Overcoming scrupulosity with God’s mercy – and a therapist

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Ignatius of Loyola, Alphonsus Liguori and Therese of Lisieux are only a few of the saints who suffered from scrupulosity on their path to sainthood. Their desire to follow God wholeheartedly became a double-edged sword, as they often experienced great guilt and restlessness for doubting whether many of their actions were sinful — when they were not. Such struggle often kept them from enjoying life.

If you struggle with scruples, don’t let them keep you from celebrating God’s blessings in your life. Here’s what you can do about them.

Psychologists have found in this malady — still very common in our day — a close connection with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and some suggest a joint priest-therapist approach when helping a person overcome this disorder.

“Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is an anxiety disorder… Typically, the form that it takes is that people have one or more areas of fear. They are worried about something bad happening, and they engage in behaviors that we call ‘compulsion’ in order to decrease the anxiety that results from these fears,” explained Elizabeth Higbie, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker at St. Raphael Counseling in Denver.

OCD can manifest in many ways, she explained. The classic examples include those of people with an obsessive fear of contamination who engage in the compulsion of handwashing, or of people who need to have everything in order as a compulsion to some other fear.

But it can also manifest in other areas, such as in the fear of harming others.

“Scrupulosity is a manifestation of OCD, and I think it is a unique manifestation because we have to consider the role of spirituality,” she added.

“[In scrupulosity] there’s an obsession that I’m not in a state of grace, that I’m not pleasing to God,” explained Father Scott Bailey, Pastor at Risen Christ and Chaplain at St. Raphael’s Counseling. “A scrupulous person really believes that they’re always guilty of serious sin. Even if their heart is in the right place, if they desire to know God above everything else, they have this anxiety that they’re making the wrong choice, that they’re not pleasing to God… While it’s a spiritual reality, there is also a large psychological element to it.”

Such guilt often comes from the difficulty of distinguishing temptation from sin.

People with scrupulosity tend to see God as a punishing God who is out to get them or waiting for them to mess up.”

Father Bailey explained: “A temptation comes to our mind, it’s appealing to us, but if we refuse to engage in that thought, then it just remains a temptation. [Yet] sometimes the scrupulous person thinks that because they have the thought to do this tempting thing, that they are in sin.”

People also experience scrupulosity in the form of real anxiety around things that are not large moral issues.

“You might find this in the person who commits himself to some particular spiritual practice, like praying the rosary every day. It’s a wonderful thing to do, but if they miss a day, then they suddenly are in concern that they are in serious sin… or that they didn’t pray the rosary with the attention it deserved,” he added. “It’s hard because maybe there are legitimate things in there, like realizing we could do a better job of praying, but it doesn’t mean that we are displeasing to God.”

Common compulsions of people who struggle with scrupulosity include going to confession very often because they think they’re in a state of mortal sin, and “priest hopping” because they don’t want the same priest to listen to their confession repeatedly.

Overcoming scrupulosity

Although Higbie assures OCD is a complex disorder — since people are often genetically predisposed to it and others can acquire it from a history of trauma — she guarantees there is hope: “I think people who get into these patterns can become very hopeless and it can feel very overwhelming and out of control. So, to remember that there is hope and that treatment really can help.”

Both Father Bailey and Higbie highlight the importance of recurring visits to both a spiritual director or confessor and a mental health professional to overcome this struggle.

For the psychological aspect of this reality, Higbie recommends finding a Catholic therapist, since scrupulosity cannot be treated as any other type of OCD.

“We have to manage [scrupulosity] a little bit differently than we manage other types of fears,” Higbie said. “Frontline treatment for [OCD] is something called ‘exposure and response prevention therapy’ (ERP). So, if someone is afraid of contamination, an exposure might be having them use a public restroom or not washing their hands… where they actually have to face their fears and not [fall into] other compulsive behaviors.

“If we’re going to treat scrupulosity, we have to take a bit of a different approach because, obviously, as Catholic therapists, we’re not going to recommend that someone engage in mortal sin and then sit with it… Instead, I typically take a modified approach where if somebody is questioning, for example, whether they have committed a mortal sin, the exposure might involve sitting with the uncertainty of whether or not they may have committed a sin, and not rushing to confession at the first impulse or fear.”

Another recommended measure is committing to one confessor or spiritual director, who can aid with the spiritual aspect of scrupulosity.

You’re not hopeless, you’re not beyond repair. The Lord is going to continue to walk with you and be with you.”

Other than helping the person make the commitment of not going to confession every two or three days, a priest can also help correct the distorted understanding of God that is common in people with this struggle.

“People with scrupulosity tend to see God as a punishing God who is out to get them or waiting for them to mess up. There’s this constant fear of condemnation… They do not think about the mercy and love that we know is available to us,” Higbie explained.

“A part of the spiritual healing is healing who I am before my God,” Father Bailey added. “Can I see myself as loved by God the father? Maybe that means that I see myself like the prodigal son in Luke 15… being embraced by the Father.”

Higbie assured there are many priests in the archdiocese who are “well-versed” in scrupulosity and encouraged those struggling with it to not be afraid to talk to one and find a Catholic therapist.

“OCD is very common, and I would venture to say that it’s fairly underdiagnosed,” Higbie concluded. “I think there’s a lot of people that don’t think of OCD or they think of it in just the traditional ways of handwashing, contamination or order; but they don’t think or know about the different ways it might manifest.

“If you find yourself having significant anxiety that requires you to do specific behaviors in order to reduce that anxiety, it might be good to seek out some professional support in assessing whether or not you would be suffering from OCD.”

