We look at the issue of scrupulosity in this week’s "Ask IPS," a regular feature offering advice from psychological experts, drawing on Catholic faith and modern psychology.
Question: I have suffered many years with being scrupulous and it seems that no matter what I do I can’t break out of this cycle. Why am I struggling this way?
Response (from William McKenna, M.S. Clinical Extern at the IPS Center for Psychological Services):
Let’s begin by understanding what scrupulosity is and how it can affect a person’s psyche. As someone who has struggled with being scrupulous in the past, hopefully I can combine my own experience with the psychological sciences to give you some clarity.
Father Thomas Santa in his 2007 work, Understanding Scrupulosity, notes the following on what the scrupulous person may believe about their relationship with God: “In the attempt to answer the question [does God love me?], the scrupulous person often determines that the best choice may be to move from a position of questioning to a position of perceived strength. ‘I will make God love me by becoming perfect. In this way God will have to love me (p. 15).’” In other words, the scrupulous person mistakenly perceives that God could not possibly love him or her without the person first proving that they are worthy of God’s love. However, underneath this desire to prove oneself is a sense that the person needs to control their relationship with God, particularly because the uncertainty of life terrifies them.
Uncertainty and scrupulosity seem to go hand-in-hand. When we cannot tolerate not knowing something, we tend to seek to command the situation as much as possible in order to believe that we have control. However, when a person begins a cycle of scrupulosity they may forget to add the variable of our fallen nature into the equation. Thus, they approach life from a position of believing that they can will themselves to be perfect. This then wrecks havoc upon their psyche since committing sin destroys perfection. Underneath this desire to prove oneself and to eradicate our inability to know God and His will completely is the person’s deep need to be loved and to know they are loved. As I have mentioned previously, human attachment is one of the most powerful forces in the universe. When a person becomes scrupulous they are expressing an attachment style that conveys the following: “I want to be loved, but I simply don’t know if I can trust a being that doesn’t seem to deal with me in a straight forward way.”
All in all, scrupulosity is more than simply a desire to be holy. Scrupulosity conveys that the person feels a sense of emptiness and a perception that God cannot be taken at His word. Specifically, that God cannot be trusted when He says that He is Love (1 Jn. 4:16), and that He loved the world so much that He gave His only son for us (Jn. 3:16). Next month, I will discuss certain tools and principles that you can use to help overcoming scrupulosity.
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William McKenna, M.S. is a Clinical Extern at the IPS Center for Psychological Services.