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.
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.