Signs You Might Be a Reassurance Seeker
But despite her busy social life, Pam is lonely and often unhappy. She would love to get married and have a family someday, but she doesn't think she has met the right man yet. That may well be the case, but it also might be a function of the fact that Pam is a generally likable person who occasionally engages in unlikable behavior. It doesn't affect her in every relationship, but it could account for her dissatisfaction with her romantic life.
When she meets new men, it's typically all fun, spontaneity, and affection. She and her dates go to art galleries, concerts, new restaurants. She is charmingly flirtatious, a master at witty banter, and the guys fall for her quickly. Inevitably, though, Pam begins to notice something they do, or neglect to do, that convinces her they might be losing interest. He might show up late for a date or pay more attention to his buddies than to her while at a party. He might stop holding the door open for her as often as he used to. At that point, Pam begins engaging in a type of behavior that is especially powerful in creating a negative transactional pattern.
It starts innocently enough. "Are we OK?" she'll ask her boyfriend. "I've just been noticing that something feels different between us." Occasionally Pam's instincts are correct: sometimes the men she dates have lost interest or even feel intimidated by her overt confidence. But more often than not everything is fine, and her boyfriend will affirm that that is the case. It's here that the problem begins.
Pam doesn't trust that others will like her as much as she hopes they will, so she simply doesn't believe their assurances. "I know in my head that he said everything is OK, but I just get scared that maybe it's not. What if he loses interest?" she explains. This is usually when she asks her boyfriend again for reassurance. Once again, she receives it, but once again she is doubtful, and a self-defeating pattern begins. Sometimes this cycle develops over a period of weeks or months, but it can even arise within the span of a single conversation. In either case, Pam's previous experiences with rejection cast a shadow over any potential relationship, triggering transactions that become very predictable.
Psychologists refer to this pattern as "excessive reassurance-seeking." It often takes place in the context of a romantic relationship but can also occur in friendships or even between employee and supervisor. Experts in excessive reassurance-seeking, like Jim Coyne and Thomas Joiner, have proposed that this behavior sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. The constant questioning and doubting of a reassurance-seeker can make an individual from whom reassurance is sought feel distrusted, stressed, and ineffective, wondering, "Why can't I help this person that I care so much about? Why doesn't he or she believe me?" Eventually, the pressure to continually reassure causes them to withdraw. They become slow to return messages, less convincing in their declarations of love. They become less comforting, and of course, this is exactly what the reassurance-seeker is hypervigilant to detect.
"I knew it! I knew he was pulling away!" is Pam's typical reaction when her boyfriends dump her. But in her furious righteousness and validation, she doesn't perceive that this outcome may have been the result of a transactional process that she initiated. It was her own behavior that elicited the rejection, and it is that rejection that makes her feel justified seeking constant reassurance in successive relationships. Each failed romance seems to doom the next one.
Research from my own lab has demonstrated just how powerfully excessive reassurance-seeking can undermine relationships and just how early this transactional pattern starts. In one study, we recruited 520 adolescents and asked them to tell us about their reassurance-seeking behavior. We also asked them to name their very best friend and how they thought that relationship was going. We then approached the friends and asked for their own feelings about the friendships. We followed up with our subjects and their friends twice more annually to see how their relationships evolved. We also measured how much each teen was liked or disliked using peer nominations.
Our results revealed that excessive reassurance-seeking can lead to negative transactions, starting in adolescence, and predicts which teens are disliked. In fact, adolescents who engaged in excessive reassurance-seeking told us that their friends had started to become angry with them for their behavior, even telling them to stop. But the adolescents who sought reassurance just couldn't understand how this was negatively affecting their relationships. While they still enjoyed their friendships, their friends had a different perspective. Specifically, the more frequently adolescents sought reassurance in the first year of our study, the more often their friends reported in year two that their relationship was troubled. They had less fun when they were together. Many friends had begun to withdraw, and some ended their friendships altogether. Not surprisingly, by the end of our study, excessive reassurance-seekers had grown significantly more depressed than others.
Luckily, excessive reassurance-seeking—like so many other self-sabotaging behaviors—can be stopped. Research tells us that most of us act in consistent ways as we start each new relationship, which explains why we often experience such similar outcomes. Our patterns are based on the power of our prior social experiences, even if those experiences happened to us all the way back in high school. Those accumulated memories create what psychologists call our "social database"—a powerful filter that has the potential to color how we interpret all of the social signals we receive each day. In other words: if we are used to feeling loved, we will interpret every gesture toward us as another sign of positive regard, but if we are used to being hurt, we seem to see signals of impending rejection everywhere.
The good news is that it does not take too many new experiences to overwrite our social databases, and begin responding to cues more accurately. For Pam, a likable person who unwittingly engaged in a particularly unlikable behavior, it took a leap of faith in a new relationship in which she decided to question her instincts. Rather than acting on her well-rehearsed expectation she would be dumped, she decided to take each of her partner's actions at face value. When she began to suspect that he was pulling away, she challenged herself to consider whether her reactions reflected the facts in front of her—or the painful memories she carried around. As her and her partner's relationship progressed, she even confided in him, explaining how her past was coloring her present, and how his actions carried meaning that he had not appreciated before. This is the relationship that worked for Pam—and not only has she felt more reassured, but she's discovered the same attitude works with friends and co-workers too.
This adapted excerpt is from Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World by Mitch Prinstein. Prinstein is Director of Clinical Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.