by Ashleigh Beason – Herrington, LCMHC
Religious scrupulosity may sound like a high scoring scrabble word but for those who wrestle with an unrelenting, irrational guilt surrounding their religious faith, it can be debilitating. Scrupulosity is a religious and moral form of OCD. It is not about having healthy spiritual doubts. It’s not a lack of faith. It’s a form of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Being able to name it as such minimizes its power over our lives and helps us frame it the right way. In fact, 30-60% of people with OCD actually struggle with scrupulosity. 1
The American Psychiatric Association defines OCD as: “the presence of obsessions and/or compulsions. Obsessions are recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges, or images that are experienced as intrusive and unwanted, whereas compulsions are repetitive behaviors or mental acts that an individual feels driven to perform in response to an obsession or according to rules that must be applied rigidly.” 2
As with all forms of OCD there is an initial obsession or a thought that gives us anxiety. We can’t move forward from that anxious thought without a compulsion to get rid of the anxiety. A classic example of OCD is compulsive hand washing. You may have a compulsion of constant hand washing because you have an obsessive thought about your hands being dirty. Oftentimes, compulsive behaviors are born out of an effort to curb our anxiety surrounding a certain obsessive thought. And it’s only when we act on our obsessive thoughts that we experience temporary relief.
Similarly, scrupulosity focuses on a religious thought that gives us anxiety. Those who struggle with scrupulosity often cannot enjoy their faith because it seems so terrifying to them. The remedy however is not to have more information or to have more faith. Religious obsessions often have to do with cyclical doubts.
For scrupulosity these obsessive thoughts can sound like:
- Doubting your salvation.
- Believing you have committed an unpardonable sin.
- Constantly evaluating if you have any sins you haven’t confessed.
- Fear that you’re not praying the right way.
- Living in fear that you haven’t obeyed all the rules.
- Intrusive thoughts (including sexual thoughts) about religious figures or God.
- Consistently wondering if you understand all the details of religious
For scrupulosity these compulsions can look like:
- Constantly seeking reassurance from a spiritual leader or pastor.
- Trying to understand every detail of faith.
- Morbid introspection or deep self-examination to evaluate potentially sinful motives or desires.
- Consistently being rigid in any religious practice.
- Trying to cancel out “bad” thoughts with “good” thoughts or more religious thoughts; trying to “make up for” bad thoughts by thinking the same number of good thoughts.
These compulsions often make us feel safe and back to normal again. However, that feeling doesn’t last long. It ends up coming back louder and louder every time we give into the compulsion. So how do we stop it:
- Acknowledge that you have scrupulosity – Scrupulosity wants us to doubt that we even have scrupulosity. Make a list of where you see scrupulosity play out in your life and write it down. This helps us know what to look for, noticing both the thoughts and the compulsions that come with it.
- Accept uncertainty – This is a certainty addiction. Scrupulosity wants us to be SURE we are saved, following religious rules properly, and confessing all our sins in the right way. The more we are able to develop a tolerance for uncertainty, the symptoms of scrupulosity will decrease. The best way to stop scrupulosity is to sit in uncertainty. We have to embrace the gray areas of life, knowing we won’t have certainty about every question and doubt.
- Realize scrupulosity is not a spiritual problem. It’s OCD. Scrupulosity doesn’t mean that you have weak faith or that God is punishing you. Framing it around mental health and not just a crisis of faith will help you understand it and fight it. Finding Scriptures to meditate on that help ground you in the gospel and going to a counselor who will help treat OCD are great ways to respond to Scrupulosity.
You do not have to spend your entire life worshipping God in fear and trembling. Take action today, and learn how to worship Him in spirit and in truth.
1 Jamie Eckert, Scrupulosity: The Ultimate Guide, May 5, 2020. https://scrupulosity.com/scrupulosity/
2 American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5, 5 th ed. (Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2013), 235.