“This could be the best encouragement: Remember that Jesus is actually with you and he’s actually helping you,” Father Bailey concluded. “You’re not hopeless, you’re not beyond repair. The Lord is going to continue to walk with you and be with you.”

For professional help with scrupulosity or OCD, visit straphaelcounseling.com.

COMING UP: From Columbine to Christ: “Not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”

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Every school day for almost two years, Jenica Thornby would spend her lunch hour in the library at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Every day, except April 20, 1999.

“I was sitting in my art class when all of the sudden I had this urge to leave school. I remember thinking, there is no way I am going to be talked into staying.”

Thornby found her friend that she always studied with and talked her into leaving too. As they drove away in a car her father had bought her just a week earlier, behind them they saw dozens of other students running out of the school. Thinking it was maybe a fire drill, Thornby kept driving.

Back inside the school, two students had entered with guns, where they would kill 12 students and a teacher, and wound over 20 more people before taking their own lives.

In the days that followed, Thornby would learn that many of the casualties took place in the library, where on any other day she would have been sitting.

“I remember thinking, I always went to the library, and the only reason I wasn’t there was because I had this urge to leave. That was really hard to wrap my mind around, and so I really wondered, ‘What gave me that urge, why wasn’t I there?’”

Two decades later, Thornby is now Sister Mary Gianna, a religious sister of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, and on the 20th Anniversary of the Columbine massacre, she shared her story with the Denver Catholic of how God led her out of her high school that day, and through a series of events, led her into a deep relationship with Christ.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

SEARCHING FOR FULFILMENT

Sister Mary Gianna said growing up in Texas, California and then Colorado, she had loving parents, but God and religion were not part of their lives.

After the school shooting, like many of her classmates, Sister Mary Gianna struggled coming to grips with what had happened. Coupled with emotional scars from bullying in her teenage years and other insecurities, she said she tried desperately just to fit in.

“I started drinking and going to parties, thinking if I was in a relationship, then I’ll be happy,” Sister Mary Gianna recalled. “I was searching for fulfilment.”

But right around the time a classmate of hers who seemingly had everything going for him committed suicide her senior year, Sister Mary Gianna said she hit rock bottom.

“If he was in so much pain and suffering and took his life, what do I do with all my suffering and all my pain?” Sister Mary Gianna said she asked herself. “I thought I was going to take my own life by my 18th birthday.”

It was that year that a friend invited her to come to a youth group at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, where Sister Mary would meet a youth minister named Kate.

“I remember seeing something different in (Kate),” said Sister Mary Gianna. “She was so bright, so full of life. I could tell that she had something in her life that was missing in mine.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Kate and the youth group introduced her to a God that loved her, and that had a plan for her life.

“I felt like I was junk to be thrown away, and (Kate) would tell me you are made in God’s image and his likeness, and if God created you, how can you call yourself junk?” recalled Sister Mary Gianna. “I realized God did have a plan, and I love the words of St. Augustine: ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in God,” and I realized not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”

RCIA, NET and DLJC

After high school graduation, with the support of her parents Sister Mary Gianna chose to attend Franciscan University of Steubenville, where her freshman year she went through RCIA and was received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2002.

After college, she spent a year with NET (National Evangelization Team), sharing her testimony with teenagers across the country. At the same time, through the encouragement of others, she began to consider religious life.

“I felt God wanted to use me to lead others to Christ as my youth minister had led me to Christ,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “And I felt God was calling me to share how he had worked in my life, my personal testimony.”

Sister Mary Gianna said words in a book by Father Benedict Groeschel really impacted her.

“He wrote, ‘Instead of asking God why something happened, ask him, what would you have me do?’” Sister Mary Gianna said. “So instead of reflecting on my life and why did this happen or that happen, I began to ask God, ‘What would you have me do?’”

In 2011, Jenica Thornby entered religious life as a member of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, was given the name Sister Mary Gianna, and last year on August 4, 2018, took her final vows. She now serves at The Ark and The Dove retreat center in Pittsburgh.

CHAIN REACTIONS

Standing in the center of the Columbine Memorial at Clement Park, Sister Mary Gianna is drawn to the plaque that remembers Rachel Joy Scott.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

Rachel was one of the first students shot on April 20, 1999, and after being wounded, one of the gunmen reportedly asked her if she still believed in God, to which Rachel replied, “You know I do,” before the gunman shot her in the head.

“The two boys talked about how they wanted to start a chain reaction of death and violence and destruction,” Sister Mary Gianna said. “Rachel had a theory that if one person could go out of their way and show compassion and kindness, we would never know how far it would go, it just might start a chain reaction.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s story has become an inspiration to her, and coincidently, Rachel’s family played a role in her own conversion. Sister Mary Gianna said the day after the shooting she was at a friend’s house and her friend’s mom told Rachel’s aunt about how she had left just before the shooting began. Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s aunt replied, “God must have a plan for your life.”

It was one of the first seeds planted in Sister Mary Gianna’s heart, that started to grow, and as Sister Mary Gianna continued to say ‘yes’ to God, led her to the life she has today.

“Even when I didn’t know God that day at Columbine, he led me out of school, he protected me,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “He loved me so much that he drew near to me and has sown me this path of life.”

“Even in the midst of tragedy, God can bring good, God could bring life out of death. The worst tragedy was Jesus being put to death on the Cross, and it led to our salvation. And even in the midst of this tragedy of Columbine, God could bring good.”