There are no mathematical guidelines that can be applied, and the dividing line between scruples and ordinary garden variety worries is sometimes hard to determine. It might help to compare yourself with relatives and close friends. Do you fret intensely about matters that don’t seem to worry them? This may well be a sign that you do not have your conscience in a healthy, normal state of balance.
It comes from a Latin word meaning a small, sharp stone. If you walk with a small stone in your shoe, it is annoying. Scruples can be annoying, too, and can cause open sores. They should not be neglected.
Scrupulosity has been termed, “The Doubting Disease.” In short, people who suffer from scrupulosity are people who find it difficult to trust in their own ability to make decisions. The inability to trust in my own decisions means that I constantly re-examine my motives, my thoughts, my feelings, and anything else that might come into play in the decision-making process. If a person who is scrupulous is in fact a person who doubts their ability to make a decision about sin, for example, why would such a person not also doubt whether they are scrupulous are not?
It doesn’t matter what the decision is about, the anxiety is found in the act of making a decision and trusting that decision. A person who suffers from scrupulosity might sometimes wonder if they are scrupulous, just as they sometimes wonder if they are in serious sin, or if they have correctly performed a penance, or if they are indeed capable of praying a prayer that is acceptable to God, and so forth. In each instance it will be necessary to learn to trust the advice and the counsel of a single confessor or spiritual director.
Recently I had a conversation with a parishioner after Mass. After commenting on my homily, he asked whether I had heard the story of a young American Indian man who told his chief that he often felt conflicted. The chief responded, “That’s because you have two wolves inside you struggling for control. One is gentle, kind, compassionate, and loving, while the other is aggressive, restless, and prone to violence.” The young man asked, “Which wolf will win?” The chief responded, “Whichever wolf you feed.”
That’s often the question: “Which wolf are you going to feed?” Many of us experience the daily struggle of scrupulosity. It’s a demanding disorder, relentless with doubts and questions. It demands total attention as it robs us of peace and contentment. Eventually we begin to fear that the constant guilt and anxiety are normal, and hope of a life not dominated by scrupulosity begins to fade.
Scrupulosity is part of the second wolf the chief described. It’s a ravenous disorder that always demands more. It makes room for little else, its demands crowding out our healthier wolf. If we give attention to the healthier wolf, the wolf that helps us become more gentle, loving, compassionate, and understanding, the disorder seems to rage all the more.
But yet—and herein lies the challenge—we must learn to spiritually feed and nourish the wolf that scrupulosity is starving and ignoring. Feed not the loudest most demanding wolf, but rather the wolf that helps us be more gentle, loving, and compassionate.
How, you might ask, is this possible? How do you feed the healthier part of yourself and learn not to pay attention to the all-demanding disorder of scrupulosity? It’s not easy, but there is a path to living with scrupulosity without constantly battling it. Here are some steps along that path:
Regular reception of the Eucharist. Pope Francis says the Eucharist is “not a reward for the perfect.” It’s the sacrament that accompanies us and strengthens us as we grow and develop in grace. Feeling distant and unworthy of the presence of the Lord is a sign that we need to be nourished by the Eucharist, not that we should absent ourselves from the Communion line.
Regular reception of the Anointing of the Sick. People with scrupulosity need its healing power, and they fulfill the requirements for receiving it.
Disciplined or infrequent reception of the sacrament of reconciliation. Disciplined reception is following the structure agreed upon with your regular confessor. If you don’t have a regular confessor, go to reconciliation during the penitential liturgical seasons of Advent and Lent. During the rest of the year, limit confessions to occasions when actual serious sin—not the fear of sin—can be definitively discerned.
Disciplined reading of spiritual materials. People with scrupulosity need a highly structured and disciplined reading list. Older materials that don’t include current findings on the relationship between scrupulosity and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are not helpful and can even be harmful, so avoid reading them.
Disciplined use of the Internet. The Internet is a helpful research tool, but it takes us into a highly unstructured environment where anything can be posted whether it’s accurate or not. The line between fact and opinion is often blurred. For people with scrupulosity, the Internet is often a perilous place. When you have a question, ask your confessor and/or spiritual director or a trusted friend or family member instead of looking it up on the Internet.Actively feeding the healthier part of yourself is key to managing scrupulosity. The disorder is seldom cured, but many people learn to manage it and become healthier and happier. Each success story is rooted in the deliberate decision to actively nourish the healthy wolf and give less energy and attention to the ravenous wolf.
It’s a daily struggle supported by God’s abundant grace in good spiritual practice and disciplines.