Once in a while, often without warning, I experience a feeling that is deeply rooted within me. I’m always surprised at the depth of the emotion that comes with it. Sometimes it reinforces my understanding that I’m blessed and loved, but occasionally it comes from a darker place, speaking to me about being hurt, abandoned, or unloved.
Obviously I much prefer the feelings that remind me of the love, enduring relationships, people, events, and circumstances I count as blessings and grace. These memories of being loved and accepted remind me of what is truly important and nourishing in my life. They give me the energy to keep moving forward, to dare to risk and imagine that it can happen again because it has happened before.
The darker feelings come from deeply rooted memories of hurts both real and imagined, disappointments, and fears and anxieties that are part of everyday life. These memories are also blessings and moments of grace, but it takes more effort to claim them as such.
A healthy perspective helps me understand that blessings and challenges are essential to life.
Difficult, challenging memories are signposts that mark my journey to fulfillment and purpose. A healthy perspective invites me to reflect on these experiences and be open to the lessons they teach. The Greek philosopher Socrates is quoted as saying, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I wouldn’t go quite that far, but you see what I mean.
Reflection can be tricky for people with scrupulosity. After all, reflection requires us to momentarily dwell on the past, and we’re instructed to avoid doing that because we confuse the art of reflection with making inaccurate personal judgments of severe fault and failure. Our perception of ever-present sinfulness dominates our interpretation of our experience, and any strong feelings that accompany our interpretation make it worse.
But while reflection can be difficult in the face of scrupulosity, it isn’t impossible when you have a healthy perspective. This doesn’t mean conquering your scrupulosity. It means learning to manage it.
There is a substantial difference between the two. Scrupulosity is a deeply rooted disease that isn’t always successfully treated despite our best efforts. But while it’s true that not everyone with scrupulosity overcomes it, it’s also true that everyone with scrupulosity can learn to manage it.
Successful management of scrupulosity means 1) learning to acknowledge and accept the feelings that come with being human and 2) learning to resist the urge to make a judgment about those feelings.
Scrupulosity-powered judgment always leads to assumption of sin, usually mortal or at least serious. People who manage their scrupulosity acknowledge this rush to judgment and understand that it needn’t dominate their reflection. They learn to postpone judgment for as long as possible, spending as much time as possible actually feeling the feeling.
Imagine you have a strong feeling of anger. When you manage your scrupulosity, you try to identify why you are angry. What is it that makes me feel this anger? When have I experienced it before? How have I put this anger into perspective? Is my anger justified, or is it a result of being confronted with my own behavior?
Asking yourself questions of reflection leads to the development of a healthy perspective and is far more helpful than determining and dwelling on sinfulness. True reflection involves giving yourself permission to feel the feeling and resisting the temptation to make a judgment about sin.
Learning to manage scrupulosity is a long and difficult path, but one that’s most certainly worth taking. A helpful spiritual director, confessor and, of course, medical professional can help you find a healthier experience of what it means to be human.
And part of the experience of humanity is feeling intense, dramatic, and unexpected emotion.
Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR