“Don’t stress about it, it doesn’t really matter.” “Don’t worry, I’m sure it’ll be okay.” “You’ll be fine.” “You’re over thinking it, it’s not a big issue.” “That’s not really a problem so I wouldn’t fret.” We’ve all said phrases like these when someone’s anxious about something. We’ve been trying to reassure, to boost the confidence of the other person, to stop them worrying. The problem is it doesn’t work. Instead of a little reassurance convincing you everything’s going to be okay, most people hear “I don’t really understand what you’re worried about – you’re on your own”.
Reassurance is about trying to help someone stop worrying by saying kind things. If one thing’s been made really clear this summer, it’s that getting exam results is stressful. Anxiety was a natural, healthy response. Saying to any young person struggling in the midst of the chaos over their GCSE, A’ Level and BTEC results “don’t worry, I’m sure it will all be okay” was never going to work. Afterall, how do you know it’s going to be okay. You don’t.
My husband is very security conscious. He’s focused on taking whatever steps he can to prevent our home being burgled. I’m not so fussed. It’s not that I don’t care, rather my mental risk assessment suggests it’s not likely. We’ve got an alarm. We’re covered by neighbourhood watch. We’ve got two big dogs with impressive barks – they might be more likely to wag their tails when they see a new person, but a burglar wouldn’t know that. But telling my husband all this gets us nowhere. All he hears is that I don’t understand his concerns and am missing the point.
Reassurance doesn’t just come from someone else. People often try and reassure themselves.
Working as a psychotherapist, time after time I hear people say, “I know it’s okay really.” “I tell myself there’s nothing to worry about.” Worse still, I hear them criticise themselves for worrying in the first place. “It’s ridiculous; I’ve got nothing to get upset about really.” “I’m just being silly; I know everything’s going to be okay.” “I’ve got to pull myself together; everyone says I have no reason to be stressed.” I’ve never seen this approach work and certainly not when they start cruelly criticising themselves for worrying or being anxious in the first place.
These anecdotes highlight the failure of reassurance. While at a conference hosted by the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy (BACP), I heard a speaker say our job as psychotherapists was to tolerate and hold the pain of the other. I agree. Reassurance does the opposite. Instead of acknowledging and accepting the distress, reassurance essentially deines it. The subliminal message is “I’m not interested in or can’t cope with your concerns so please don’t talk to me about it”. If this pattern gets embedded, the individual is likely to stop talking about what’s bothering them. It hasn’t gone away, they are just silent now, bottling it up and that’s when things can start to get really toxic.
What’s the alternative? Recognise and hold onto the perfectly natural desire to find a way to make everything okay. Accept you can’t. Then, with warmth and patience, genuinely and gently enquire about the experience of the other person. True reassurance comes from feeling heard and understood, from in your gut believing that the other person gets it.
Thanks to Tim Mossholder for sharing their work on Unsplash.