There I was… completely frozen. Tears streamed down my face and mixed with the shower water as I struggled to come to my senses and rinse the shampoo off my hair. The water turned cold, but I was in the heat of an obsessive compulsive battle that started hours before when my brain couldn’t decide if I had committed a terrible sin or not.
I just had to know for sure, and I was terrified of “accidentally” sinning some more because of my ignorance and uncertainty. The weight of fear and confusion was like a vice-grip on my chest. I never felt so alone.
I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. And years ago, before I had been diagnosed, this disorder manifested as scrupulosity — a little-discussed, but widely experienced phenomenon that can affect devoutly religious people.
What is Scrupulosity?
Rev. Thomas M. Santa, CSSR, the director of a Catholic newsletter to help the scrupulous, describes it as the following:
“In Catholic moral teaching, scrupulosity defines the spiritual and psychological state of a person who erroneously believes he is guilty of mortal sin and is therefore seldom in a state of grace. A scrupulous person has difficulty making choices and decisions even though he desires above all else to please God and to follow God’s law.”
A scrupulous Catholic can have difficulty distinguishing between mortal and venial sins; as well as between sin and mere temptation. In a sincere effort to please God and avoid sin, simple distinctions can become distorted. Some people, for example, can become overly preoccupied with certain precepts of the Church to the point where they’ll refuse to receive communion — believing that they’ve broken the required one-hour fast beforehand by doing something as innocuous as picking food from their teeth.
In this culture of moral laxity and “doing the bare minimum” as Catholics, this kind of behavior may seem unbelievable. But it affects more people than you might realize. Just ask any priest if they’ve encountered scrupulous people in confession and they’ll relay plenty of heartbreaking stories (without breaking the seal of confession of course) about penitents who just can’t find peace. Even some saints suffered from this affliction including St. Alphonsus Liguori and St. Ignatius of Loyola.
My particular battle usually involved constant fear of committing the sin of lust, and I devised elaborate “routines” to both avoid the temptation, and fight it when it struck. These routines robbed me of time, focus, energy, and sanity. My work, relationships, and self-esteem all suffered. My view of God became more distorted; and lost the confidence to trust my instincts. I came to believe that the temptation to lust was lurking around every corner, and within every unchecked thought. My heightened state of vigilance made it hard to think about anything else. I was constantly focusing on the very things I didn’t want to focus on.
At my lowest point, I remember feeling constantly “contaminated” by sin, but uncertain if I had really sinned or not. The sad irony is that because I was so exhausted by the struggle, my actual ability to resist temptation had weakened. I was willing to do almost anything to make intrusive thoughts go away–even, ironically, sin.
I would even feel compelled to sin just so I could be confident that I had something “real” to confess to the priest and thus feel the full, glorious impact of mercy. For months I sought out confession up to four times a week trying to get relief from the mental and emotional anguish. A beautiful sacrament became a psychological crutch and – devoid of proper guidance – perpetuated the vicious cycle.
This is the spiral to madness that often affects those with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The symptoms of the disorder are telling because they usually involve the person’s worst fear. For some, it could be catching a terrible disease and dying a horrific death. So they are obsessive-compulsive about avoiding germs and contamination. For me, I feared offending God and ending up in Hell. So hyper-vigilance about sin (especially in my area of weakness) seemed like a necessary state of being.
Although God very much wants us to do good and avoid evil, constant fear of sin is unnecessary and counter-productive. St. Paul tell us in Philippians, chapter 4, “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
And many times throughout the Gospels Jesus implores His followers to “be not afraid”; or says “peace be with you.”
Of course, for the scrupulous, this is easier said than done. But the good news is that if you are suffering from scrupulosity, you are not alone. There is help and peace is possible. I am living proof of this.
First I found a spiritual director that I could trust and met with him regularly. He was a kind Irish priest with a great sense of humor and abundant wisdom from lived experience. Without judgement, he gently illuminated my false ideas and distorted thinking, and even encouraged me to laugh at myself when I felt the most crazy.
He constantly reminded me of Jesus’ limitless love and mercy, and told me that He knew what I was going through. He also recognized when my problem needed more expertise that he could offer, and encouraged me to seek out a good therapist. With his patient shepherding and my therapist’s specific knowledge and training, I began to understand my affliction better and improve.
