False hope will make the ultimate
realisation that the
outcome isn't desired more difficult
Reassurance is defined as the act of removing someone's doubts or fears. It is seen as the sort of action that wins praise when a person is dogged by doubt or uncertainty and needs a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on.
Take the person who has a row with his boss and in a distressed state turns to a colleague for support. It is tempting to reassure him that things will resolve themselves and that perhaps the boss was simply in bad form.
Or the person who is worried about feeling tired and lacking energy – reassuring them that they need a holiday to recoup their strength is natural.
But there is a questionable side to reassurance and it is that it is usually done in the absence of any background information about the situation. So the friend having difficulties with his boss may be deserving of the reprimand that he received or his boss might be an unreasonable bully.
Similarly, the person who is concerned about tiredness may have a physical illness for which treatment is best. Reassurance is easy to deliver but unlikely to represent a full response to a difficult situation and a more complete one should include a possible course of action to bring about a positive conclusion.
The person upset by his boss could be encouraged to establish why and how the problem arose or might be advised to discuss it with his line manager. The person who is tired might be advised to consider a health check.
Reassurance can be damaging and this is one of its unintended consequences. Suppose your friend decides to separate from her husband because of his philandering.
People often attempt to reassure the person that they have made the right decision and that ultimately she will find a new partner. A response of this nature fails to appreciate the doubt, guilt and helplessness that a recently separated person feels.
Or a woman who has recently had a miscarriage and is deeply saddened by the loss is not likely to be consoled by being told how she will in all probability become pregnant in the near future again.
While well meaning, this is undermining the reality of the woman's grief at this point and a preferred response is to accept her distress and sorrow at the loss.
There is also a danger that reassurance may give false hope.
For example, the impact of marital breakdown on relationships with children may result in a complete distancing from one or other parent.
There is the possibility that over time, as they mature, this will heal but this is not inevitable.
Reassurance that when the child gets older the relationship will be resurrected may be misplaced.
Similar concerns apply when a seriously ill person is assured by friends that they will recover. False hope will make the ultimate realisation that the outcome is not the desired one, more difficult emotionally.
Ultimately reassurance stimulates the need for reassurance. The benefits are short-lived only to be followed by similar requests.
There is a body of research based on cognitive theory showing that efforts at worry control through reassurance are counter-intuitive and that they sustain rather than reduce its severity. A vicious circle of worry-reassurance seeking-worry is thus established and difficult to break.
Of course everybody needs a kind word when they are burdened with troubles. But suggesting that everything will work out is naive and damaging. Offering a way forward is preferable.