Scrupulosity is Serious. What You Need to Know About Religious OCD

man praying in a church

Do you ever feel guilty for not doing as much missionary work as you should? Or beat yourself up for not having Family Home Evening every week? We all make these mistakes. But not all of us live with constant guilt, confess to a bishop weekly, or stay up all night reading scriptures. This is scrupulosity.

What is scrupulosity?

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is becoming more well known. Though, a type of OCD dealing specifically with religion is lesser-known. According to The Daily Universe, this form of OCD “manifests itself through an obsession with moral and religious issues.” It is called scrupulosity.

In a different article, The Daily Universe wrote,

Imagine being obsessed with your personal worthiness before God — a captive to compulsive thoughts that require engaging in excessive religious behavior to cope. Imagine being weighed down with the constant need to confess sinful behavior to an ecclesiastical leader and unable to accept anything less than perfection.

For individuals with scrupulosity, this is a reality.

Those that suffer from this mental illness are obsessed with their morality. They go over the top to ensure that they are being faithful. They always feel guilty and fear that they are unworthy of God’s love.

A 2019 Ensign article stated,

Prayer, scripture study, and church and temple attendance often no longer bring feelings of peace or a connection with the Spirit because they are generally done out of fear of punishment and create feelings of condemnation.

Religious focus tends to become narrow and trivial; religious practice gets extreme; and behaviors such as praying and confessing become repetitive, persistent, and unwanted compulsions that cause a lot of distress.

For example, confession tends to become chronic, generally connected to minute indiscretions or behavior that is misperceived as sinful; it becomes impulsive and repetitive because of fear that it hasn’t been done quite the “right way.”

In other words, with scrupulosity, the big picture of the gospel plan of happiness gets distorted and corrupted by anxiety.

Related: Accepting Limitations: 3 Reasons Why God Didn’t Fix My OCD

What other issues does it cause?

Woman studying the scriptures

A common issue for people with scrupulosity is the temple recommend interview questions. It is almost impossible for them to feel worthy. In one blog post, a woman wrote about her obsession with tithing.

“I began to worry that I hadn’t paid my tithing in full in the past, especially when I worked at a vintage clothing store and often earned ‘trade’ rather than cash (ie, working for store credit). I also obsessed about being totally honest and righteous. I felt that if I wasn’t ‘perfect,’ then I was sinning and not worthy.”

This mental illness also has a big effect on the family members of those suffering. One young man recounted his experiences in another 2019 Ensign article. He had been confessing extremely often to his bishop. He said,

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.

This missionary truly believed that his family was not there to support and love him. He had lost his connection to the Holy Ghost. People with scrupulosity tend to distance themselves from family and friends. This can easily lead to a dark state of depression.

How is it being studied?

man with scrupulosity studying his scriptures

A study is currently being planned by two BYU researchers to discover where scrupulosity is activated in the brain. Many of the people involved in the project have studied this mental illness in the past.

A team at Pennsylvania university researched scrupulosity in many denominations to see which religion struggles with it the most. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was not studied. Protestants scored the highest.

BYU conducted another project in which they discovered that members of the Church do suffer from scrupulosity more than most.

Why do members of the Church struggle?

Anabella Hagen, director of Mindset Family Therapy, said, “Individuals struggling with scrupulosity may believe that they are not doing enough and continually question their intentions and behavior.” In the Church, we believe that we can always do more to improve. This could be one reason why our members struggle more.

We also are taught that confession is part of the repentance process. We believe that confession to an ecclesiastical leader is important in certain circumstances. Not all churches practice this. Scrupulosity causes people to overthink and confess small mistakes often.

During my research, I found a talk given by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland. He spoke about the Sermon on the Mount. It concludes with the phrase, “Be ye therefore perfect.” This may contribute to the perfectionism many of us face. “Religious OCD” just takes it further.

How does one beat scrupulosity?

woman praying while reading the scriptures

Elder Holland taught in that same General Conference talk,

“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.’

Scrupulosity is part of this “toxic perfectionism” Elder Holland spoke about. We cannot forget that Jesus Christ was the only perfect person to ever walk the Earth. We aren’t expected to be “flawless” right now. One of the Ensign articles I studied said,

We all have weaknesses and “have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). This is a given in our current mortal condition. Yet, Christ can remove our stumbling blocks (see 1 Nephi 14:1), and through His grace He can “make weak things become strong” (Ether 12:27).

Christ was perfect and atoned for our sins. Because of this, He can help anyone overcome scrupulosity. Modern knowledge/technology is one way He sends that help. Elder Alexander Morrison said,

“We must understand … that ecclesiastical leaders are spiritual leaders and not mental health professionals. Most of them lack the professional skills and training to deal effectively with deep-seated mental illnesses and are well advised to seek competent professional assistance for those in their charge who are in need of it. Remember that God has given us wondrous knowledge and technology that can help us overcome grievous problems such as mental illness.”

Getting professional help is necessary for scrupulosity. If you are struggling with this mental illness, know that Heavenly Father loves all of His children. No one is alone in this life.

Related: Let’s Talk About Therapy (And How You Can Help Break the Stigma)

More Resources

For more information about scrupulosity, please read the Church’s article in a 2019 Ensign.

Also, to find therapists and other counseling services provided by the Church, please visit their Family Services website.

Scrupulosity is serious. Please share this article with your friends and family if you think someone may be struggling.

Brooklyn Gittins is an enthusiastic member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She has written for food and lifestyle blogs but is currently sharpening her skills as a writing intern for Third Hour. She enjoys spending time with her husband, petting dogs, and eating buttered noodles.