

When Reassurance Becomes a Crutch

12/20/2013 05:15 pm ET | Updated Feb 19, 2014

What do you say to others when they are scared or worried? What do others say to you? Have you ever had the experience of someone telling you everything will be fine? Did it help? Did you really believe them?

We have all done it. We try to say something that is helpful and reassuring. We try to say something that will take away someone's fears or doubts. The problem is it usually doesn't work. And sometimes reassurance does the exact opposite of what we intend.

Here are some examples of reassurance statements:

• I promise (or know) nothing bad will happen.
• I am here and will protect you.
• This will not hurt or will not be scary.
• You'll be fine.

While these sound like perfectly reasonable things to say, reassurance is tricky. We are basically making promises we can't keep or we are pretending we can control situations we cannot. Although in most situations we can predict that nothing bad will happen, we cannot guarantee it. There is a chance that something could go wrong. Then I become a liar because I just told you everything would be fine.

A really hard concept for many people is that life does not have guarantees, but we do things and take appropriate risks anyway. And we live with ambiguity and uncertainty all the time. Additionally, we do not want to indicate that there is something wrong with feeling scared and that this feeling means we have to be rescued or retreat.

Unfortunately, reassurance becomes a crutch for some people, especially individuals with anxiety (click here to learn more about specific anxiety disorders). They want someone to tell them everything is going to be okay in order to complete a task or face a difficult situation. And with time people start to rely on the reassurance in order to function. They actually become more reliant rather than strong.

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For example, if a family member is not willing to go to a party unless you go with them and remind them everything is going to be okay the whole time you are there, they are likely over-reliant on you as a safety person. Reassurance may get them through the moment, but it ends up maintaining their anxiety in the long run. It becomes difficult for the person to rely on themselves and function on their own. And children especially need to learn to cope on their own because we cannot always be there.

So how can we be supportive without providing reassurance?

Validate Feelings: It is important not to sugar coat situations. The best thing we can do is recognize and validate what is going on in the present moment. This is especially important when we are facing uncomfortable or scary situations. For example, recognizing that the situation is scary, that it might hurt, or that we might feel like we want to flee are all important feelings to express and validate. This is honest, realistic, and empathetic.

Use Coping Statements: Rather than using language that takes away from thoughts and feelings in the moment, use language that promotes one's ability to get through the situation, even when it might be really hard. For example:

• You are strong and you can do this.
• You can get through this.
• Your feelings (or the situation) are temporary.
• You always feel better when you stick with it.
• You have to stay in order for your fear to ultimately decrease.

By using validation and coping statements rather than reassurance we are helping to support that person's confidence and resilience. I tell people all the time, I would rather they have problems and learn how to get through them than not have any problems at all. We aim for the goal to shift from a short-term fix and feeling better in the moment, to a more long-term solution of building coping skills and resilience.

Get more information about anxiety on the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) website. Learn about treatment options, as well as how to choose a therapist who specializes in anxiety disorders, and where to find a therapist in your area.

To follow Andrea Umbach's practice Southeast Psych on facebook, click here.