6 Tools for the Scrupulous
BY Jimmy Akin
| Posted 7/30/14 at 10:00 PM
Scrupulosity and obsessive-compulsive disorder are two painful conditions that frequently go together.
Scrupulosity involves excessive anxiety about the sinfulness of particular actions. For example, having a fear that a typical, everyday action like forgetting to turn off the lights and thus “wasting electricity” might be a mortal sin. Such fears are known as scruples.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a related condition in which a person experiences frequent, painful thoughts (obsessions, such as fear of germs on one’s hands), which may drive him to perform various actions (compulsions, such as repeatedly washing the hands) in order to relieve the anxiety.
The two conditions often go together because the obsessions that an OCD sufferer has may be scruples. That is, OCD can cause a person to have frequent, painful thoughts that are excessive fears about whether something is sinful.
In other words: OCD can cause people to have scruples.
I frequently find myself advising people about how to deal with these conditions, and over time I’ve developed some standard pieces of advice. In this post, I’d like to discuss six of them that can be useful tools.
A Common Pattern
The value of these tools is that they can be applied to many different situations. A common pattern in counseling the scrupulous and the OCD is that no sooner is one worry dealt with than another pops up to replace it.
While it is possible to answer these worries one at a time, a better procedure is to offer advice that the scrupulous person can use to address the new worries himself, as soon as they pop up.
This is principle as the maxim, “Give a man a fish and he’ll have food for a day, but teach him to fish and he’ll have food for a lifetime.”
The tools I’d like to offer here involve skills like learning to fish. They can apply to many different scruples and thus can be used to help with scrupulosity and OCD in general, not just particular manifestations of them.
The tools discussed in this post deal with scruples about whether particular courses of action that involve risk should be judged sinful.
Risk, OCD, and Scrupulosity
Sometimes people with OCD can be caught in a trap by the idea of taking risk.
Common manifestations of the condition involve repetitively checking to see whether one has locked the door or turned off the stove or washed one’s hands properly.
Failure to do any of these involves risk: an unlocked door could let a burglar in, a lit stove could lead to a house fire, and unwashed hands could result in getting a disease.
Some people with OCD feel compelled to check and re-check—sometimes hundreds of times a day—whether they have properly locked their doors, turned off their stoves, and washed their hands.
This obsessive worry about these things, and the compulsive re-checking that it leads to, become scrupulosity when the person starts worrying, “Am I sinning if I don’t re-check these things?”
This is not healthy, and people caught in these worries need a way to break out of the trap.
Tool 1: Setting the Right Goal
It strikes me that part of the root of the problem is that the person has the wrong goal in these situations.
By checking and re-checking these things, the person is trying to eliminate risk.
That’s understandable. We shouldn’t take excessive risks.
The problem is that the person in this kind of situation isn’t avoiding excessive risks. He’s trying to avoid all risk.
No matter how many times the person has washed his hands, there’s always the worry that there could have been some harmful microbes left behind.
And you know what? There could be! In fact, there almost certainly are.
But the odds of the ones left behind on already-washed hands causing a serious illness are very, very low.
God gave us an immune system to deal with such microbes. Furthermore, he gave us beneficial microbes that also cover our skin, and we don’t want to wash too many of those off! If you do that, you actually create new risks.
So what should a person’s goal be in such situations?
It should not be eliminating all risk. That’s impossible. Every single action we undertake involves risks.
Risk is part of the human condition in this life and cannot be entirely eliminated. Trying to do so will cause more problems than it solves—like washing one’s hands until they are shriveled, cracked, and even more vulnerable to infection than when the skin was intact.
Rather than risk elimination, risk management should be the goal.
In other words, one should be willing to take risks as long as the risks aren’t excessive.
If a risk isn’t excessive, a person with scrupulosity or OCD should put it out of his mind and not worry about it.
Doing so pleases God and displays faith in him that he will either not allow the danger we fear to materialize or he will give us the grace to deal with it if it does.
Tool 2: Setting a Limit
One way people can avoid getting trapped in a compulsive, repetitive behavior (e.g., checking the stove or saying the same prayer multiple times just to make sure you said it “right”) is by setting a limit.
I recommend that people allow themselves to do something once if it seems reasonable and then not do it again unless extraordinary circumstances exist.
