When I write about scrupulosity, I often refer to fear, guilt, and anxiety as irritating but normal symptoms of this terrible disorder. But there’s a particularly maddening symptom I’ve never discussed in this newsletter: persistent stubbornness.
People with persistent stubbornness refuse to try new behaviors to manage their scrupulosity, insisting that they are and always will be helpless to control it. There’s an element of arrogance to this line of thought: They believe that by not trying to remedy their condition, they will be the best scrupulous people in the world. Those who try to help them are misguided or not sufficiently appreciative of the struggle. No help is useful, no guidance acceptable.
Recently I talked with a woman whose scrupulosity was accompanied by persistent stubbornness. She exhibited a knowing look and false patience as I explained the reality of her situation. The conversation was a total waste of her time and my pastoral effort. She had no intention of considering my suggestions. She was just enduring our conversation as she waited for an opportunity to illustrate her next point. When I finished, she expected me to compliment her on her dedication, to congratulate her on her ability to be perfectly and completely scrupulous. She was disappointed and perplexed that I couldn’t understand what she was trying to accomplish.
I understand how tempting it is to become persistently stubborn when every attempt to fight scrupulosity leads only to more fear, anxiety, and guilt. I understand how someone might conclude that it’s better to swim with the tide than to continue to fight what seems to be a losing battle. But it’s impossible to be either totally and completely scrupulous or totally and completely free of doubt and anxiety. Such perfection at either end of the spectrum is beyond the ability of all human beings, no matter how superhuman their attention and dedication.
If the woman I spoke with had listened, she would have heard about the many members of SA who have made this same mistake. She would have heard that, while people who choose to be persistently stubborn do achieve a small sense of peace and certitude, it’s for only a short time. As time wears on and the demands of scrupulosity intensify, peace gives way to total exhaustion. They weren’t managing their disease by cooperating with it; it was managing them. They weren’t swimming with the tide; the tide was dragging them around, tossing them from one shore to another, beating them against the rocks, dragging them under.
Instead of escaping the pain and suffering of their disease, they were intensifying it.
The hard truth is that people with scrupulosity must engage with the disease every day. You must work to postpone—even if only for a few minutes—the rituals that intensify the guilt and anxiety.
Every day that you do this, you will not be a victim. You will be a person who believes that God’s grace can be manifested powerfully and clearly at least in some moments of your life.
The only place for persistent stubbornness in your life is in your belief in the power of God’s grace, mercy, and love—even when all your feelings and struggles seem to be the opposite of what you hope for and desire above all other things.
By Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CsSR