When we talk to a friend about a personal concern, what are we really seeking? Advice? Direction? Or maybe something else?

If we feel muddled about a difficult relationship or a job search, we might use a friend as a sounding board to sort things out. We may get clearer about what we want to say to our partner as we talk it out. We might blow off steam by venting about today’s political situation and find it helpful that others feel similarly.

We may not realize it, but often there’s a deeper reason we like to talk things out: we want reassurance.

More Than a Pat on the Back

If we think of reassurance as a pat on the back and being told everything will be fine, we might find it distasteful to seek it. We might believe we’re responsible for soothing ourselves and not want support from anyone.

If we expand our view of what reassurance is, we might be more inclined to embrace it. Wanting reassurance doesn’t mean we’re weak or indicate some character flaw. It doesn’t mean we’re experiencing self-pity or wanting someone to pity us. It simply means:

  • We’re a vulnerable human being
  • We need to have our feelings heard
  • We need to know we’re not alone
  • We need to know we matter — that we’re valued
  • We want a reality check to see if we’re on track

Sometimes people use the word “support” to describe what I’m calling “reassurance.” I have no problem using that word, but it might connote someone holding us up. “Reassurance” conveys the need to be reminded of something that some part of us knows is true, but that we don’t currently experience.

We may know deep down that we’re a good person, but we may need to be reminded. If the driver ahead of us flipped us off on the freeway, we might feel upset. We talk to a friend who reassures us that we didn’t do anything wrong; maybe the person was having a bad day. We feel better to get it off our chest and feel validated and reassured.

Or we may remember that we were driving a little too close to the car ahead. We might need some reassurance that even if we did, it doesn’t mean we’re a bad person. We might be reassured to hear something like: “Well, you didn’t deserve to be flipped off, but sometimes I catch myself driving too close. I try to pay attention to that and make an adjustment when I notice it. It’s hard to be mindful in every moment.”

Such a communication conveys that we’re all imperfect humans. We’re reassured that we can learn and grow from our experiences without beating ourselves up or being paralyzed by toxic shame. We feel less alone when we’re caught in the trap of our own inner critic. We’re reassured that it’s ok to be imperfect. We might feel a tad of healthy shame — just enough to get our attention so that we can learn something… and then move on with a little more mindfulness.

If we’re having a physical symptom that is troubling us, we might share it with a trusted friend. A false, unhelpful reassurance might be something like: “I’m sure it’s nothing. Don’t worry about it.” A more helpful reassurance might be: “Well, I often worry about symptoms that turn out to be nothing, but I can understand your being anxious about it. If I were you, I’d get it checked out.” Such a message normalizes and validates our feelings. We may feel comforted as we let in someone’s caring and kindness while sharing something we feel vulnerable about.

We all need reassurance sometimes. We need to know we’re not alone. We need to be reminded that we matter.

Seeking reassurance doesn’t mean we’re weak. It takes strength to reach out. All of us do better with a little help from kind and caring friends.

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