For example, checking the door once to make sure that it is locked can be reasonable. But once that’s been done, don’t check it again.
The same thing goes for making sure that the stove is turned off.
Or washing your hands.
Or saying a prayer (whether that prayer is a short one, like an Our Father, or a long one, like an entire Rosary; don’t get stuck repeating the same prayer multiple times because you feel like you didn’t do it right; say it once and move on, trusting God with any imperfections in your performance).
Setting a limit to how often you will allow yourself to do something (I recommend one time) can help avoid getting stuck in a repetitive cycle.
Tool 3: Living in a Human Manner
One of the difficulties that people with OCD and scrupulosity encounter is that they are holding themselves to standards far higher than ordinary people do.
In fact, they are holding themselves to superhuman standards—that is, standards which God did not intend people in the present condition of life to meet.
When we are glorified and purged of all stain of original sin, we may be able to avoid every uncharitable thought and say every prayer with blazingly intense devotion, but that is not the condition in which we find ourselves now.
Trying to achieve such superhuman feats will cause problems in the here and now.
Therefore, do not strive for the superhuman. In this life, we are called to live “in a human manner” (Latin, in modo humano).
If you find yourself being anxious or suffering because you are not able to do something in the utterly perfect way you would like to do it, stop for a reality check and ask: “Am I trying to live in a human manner here—or in a superhuman manner?”
If it’s the latter, scale back your ambitions.
It can sometimes be difficult for people with OCD and scrupulosity to apply this test because they can have unreasonably high expectations about what they ought to be able to achieve.
As a result, it can be helpful for them to look outside themselves to help establish a frame of reference. This leads to the next three tools . . .
Tool 4: Use Church Teaching to Calibrate Expectations
The teaching of the Church can be a useful tool for helping to calibrate expectations in this arena.
In its 2,000-year history, the Church has faced countless situations and applied the moral principles that Christ gave us to them.
When considering questions of what may be excessive risk in a particular activity, ask yourself: “Has the Church ever said that this activity is sinful?”
If a common, specific activity carries such risk with it that it would actually be sinful then the Church has probably condemned it.
The Church may not have dealt with rare, unusual activities, but if it is something common and it is so risky that it is sinful then there is likely to be a condemnation of it.
On the other hand, if there is no such condemnation, the scrupulous person should act on the principle that it is non-sinful.
For example, recently I was asked whether washing underwear with other clothes might be sinful since germs from the underwear could get onto the other clothes.
People have washed underwear with other clothes throughout the entirety of the Church’s history, but the Church has never said that this is so risky it must not be done.
Apart from very unusual circumstances (e.g., the underwear was worn by a person with ebola), it should be assumed that it is not sinful to do this.
Tool 5: Use Other People to Create a Reference Point
It can also be very helpful to consider what other people would do in the same situation as a guide to what is reasonable.
Obviously, you want to select individuals who would be good guides to what is reasonable. This, principally, means two things:
Instead, you might pick a priest or spiritual director who you respect and ask yourself, “What would this person say?”
And it doesn’t even have to be a priest or specialist. You could just ask, “What would an ordinary Christian trying to please God say?”
If that person would say the activity is not sinful then act on the principle that it is not sinful.
To use our previous example of washing underwear with other clothes, an ordinary, pious priest would not think twice about this being sinful (apart from weird cases, like ebola).
Neither would an ordinary, sincere Christian.
Tool 6: Use Past Experience
A final tool is one’s own past experience.
When considering whether a particular course of action entails excessive risk, ask the question: “Has this ever caused a serious problem in the past?”
If the answer is no then act on the principle that it is not sinful.
Again, using our previous example, if you’ve washed underwear with other clothes for years and it’s never caused anyone to get seriously ill then assume that the risk is acceptable and the action is not sinful.
A Final Word
It is not possible for a blog post to offer a complete theory of risk management that covers every possible situation, but the above principles can serve as valuable tools for those suffering from OCD or scrupulosity.
I’d also like to invite readers—whether they have these conditions or not—to pray for those who do.
My own experience with helping such people has given me a great deal of compassion for what they go through.
If you haven’t known and interacted with such individuals, it can be difficult to understand the kind of anxieties and moral crises that they face.
Be thankful that you don’t have to wear these crowns of thorns, and please pray for those who do.
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