“My Battle with Religious OCD,” Ensign, September 2019
The term scrupulosity is not widely known. It’s not a term that I had ever heard. However, it has become a defining aspect of who I am. In a sense, it’s part of what makes me me.
Scrupulosity is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) that causes the sufferer to obsess over moral and religious issues. It’s commonly accompanied by pathological shame, guilt, and fear of God—viewing Him as an eternal judge ever-ready to dispense justice on the “wicked.” Put simply, it’s “worthiness OCD.”
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines being scrupulous as “having moral integrity: acting in strict regard for what is considered right or proper.”1 As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we’re encouraged and expected to act “in strict regard for” the gospel of Jesus Christ, to do as He asks and “keep [His] commandments” (John 14:15).
Unfortunately, due to chemical imbalances in the brain, trauma, or any number of other environmental factors, scrupulous obedience to the commandments can sometimes devolve into scrupulosity, which is in no way God’s desire for His children. To have scrupulosity, as opposed to simply being scrupulous, is to desperately seek an unattainable state of righteousness. It is to feel immense guilt at every minuscule failure. It is to fear sin in the way we might fear heights or snakes or spiders. It is to be physically affected by the thought of betraying the Lord. More than having a guilt complex, it is to be overcome by self-condemning tendencies that lead (as they have led me) to unending confession, guilt, delusions, and pain.
Scrupulosity and guilt are both unavoidably connected and vastly different. Whereas scrupulosity is a psychological disorder, guilt is a gift from God. Guilt guides us to repentance; scrupulosity leads us to relentless, unnecessary pain. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has taught, “Except for Jesus, there have been no flawless performances on this earthly journey we are pursuing, so while in mortality let’s strive for steady improvement without obsessing over what behavioral scientists call ‘toxic perfectionism.’”2 Scrupulosity is included in that toxic perfectionism of which Elder Holland warns.
My struggle with scrupulosity largely began when I left on my mission. I was homesick during my first week at the missionary training center, but I was feeling the Spirit and knew I was where I needed to be. Later that week, we attended a class about worthiness. The instructor spoke on serving the Lord worthily, sins that could affect worthiness, and the importance of confession in the repentance process. As I read through a list of sins and transgressions, I found myself wondering in genuine concern, “Have I done that?” Every sin on that list suddenly became plausible. In the blink of an eye, my self-image was shattered. I became detached from reality and immersed in a world where perfection was the only way back to God.
In the months following, I grew to understand a semblance of what Alma meant when he said, “My soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins” (Alma 36:12). I was in immense emotional and, to a certain degree, physical pain.
Over the course of six weeks, I met with the branch president at the MTC and confessed six times. I always remembered more—more times when I had seen something inappropriate on social media, more times when I had lied to my mom, more times when I had lost my temper, more times when I had skipped paying my tithing, more times when I had watched an R-rated movie.
At one point in the MTC, I emailed my dad, asking if I needed to confess yet another past “sin” that I had thought of. When he told me that I hadn’t done anything wrong, it didn’t bring me relief. Instead, I took it as a sign that Satan was using my family’s mercy to lull me into complacency. I grew convinced that I would have to endure alone, without the support of my family or priesthood leaders. And I confessed again.
Arriving at the Mexico Pachuca Mission only worsened my pathological guilt. During my meeting with the mission president, I wondered, “Can he see my unworthiness? Can he sense it?” But he didn’t mention it. Still, I felt nothing but guilt.
The sacrament became a particularly poignant reminder of my “unworthiness.” Rather than a sacred opportunity of peace and reflection, it became a weekly beatdown of my self-image. Each Sunday I poured out my heart and soul, praying to feel relief from what I thought to be godly sorrow. I knew that the Atonement of Jesus Christ was real. But I conjured up an idea that the Savior’s power was utterly inaccessible and inapplicable because in my mind, confessions needed to be worded, constructed, and delivered flawlessly in order to be valid.
As time passed, my fear of sin became delusion. I became deathly afraid that I had done things I knew I hadn’t done. I confessed sins I had never committed. I felt that the only way I could assure my worthiness was to confess the worst possible sin I could think of, so as to cover all the actual possibilities. I wasn’t hiding anything from the Lord or from priesthood leaders, but I was convinced I was lying to them—I knew I was lying. I broke.
One preparation day, my district and I were playing sports, although I still felt the way I always did: afraid. While running to catch a ball, I dislocated my knee. My first thought wasn’t, “Ouch!” or “Oh no!”—it was, “I finally get to go home.” I would gladly have traded a ligament for even the smallest semblance of relief from my pain. It was the first hope I had felt in what seemed an eternity.
I was sent home for my knee injury. When I got home, my family found that I had changed. They could tell something was “off.” My first night home, I sat on the couch with my parents and sobbed with relief, letting out eight months’ worth of pain. I had left my family as a strong and confident person. And I returned to them damaged and dejected.
The LDS Family Services therapist I started meeting with taught me about scrupulosity. I was told that I had served valiantly in the face of great opposition from my own mind. I was told that the Lord was proud of my service and that I wasn’t evil or incurably imperfect as I had feared; I was just mentally ill.
In the weeks after returning from my mission, I learned more about God than I had in the previous 19 years of my life. Experiencing a degree of success in my ongoing battle with scrupulosity has led me to envision God not as a scary, mean judge but as an infinitely loving, tenderhearted Father who is personally invested in our lives. Ultimately, through the help I have received in facing this trial, I have learned to view Jesus Christ not as being constantly disappointed in me when I make mistakes but as being indescribably happy when I do the best I can to follow Him. Our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ love us more than we can possibly imagine. It was this infinite, sublime love that led Jesus Christ to fulfill the prophecy of Alma the Younger:
“He will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.
“And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:11–12).
It is my testimony that Jesus Christ does succor His people, that He and the Father know us by name, and that They are by our side even in those moments when we feel most alone. I am still struggling with scrupulosity, and I probably always will. But I know that God loves me and that, because of that love, even though I’m imperfect, everything is going to be OK.