Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Critique and Flattery as Reassurance-Seeking Tactics in OCD

When rituals unfold in the subtext of our interactions.

Key points

  • Concealed reassurance-seeking occurs when individuals mask their bids for reassuring information.
  • This occurs when there is tension in relationships around explicit requests for reassurance.
  • Critique and flattery are two tactics designed to obtain reassuring information without an explicit request.
  • This maintains OCD rituals and can be curbed by taking accountability, having open dialogue, and engaging loved ones in OCD treatment.

This piece was co-authored with Mark Leonhart, MA.

Reassurance-seeking is a hallmark of OCD and is a common response to anxiety more generally. Anxiety thrives on uncertainty, so reassurance-seeking is about obtaining information that is comforting. When someone is feeling anxious about life’s many unknowns, being informed may help them feel prepared for what’s to come.

Information gathering can take many forms, including web searches, consulting professionals, and most commonly, interactions with loved ones. Information seeking is not problematic if it helps one feel supported, accept what one can’t know, and move on. However, when reassurance-seeking becomes compulsive—that is repetitive, perseverative, and disruptive to one’s functioning—then it is something that needs to be curtailed.

Most individuals with lived experience and those who support them can easily recognize reassurance-seeking when it is overt—when a request for information is explicitly stated: “Did you turn off the stove?” or “Do you think this could be cancer?” But when reassurance-seeking escapes into the subtext of an interaction, even experienced helpers can fail to pick up on it.

Let’s look at two examples of concealed reassurance-seeking: critique and flattery.

1. Critique

Critique usually develops as a form of reassurance-seeking when there is already tension in a relationship. It may be that explicit bids for reassurance have been dismissed or shamed, and both parties have fallen into a routine of mutual criticism, defensiveness, and invalidation.

With time, critique may evolve as a form of concealed information-gathering. Criticism tends to provoke defensiveness, which can provide a lot of reassuring information. Consider the following example:

Information Seeker: You always forget to turn off the stove. ⇒ criticism

Reassurer: What do you mean? I just checked five minutes ago. It’s off! defense

Notice how the critique prompts reassuring information—that the stove has been checked and confirmed to be off. A second comment can trigger further confirmation with an even more emphatic defense.

Information Seeker: Yes, but you always say that. You can’t be trusted. ⇒ criticism

Reassurer (emphatically): I know what I saw! I literally just checked. It’s off! ⇒ defense

In this way, criticism is not just a pull for information. It can also be a pull for confidence. Anger conveys certainty, making defensiveness a particularly reassuring source of information.

2. Flattery

Flattery is about making a person feel good for the insight that they offer in order to sustain it. Flattery can come after reassurance, like a reward for doing something good. You always know what to say to make me feel better. But it may also preempt the reassurance, as in the following interaction.

Information Seeker: I don’t know how you do it, but you’re always so confident that the stove is off.

Reassurer: Yes, because I always check once before bed.

Information Seeker: I wish I had your brain, lol.

Reassurer: Well, I know how important it is to you so I always make sure to check.

This interaction may seem so sweet that it’s hard to recognize it as a problem. In fact, if the reassurance-seeking was restricted to occasional interactions like this, it would not be a problem.

But when the exchange is part of a broader program of reassurance that keeps the obsessive-compulsive cycle alive, then it’s preventing the seeker from learning to accept uncertainty on their own. Although expressing appreciation is vital for sustaining healthy relationships, flattery-for-reassurance can be an unhelpful expression of an otherwise kind gesture.

Can Concealed Reassurance-Seeking Be Curtailed?

Although critique and flattery can help maintain OCD compulsions, it may not be the goal to focus on initially. This is because concealed reassurance-seeking is usually part of a bigger problem.

Therefore, the priority is to simply thoroughly treat the OCD. Once engaged in a process of change, the following considerations for covert rituals will bolster progress.

  1. Be accountable for the subtle ways you might pursue reassurance. Be honest with yourself, and bring it to the attention of your loved one or therapist.
  2. Both parties should recognize their role in relationship dynamics that sustain OCD rituals. Reassurance unfolds in an interaction, not a monologue. Therefore, both parties are accountable for change. Seek to have an open conversation about the subtext of your interactions so that you can problem-solve accordingly.
  3. When OCD plays out in relationships that reinforce rituals, make it a focus of treatment. OCD therapists typically engage family members or partners in the change process. This ensures that loved ones understand how they can support the treatment goals—for instance, by not providing reassurance. Talk to your therapist if you believe there is problematic reassurance-seeking in one of your relationships—concealed or otherwise—so that they can help you and your loved one find a way through.
  4. If you are the reassuring party, keep in mind that it is possible to provide support without reassurance. Ceasing reassurance is not about being strict and unloving. It’s about finding new paths for support that facilitate your loved one’s recovery goals. It’s understandable if you are not sure how to do that just yet. In addition to participating in your loved one’s therapy process, some supporters find it helpful to seek professional guidance as well. After all, you are not just a “supporting character” in this story. Your emotional needs matter equally.

Final Considerations for Therapists: Flattery in a Professional Context

Therapists in particular should be alerted to flattery as a form of reassurance seeking in therapy. This is because the roles of information-seeker and insight-dispenser are already baked into the relationship from the start. Moreover, it is tremendously rewarding for therapists to be helpful. So when a client reacts to advice as though they’ve had a major breakthrough, the therapist may continue dispensing insights past the point of helpfulness.

Importantly, the client’s reaction may be sincere in terms of the relief that they feel in the moment. Here, the reassurance-seeking is not necessarily intended. Nevertheless, the client and therapist can become locked in a mutually-reinforcing dynamic of information-gathering-and-dispensing that feels good to both of them but is not actually helping the client in a sustained way. When this occurs, it is the responsibility of the professional to steer therapy back on track.

About the co-author: Mark Leonhart, MA is a doctoral candidate at Concordia University and a therapist at Riven Psychology working under the clinical supervision of Dr. Levi Riven. His doctoral thesis is about non-verbal reassurance-seeking. This research is conducted at the Anxiety and OCD Lab under the supervision of Dr. Adam Radomsky.

Information in this post about criticism is drawn from Mr. Leonhart’s unpublished research. The rest is based on Dr. Riven’s clinical observations and professional knowledge base.

More from Levi Riven Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
5 Min Read
People who have Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) are preoccupied with orderliness, perfectionism, and control.
More from Levi Riven Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
5 Min Read
People who have Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) are preoccupied with orderliness, perfectionism, and control.