Scrupulosity sufferers struggle with the never-ending quest for spiritual and moral perfection. They have it in their mind, or OCD has it in their mind, that the only way to live life correctly, honor their God fully, and be a decent human, is to do all the right things, at the right times, with the right intentions, and in the right ways, or else!
It is not unreasonable for someone to try to be their best, or strive for self-improvement. In all but a few rare examples, people want to be good, which usually includes being honest, kind, trustworthy, generous, and consistent. Additionally, people of faith tend to value their relationship with God and want to be good followers of the tenants and doctrines consistent with their religious tradition.
On any particular day, you do what you can to live up to your values and commitments. You resist looking over at the other person’s test because you aren’t a cheater. You leave the house on time because you try to get to work and clock in on time. You resist using your choice four-letter words when someone cuts you off on the highway. Or, you tithe and volunteer your time because you are a generous and selfless person.
Here is the problem: there is always something you can do more or better.
And your OCD knows it.
You may be giving to one charity, but see someone is giving to two and assume that what you are doing isn’t enough.
You may tip 15% regularly, but get the feeling that you should tip 20% or more.
You may feel pretty certain about your salvation based on what you read and what your church leaders say, but shouldn’t you be absolutely certain?
Scrupulosity: The doubting disease
Scrupulosity is a sub-type of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) that highlights religious or moral themes. Someone suffering from scrupulosity experiences unwanted, intrusive thoughts that run counter to their self-identified goals, values, and desires and suggest something awful could happen or be true about them if don’t act immediately.
The “gold standard” of treatment for OCD is a combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure and response prevention (ERP), psychiatric medication, and mindfulness-based approaches. These therapeutic approaches aim to help the scrupulosity sufferer think more reasonably about their feared thoughts and progressively start facing their fears through a series of exposure exercises that, over time, help the sufferer learn that their fears are unlikely to come true, that they can handle uncertainty and discomfort, and that they can continue to live a full and meaningful life without unnecessary compulsive rituals.
Your goal, as a scrupulosity sufferer, is not to become the best person, or be the best practitioner of your faith but is to just be the world’s OK-est version of you. Not perfect; just, OK.
Perfect is a lie. OCD sufferers struggle with this because they know that there is always something more, something extra, that they can do to make it right, safe, and certain, and that is how OCD gets you. The lie is that not only could you do something more to ensure the right outcome, but that it is doable and will produce a complete and sustainable result.
Spoiler alert: It won’t.
Also, don’t try to convince me that you aren’t striving for perfection but “should always push yourself to be better and better because you can,” or that “God expects you to do absolutely everything well because ‘He gave His is all for you.’” The only person you are fooling is yourself.
Losing sight of the forest for the trees
OCD sufferers sometimes struggle with the fear that their exposure exercises will make them become bad people, or that they cannot continue to strive to be increasingly good people. However, there is a huge difference between being a good person and being a perfect person. One is admirable and a worthy undertaking and the other is impossible.
Instead of striving to be perfect moral or religious people, striving for good enough takes the pressure off the hamster-wheel effort for an impossible outcome and lets you accept your humanity as an imperfect person trying to do good enough. God doesn’t enjoy His people agonizing themselves over minutia while losing sight of their worship and relationship with the divine. Similarly, tormenting yourself over every phrase, inflection, or action to ensure you never offend anyone, doesn’t make you a better person, it only makes you more anxious.
To make this clearer, below are some examples of how people with scrupulosity justify their compulsive efforts for perfection and right-ness.
- Believing that saying a prayer perfectly, without hesitation or stutter, is the only acceptable way, and to err before God is to sin against a perfect being.
- Evaluating one’s motives to ensure purity of heart. Any slight amount of ulterior motive is evidence of wickedness, idolatry, or disbelief.
- Re-reading religious texts or mentally ruminating over spiritual concepts to ensure full understanding, and subsequent compliance, in order to avoid potential sin or false belief.
- Mentally evaluating previous conversations to check for any potentially offensive, aggressive, or harmful words or interactions.
- Asking others, checking online, or personally reviewing that one is doing the right thing to behave according to social norms.
- Emotionally or symbolically punishing oneself over an offense or mistake in pursuit of cosmic justice.
How to recognize when striving has become compulsive
One of the best and most simple litmus tests I know to help you decide whether you are trying to be the most OK-est version of yourself or compulsively trying to be perfect is by asking yourself a simple question:
“Do I have to do this, or do I get to do this?”
This humble question draws a very important distinction between the motivational difference between the desire to continually improve ourselves and the urgent necessity placed upon us by anxiety and obsession.
“Have to’s” are required. They have consequences. They aren’t fun. I have to pay my taxes. I have to follow the rules of the road. I have to eat and drink water. Or else!
“Get to’s” are optional. We look forward to “get to’s.” They are values-driven and are part of the life I want to have and the man I want to be. I get to play music. I get to choose what I give someone for their birthday. I get to help someone in need.
Compulsion, by definition, means “have to.” OCD elevates get to’s to have to’s. By magnifying and distorting the purpose and consequence, OCD makes good things ultimate things, and anything short of that is equivalent to failure.
Being honest is a good thing, but being honest to the point that it causes you or another person emotional pain or harms relationships, is a bad thing.
Knowing more about religious texts and doctrine is a good thing, but having to have the absolute factual answer to a historically contested passage or concept can be exhausting.
Being charitable out of abundance is a noble thing, but ensuring that you are completely selfless and don’t have the slightest twinge of personal satisfaction and enjoyment from doing good for others is self-defeating.
How to fight OCD and still be a good person
1. Give yourself permission to be the world's OK-est you.
Acknowledge that you have a history of holding yourself to an unrealistic standard of perfection. Accept that your efforts to be a good person have been hijacked by OCD and are now a counterproductive obstacle.
Let yourself just be OK. This doesn’t mean be a terrible failure, nor is it striving for an impossible standard, but lies somewhere in between the two where everyone else is. Accept that you cannot attain perfection in this life, and your imperfections are a wonderful part of who you are.
2. Decide on what is important to you and talk about it with people you trust.
Consider what characteristics and standards are important to you and how you would like to integrate them into your life. This can be honesty, generosity, prayer, religious service attendance, and hard work, just to name a few. Then, talk about these with people who know you, care for you, and who have a balanced perspective on what it means to be a good person. This person can also be your therapist if you have one.
Talk with them to see if the goals and values you outlined are reasonable, attainable, and within the range of the average person. If these people suggest that you may be trying too hard, or are working toward an unrealistic or unsustainable standard, consider re-evaluating your standards.
3. Catch yourself when you are being driven by "have to" and not "get to."
Observe yourself in the wild, like a scientist, and see if your brain is pushing you to respond to life in a have-to manner when rationally it is a get-to situation. When you notice that start getting carried away you can begin anticipating and planning for future situations when scrupulosity wants you to do way more than necessary.
4. Hold yourself to your commitments.
After you decide on your list of characteristics and values you want to have, and the amount to which you are going to practice them, hold yourself accountable to them even when your OCD nudges you to do more. You may feel like you are doing something wrong, sinful, or evil, but trust that your rational mind and your team of people who love you (from step two) are helping you do enough.
5. Reflect on the effects of being the world's OK-est you.
After you hold yourself to your new commitments, observe the actual results of your restraint and how it differs from what you feared would happen. Did your feared story happen? Were you rejected by others and called “a terrible, selfish person?” Did you get unquestionable confirmation from God that you sinned beyond saving? Or, did you find that things worked out just fine and your worst fears did not come true?
Remind yourself that when you take the risk and resist giving in to OCD, it’s going to be OK. Your worst fear is highly unlikely to happen. What you usually find is greater freedom of thought, more time in your day since you aren’t wasting it doing unnecessary compulsions, and more confidence that you can handle life’s stressors and uncertainties.