Along the way, I discovered that I wasn’t the only one suffering from this disorder. It was very important to my recovery to not feel so alien; and learning all about scrupulosity helped enormously.
I learned that, for some, it could be a temporary condition that clears up on its own. Temporary scruples can sometimes occur when someone has a major conversion experience and becomes determined to live more virtuously out of love for God. They might suddenly become overwhelmed by their own lack of virtue and become too hard on themselves. Eventually, they come to see Christ’s mercy and their own sinfulness in proper perspective. Or sometimes temporary scrupulous can result from simple ignorance or a misunderstanding of what the Church teaches. In this case, simple knowledge of the truth can bring relief.
But for others, scrupulosity was ongoing and often got worse without appropriate help. That was my case. It certainly wasn’t clearing up on it’s own, and reading more of the Catechism and Scripture wasn’t helping much. I had intensified my prayer life (obsessively so), but that didn’t do the trick either. I will say, however, that trying my best to stay close to God through prayer and the sacraments is probably what kept me from despair.
It wasn’t until I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that I started to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Only recently has the Catholic Church developed an understanding that scrupulosity usually falls under the umbrella of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It is primarily a psychological condition; not a spiritual one. And the Church’s new understanding has reflected the recent knowledge gained by mental health professionals and researchers. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a spiritual battle going on — as the enemy likes to exploit our weaknesses — but rather that the primary cause is not spiritual. Telling a severely scrupulous person to simply “pray more” is about as helpful as telling someone with a bleeding head wound to take more vitamins. Of course, God can work a miracle of healing if He so desires. But you don’t have to wait on that miracle to start improving drastically.
What Helped Me
My journey back to sanity involved several things that could be of benefit to all scrupulous Catholics.
First, I told my confessor about my struggle and did not go “priest hopping.” Scrupulous people like to bounce from confessor to confessor because they fear getting bad advice (“hey won’t understand how bad my sins are!”) or they become embarrassed of repeating the same sins or neurotic struggles over and over. But priest hopping is one of the worst things for a scrupulous person to do. We need regular accountability, and we need to learn how to trust God-given authority.
I found a gentle and patient priest, who was familiar with scrupulosity (as most are), and I stuck with him. And and made it a point to trust his authority over my feelings. I used to write all my sins down on a list and read from it during confession. At one point he told me that the list was putting too much focus on the details and not enough on God’s mercy. He said to never use a list again, but trust that God would help me to make a good confession. His direction was tremendously helpful in my case.
Also at the urging of my confessor, I sought professional help from a therapist. That counseling was invaluable and it also lead to some sessions with a psychiatrist who prescribed medication for OCD. The medication took some trial and error (different doses and different brands were tried), but that also turned out to be an indispensable part of my recovery.
Last, but certainly not least, I did some self-directed behavioral therapy based on a brilliant book called Brain Lock, by Jeffrey M. Schwartz. Reading this book and trying out it’s behavioral techniques was when I saw the fastest and most dramatic results.
The week before I started reading this book I couldn’t even enjoy a movie without getting distracted by intrusive thoughts and fears to the point that I would lose track of the plot. But after reading the first few chapters, I distinctly remember going to a movie with friends and being able to enjoy it with a new sense of freedom. It was a huge turning point for me.
Even though I am a much different person than I used to be, I still need accountability in spiritual direction and reminders as to the difference between scrupulous and healthy thinking. Scrupulous Anonymous is a monthly online newsletter that I highly recommend subscribing to (it’s free!). It has some excellent advice to jumpstart your recovery as well as questions from readers that you’ll find very relatable. It’s comforting to know that others have very similar fears, thoughts, and behaviors.
Jesus truly desires peace for us all. In Romans, chapter 8 we find the following words of comfort, “Hence, now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Some crosses are meant simply to be endured, but scrupulosity is not one of them. It can be fought head-on and defeated with the right tools. Thanks be to God for the help I received and the fact that today I am a more peaceful, virtuous, stable, and clear-headed follower of Jesus who is more capable of helping others.
Here are some more resources: