Fishing for reassurance

Instead of complaining that someone is fishing for a compliment, ask them what they are trying to catch! Graphic by Reece Butler.


Vulnerability: it’s a two-way street, and it can suck on either side. Particularly, being on the receiving side of vulnerability is tricky. It feels like walking on eggshells — especially around those you care about deeply and those whom you have never met before. 

When your friend tells you that they “don’t feel pretty today,” or your girlfriend asks you the age-old question “do these jeans make me look fat?” you never want to sound like the a**hole. So, you smile, reassure them that they look beautiful as ever, and then you continue on with your life. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely no harm in reassuring people — especially if they are telling you that they feel insecure. But oftentimes, we don’t want reassurance; we simply want to feel validated and heard. 

Most of the time, I don’t want someone to tell me that I look good in an outfit or with a certain hairstyle; I just want them to be real with me — acknowledging that they too have off days and don’t always feel like a million bucks. 

If someone says that they feel “insert-negative-self-opinion-here,” it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that they are fishing for a compliment, but oftentimes that’s not the case at all. 

We have a bad habit of immediately jumping to reassurance instead of asking what the other person needs at that moment, be it advice, a listening ear, or yes, even reassurance. 

Dr. Casiana Warfield, assistant director of Counseling and Consultation Services, reflected on how her professional and familial experiences have shaped her approach to receiving vulnerability. 

“I love the consent model,” Warfield said. “Let me check in with you. Are you looking for advice? Do you just want to vent, do you need soothing, do we just need me to share space? Is there something that we could do to distract right now? What do you need? If you don’t know what you need, can we try some things and see how it feels? I love just asking for permission. I think that it’s awkward. It can be kind of weird, but when you start building those habits with your friend group, like I just did, it becomes more natural.”

Vulnerability can be hard to express in the first place. Finding the people that you feel comfortable enough to share your authentic self and feelings with can seem an impossible task until you stumble upon someone. So, by nature, it is hard to receive that vulnerability. 

One of the biggest challenges in reacting to vulnerability is finding the right reaction and trying to anticipate what the other person wants at that moment. 

Molly Goodman, a sophomore criminology-psychology major, talked about how her opinion of herself will always supersede others’ opinions of her. 

“Someone can tell me I look good,” Goodman said. “But if I don’t think I look good, then it doesn’t really matter because you carry your confidence outside.” 

Goodman makes a valid point: when we don’t feel confident on the inside, it is impossible to show on the outside, no matter what your friends say. 

It’s hard to know how to react when your friend tells you that they are insecure about something, especially because everyone sees themselves differently. It can also be upsetting to see a friend think negatively about themselves because we are all familiar with that feeling, and we all know that it’s not a fun one to have. 

No one likes uncomfortable situations, especially when what to say is up for interpretation. Most of the time, we don’t do well without a structured response, especially when we are with people we don’t know very well. 

One of the first steps in approaching that void of uncertainty is to simply ask the person what kind of support they are looking for. It might catch them off guard, sure, but I think that they will be thankful you clarified with them before offering unsolicited advice. 

“I want to acknowledge [that] it’s a two-way street,” Warfield said. “You can’t know how to support someone if they don’t know how to be supported.” 

Asking people what they need in a given situation is an incredibly healthy way of building an environment of support. Checking in with someone and asking them what they need instead of offering what you think they need allows them to feel heard and seen, without trampling on their feelings. 

It’s completely okay to want reassurance too! But, it shouldn’t be the default setting. 

Sophomore political science major Brady Stinson maintains that if someone is confiding in you, they trust you enough to respond appropriately. 

“Honestly, if they’re telling you something, they’re probably trusting you to respond in a critical way,” Stinson said. “I think largely, people respect that. It’s just something that we’ve never really been able to grasp because … People don’t know how to exactly tackle it the right way.” 

Although there is a lot of truth to Stinson’s point, I think that we shouldn’t default to advice or criticism either. Many take criticism and advice too personally, feeling like their character is under attack which has the potential to become detrimental to your relationship with them. 

We forget how powerful our presence is, especially when supporting someone. Simply letting them know that you are there for them in the capacity that they need is incredibly reassuring. 

“It’s hard to think that literally just your presence or just sitting with them or validating them — it’s hard to know that that is enough,” Warfield said. “Sometimes all we need is just someone to lend their presence and their acceptance in that moment.” 

Defaulting to advice, criticism or reassurance is not the way to go. Switching out the language of “you look so good today” for “what can I do to better support you?” goes a long way. So, when a friend says they hate the way that one dress fits them, ask them what kind of support they want from you. 

Though there are a lot of compliments thrown around, I don’t think that most are fishing for those. Many are casting their lines in hopes of catching some comfort from a friend. Ask them what bait they have on their line, and help them hook that support!


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