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Are You Compulsive About Your Lenten Penance?

William McKenna, M.S. - published on 03/21/16

How to avoid self-destructive thinking and "scrupulosity"

Ask IPS: Advice from psychological experts, drawing on Catholic faith and modern psychology

Question: I have been struggling with scrupulosity for a while now, but it has been particularly evident during Lent. How can I answer Christ’s call to penance generally and still flourish?

William McKenna, MS; Clinical Psychology Extern at Catholic Charities: This issue of scrupulosity is more common than people care to admit. Indeed, I cannot tell you how many individuals come into my office struggling with the same issue that you also suffer with. Lent in particular is a time for looking inward at yourself and uprooting sin in order to grow in holiness before Easter and, ultimately, before we enter eternal life. It is often referred to as a time of “purging.” For someone who struggles with scrupulosity, it can be extremely hard to go through this preparation in a balanced and productive way, rather than a self-destructive way.

I think the key that we need to remember is that any penitential or sacrificial prayer is first and foremost a time of preparation for the Resurrection. The end goal is to build upward toward heaven, rather than beat down our humanity. From time to time we can mistake the forest for the trees and consider our penitential practices as being more important than mentally preparing ourselves for meeting God face to face. The purpose of our Lenten journey, and our whole lives as Christians, is to center ourselves on Christ, to realize that we are not perfect, and to recognize that God is merciful. No matter how many times we make mistakes there will always be the Resurrection. There will always be mercy.

Though penance is an essential aspect to this preparation, it is easy to forget that balance and health are also essential aspects of penance. The purpose is to break away from things that are keeping you from growing closer to God so that you can turn more fully toward him. One danger many people face, however, is trying to get rid of all of their personal mess at one time. (I think this especially is the case for those who struggle with scrupulosity.) In this case, I suggest just picking one thing, maybe something small that you can focus on, rather than a whole list of things you want to work on. Be mindful of the fact that if that particular penance is causing you serious psychological or physical distress, then you shouldn’t do it. God is not asking you to torture yourself. He simply wants you to love him a little bit better.

If giving yourself a penance is altogether not good for your mental well-being, then maybe you could try something like promising to pray for a particular person or intention each day, or saying a quick thank you to God whenever you experience something joyful. Such a penance would help you both to confront your psychological distress and aid your spiritual life, by helping you to internalize and understand that God’s first impulse is not wrath but mercy and love.

In short, you should approach Lent and the call to penance not as a time to punish yourself, but rather as a chance to turn your attention to Jesus. Especially during this Year of Mercy, remember that yes, God wants you to be good and holy, but he is also loving and recognizes your efforts, even if they aren’t perfect. Whenever you are tempted to fall into your compulsions (e.g., re-praying, confessing too often and abstaining from communion for fear that you committed a grave sin), take a second to reflect on the fact that God loves you even in your imperfections. Finally, please be assured of my prayers that you may receive the help you need to overcome your distress. May our Resurrected Lord bring you the peace of mind that you desperately desire.

William McKenna, MS,is a clinical extern at the IPS Center for Psychological Services. The Institute for the Psychological Sciences offers graduates programs in psychology, both online and onsite in the greater Washington DC area. Visit for more information.

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